if i never had to wonder
September 22, 2002
Sometimes I get asked why I focus on identity and race and ethnicity so much when, in many ways, I grew up as a white suburban kid who happened to have Indian parents. The answer I come back to every time is that I don't choose to focus on it. I don't have an option. If I never had to wonder in a situation where someone was being rude to me whether it was because of how I look or because they were having a bad day, I'd be thankful. If every time I've ever acted like an asshole in public, I could've known that the people around me would say, "That guy's an asshole" instead of "That indian guy's an asshole" I'd jump at the opportunity to not have to think about it. I'd love to not feel like I am representing one billion people when I decide to be the loud guy on the subway.
What I find, when people ask me why I "make an issue" of who I am, is that they see it like I've gone into some Human Software options screen and clicked off the default to set myself to the color of skin I have, to the cultural background that I have. And hell, if you muck around with the default settings, what can you expect but to have some sort of trouble with the system? Why not trash your preferences or edit your config or poke around in the registry so you can go back to the defaults, where everything runs smoothly?
But that's the thing... this is how I came from the factory. I ain't choose race-awareness, race-awareness chose me. I might, for the sake of argument, accept that some people logically believe that arab muslims ought to be the target of increased focus for security sweeps these days. And let's be generous (or, as I like to think of it, wrong) and say that these sweeps should be extended not just to those who are members of the intersection of those sets, but to those who are members of either of the sets independently. So we've set a very broad target for our attempts to create a false sense of security.
Well, see, even that larger group, inclusive of the entirety of both sets, doesn't include me. Yet the people advocating that wider target still feel like it's valid to include me as a person who fits the profile. That's what reveals to me that their motivations aren't based entirely on logic, aren't formed absent of prejudice, aren't entirely grounded in the goals that they claim to be based on.
I'd love to never, ever have to mention my family history again, except in contexts where it's relevant. But as long as people continue to compliment me on my great grasp of English when meeting me in person, I don't have that luxury. Those who resent talk about race are usually unwilling to recognize that quietly accepting the existence of racism or prejudice or tacitly accepting losses of rights for a given social group never leads to progress for a people. It's only through loudly complaining when liberties are in danger, and fighting incessantly when freedoms have been denied or lost, that any group has ever protected even the smallest slice of opportunity in a culture.
I'm quite willing to compromise, though. I'll truly be eager to not mention race, identity, or ethnicity again, if I could just not have to face the triplicate questions again. What are the triplicate questions? Simple. That's when people ask me where I'm from. Every time someone asks me that common question, I get it three times, and my answers are always the same.
"Where are you from?"
"No, but I mean, where are you from?"
I grew up near Harrisburg, it's towards the middle of the state.
"Okay, but where are you, ya know... from?"
My parents were born in India.
To the people who've emailed me, asking why I identify as a "hyphenated american", as if it's some disgraceful thing, I'd give you a simple response. I'd be very glad to be a just plain American. Just as soon as you see me as one.