My identity confession: Don’t tell me who I should be

Rima Parikh | Staff Columnist

Recently, a post on the Facebook group “Wash U Confessions” spawned controversy when it made degrading racial remarks. The writer of the confession expressed frustration with black student activists on campus, commenting, “You are not from the ghetto. You are very sheltered and probably have never experienced severe racism firsthand.”

The now-infamous post #1341 garnered plenty of criticism from other students, and with good reason: it made dangerously racist assumptions about the black student body, disavowing their racial experiences as “inauthentic.”

Personally, it was shocking to see that there are students who genuinely feel as though Ferguson activists are not “black enough” to be angry about it. This notion, resting on certain assumptions and stereotypes about what a racial group “should” act like, implies that race is seen as a performance.

Of course, it’s blatantly inappropriate for someone of a different race to tell other people that they’re not being “black enough,” or “brown enough,” or “Asian enough,” etc. This thought, however, made me consider a racial issue that isn’t as talked about—what if it’s someone of the same race telling others that they’re not being “[blank] enough?” It’s simple: that’s just as inappropriate. Perhaps if race were something that could be fully encompassed by a box on a standardized test, it would be acceptable to attach a checklist of expectations.

As we all should know, however, this idea is absurd. Racial identity functions on a spectrum and is something that an individual has the power to define independently. It isn’t an absolute concept, so there’s no reason why anyone should have to live up to certain expectations about his or her race. Just because you don’t conform to those expectations doesn’t mean that you can’t still culturally identify with it.

The discussion transports me back to a year ago, during the doe-eyed freshman glory days. Like most people before their hopes and dreams are crushed by the mundane reality of life, the younger version of me had hope. Armed with the promise of reinventing myself and a wardrobe full of ill-fitting crop tops, I was determined to meet my new best friends—the people I would fondly recall as my “college chums” during old age, when I would mercilessly tell the stories of my youth to my uninterested, snot-covered grandchildren.

This sweet (heartening, even!) desperation led me to test out the Indian-American student group on my previous campus. What better way to make friends than find a group that would automatically like you because of your shared ethnic heritage, right? I attended one of the first social events; unfortunately, I was met with less-than-welcoming arms.

“You’re a creative writing major?” said the first person with whom I talked. “And you’re not pre-med? I’ve never heard that one before.” His vocal inflections on a few choice words sounded as if he were spitting them out like phlegm.

As the evening went on, I had to further clarify that I wasn’t up to date on recent Bollywood happenings, and that the sad condition of being about as coordinated as an inflatable air mattress prevented me from dancing garba raas. It was implicitly deduced by one of the members of the organization that I was a “coconut”—brown on the outside, white on the inside.

Presumably, I probably didn’t really understand what being brown was all about. At first, I was a little disappointed. Then, I was angry. Who are you to decide that I’m “not brown enough” for you, that I’m whitewashed, that I’m a coconut? Who are you to tell me that I’m not a “real” Indian-American?

For the record, growing up in America is going to result in some sort of unique cultural mix for people of any ethnicity; even if you think you’re the poster child of brown people everywhere, you can’t deny that there’s some hypocrisy in your statement.

Sure, I’m not as strict about going to temple. And yeah, I might occasionally go to Starbucks and buy a Pumpkin Spice Latte. But that doesn’t make me “whitewashed” (or basic, for that matter—PSL is a completely respectable beverage). None of that tarnishes my racial identity.

The last time I checked, my parents immigrated here from India about 20 years ago. I’ve grown up in an Indian household and had incredible multicultural experiences. From those experiences, I choose to be Indian-American by my own definition, not yours. And I’m proud of that. Frankly, for you to discredit my racial experience is nothing short of complete B.S.

This, of course, applies to anyone of ethnic background. No one is allowed to invalidate your personal experiences; it’s up to you to decide how you define your racial identity and only you.

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