(This blog is from the Summer of 2016.)
Confusion abounds. Leaps and swirls and fogs up the space in my head. As I sort through issues of my own race and identity, I find myself being pulled in conflicting directions. I remain infinitely indebted to this DukeEngage program, for not only the experiences, but especially for the diverse conversations I have had with my peers here. I am typically a good listener and empathize rather quickly with people who are similar and different from myself. In the blink of an eye, I can go from understanding the appreciation one member of the group feels towards a situation to sympathizing with the frustration that another group member feels towards the same event. Why can’t I do both? I believe it is vital to value every single perspective and experience, and I frequently give people the benefit of the doubt. Maybe too much.
Everyone means well, is how I justify some of my overly pushover tendencies. I get them, where they’re coming from, I think. And so I am used to floating in the grey area between sides, pursuing a moderate approach, being as diplomatic as I can be.
But I have never been in such a concentrated space, in which opposing opinions and perspectives are so distinct and strong and only grow sharper and angrier with each debate and seemingly innocent conversation. It is not quite political. I’m used to political discordance, and as my friends will tell you, I can enjoy the chaos of it. Rather, this is personal – personal politics – and our conversations are sometimes stunted and uncomfortable because of the fact. It is difficult for me to find a constant space in these discussions, since I feel stuck in the middle in my identity as a minority, but also not quite one.
What does that mean? A pseudo-minority.
In the way that I have typically thought of it, it has always been a point of resentment. A barely-there, but pungent bitterness at the lack of acknowledgement of Asian Americans as minorities. A quiet fury at the ease by which people could attribute my accomplishments or attributes to me being a typical example of a model minority, while never discussing my race in the context of inequality. In the past, I had felt discouraged and irritated when conversations about race never went past black and white. Granted, the range and effects of issues facing black and Latinx people are far more institutional and nefarious than those facing Asian Americans, but when I was younger, this viewpoint was certainly an easy one to fall into.
However, as I am realizing now, that term – pseudo-minority – has a double-meaning for my demographic, and for me personally. Having insightful, candid conversations with friends on this trip about their experiences with their races and reading introspective blog posts have made me think much more deeply about my experiences with my own race, or really, lack thereof. This is not to say that my race has not had a significant impact on many aspects of my life – I have previously written about feeling especially uncomfortable with my race at Duke – but really that I have passively or perhaps even actively minimized its role in some cases. In truth, this makes me ashamedly and worryingly question myself: If I have sometimes ignored the implications of my race, subconsciously chosen to turn a blind eye to it, and if I now choose to remain neutral, am I complicit in furthering racial divides or a continuing lack of racial understanding?
I am reminded of an article I read last year, The Two Asian Americas, that describes some of the conflicting identities of Asian Americans, the history we have forgotten, and the broad swath of peoples the term encompasses. From the article: “…one finds among some Asian-Americans a reluctance to call out racist acts, in part because of their supposed privilege in comparison with other minority groups.” This is important to acknowledge. It is part of a larger trend of pitting minorities against each other, especially Asian Americans against other minorities, in order to sweep far more pressing issues of systemic white superiority under the rug.
I have spent the past few days thinking about my privilege as an Asian American in my incredibly diverse town in central New Jersey and how that background has affected my interactions and my views on certain issues and events.
I see race in a lot of places, but I certainly don’t see it everywhere. Partly because I don’t have to. I can objectively understand and note the demographic of service workers at Duke, and I can be objectively concerned and angered with racialized police brutality, but I do not have a personal stake in these issues. So how can I truly fully understand the vastly complicated and distressing experiences of those who do?
Significantly, I have had the power to ignore my race. As an Asian American, but more specifically, an Indian American, who is admittedly not so culturally connected and has lighter Indian features, I have been able to occupy certain privileged spaces. I have been able to choose spaces that are convenient for me. I have been able to access many privileges associated with wealth and whiteness, and I have also been able to speak as a minority.
I have previously felt comfortable in this fluid space, mostly because I have never looked within myself to realize what a privilege it is to be able to take advantage of these different identities.
Here, I am reminded again of a quote from the previous article: “If [Asian Americans] sometimes remain silent in the face of racism, and if some seem to work unusually hard in the face of this difficult history, it is not because they want to be part of a ‘model minority’ but because they have often had no other choice.” However, I think this downplays the role of choice and of the environment in which one grows up. I seem to have chosen the road of assimilation.
My family immigrated from India in waves from the 1970s to the 1990s. My eldest uncle came first, slowly but surely working to establish himself enough to bring the rest of my large family over to America, my aunts and uncles and grandparents and cousins. My parents finally settled down in America in the early 1990s. Before I was born, much of my family lived in cramped, crowded New York City apartments, filled with other recent immigrants hoping to achieve the quintessential “American Dream.” My parents have told me that they tried to mostly listen to American radio stations and watch American news channels, and that they avoided comfortable Indian media outlets. Because they wanted to avoid discrimination and hostility as much as possible, they adopted the American way of speaking and accent as quickly as they could. Now, unlike a lot of my first-generation friends’ parents, my parents don’t really have accents.
My family as a whole is not extremely religious, and so I am not at all; although I identify as culturally Hindu, my identity has not been extremely shaped by this part of my background. Living in central New Jersey meant growing up in a town that is 40% Asian. It meant growing up without thinking about my race because it was not out of place at all. There were plenty of times when I imagine I could have been embarrassed about the supposed idiosyncrasies that come with being a minority race, but I wasn’t – I was proud because my peers were accepting and my culture was commonplace.
My experience is a circumstantial and privileged one, and I understand that many minorities, Asian Americans and otherwise, have had vastly more troubled and difficult ones. This does not make my opinions, which have been informed by my background, any less valid or important. They are simply part of a larger, more complex, and more nuanced picture of the lived experience of being nonwhite in America.
And so I am still learning. Forgive me for remaining in the middle, at least a while longer. I will continue to listen to all perspectives, continue to understand and empathize. However, I have realized that I may have to rethink my role in this position. Avoiding conflict and pursuing harmony may be a part of my nature, but I do enjoy the clarity and intrigue that comes with pushing back on others’ opinions. Moving forward, I will refuse to be pushed into a box and I will refuse to be made to feel anxious and inadequate for holding out and remaining more neutral than others. However, I will ask more questions without the fear of feeling foolish, respectfully critique, and appreciate my peers’ openness. This will be my way.
Thank you to all the people I have had difficult conversations with and who have challenged me to question myself. Thank you to Jennifer for the inspiration I found from her last blog post.