By Guest Contributor Chaya Babu
When two famous black feminists take the stage to discuss social justice and feminism, or more specifically, how race and class impact African American women’s experiences in the US, why is it that I–an Indian American woman from pretty, affluent Briarcliff Manor, New York–feel at home? How is that this where I feel whole, recognized, and validated?
I don’t actually need the answers to these questions as some sort of navel-gazing exercise. But others seem to. When it comes to our position in social movements, identity is a big deal; it behooves us to acknowledge and take accountability for our inherent role, by default of who we are, in intersectional systems of oppression. So perhaps confusion is founded. As an upper-middle-class, straight, cissexual, conventionally feminine woman, whose ethnic minority status in America is mitigated by being part of the ‘model minority,’ it’s true that I have much going for me. I could ride the tide of my privilege. Easy.
But I started thinking about race at an early age. When we watched a video about MLK and the civil rights movement in second grade, I saw a binary and placed myself on the pigmented side of it. At 11-years-old, I adopted hip and hop and its surrounding culture as my self-expression in a white world. Would things have been different if my parents played Bollywood films in the house? I can’t be sure. Whatever it was, I identified clearly with non-whiteness. This made me an outcast in a way. I grew up around mostly white people, and the other Indians I knew seemed to see themselves on that side of the color line, or at the very least, they were more seduced by the power that came with our proximity to whiteness, as Melissa Harris-Perry put it. I am guilty of this too, but I still felt acutely that my brown skin was creating a vast gulf between my reality and that of my white friends. If I had to guess, this is where I got my sense of injustice in the world, despite my understanding that I was exceedingly blessed and shrouded in comfort, wealth, and opportunity.
I was more aware of my status as a person of color than as a woman. (It took me much longer to become aware of the endless benefits of my class position, because, well, that’s how it works). I became interested in anti-racism far before I felt drawn to anti-sexist, anti-patriarchal movements or cared about class dynamics. (Of course, I now get that it’s all connected.) But I think my internalization of my color is very telling for where I stand now when it comes to my personal feminist politics. Regardless of the particulars of the layering, all of this means I stand outside of my own ethnic community in the US–a community that, in my experience, often seems largely (not universally) brainwashed by the promise of ascending in a racist system.
Based on this, who could I have looked to as speaking to me–a little brown girl whose large suburban home had a Ganesha in a kitchen cupboard–about dissent and disruption of the status quo? What, you don’t believe in a white supremacist, imperialist, capitalist patriarchy, you say? Who put these thoughts in your head?
There was no place for me there. My place was to be a good Indian girl.
A large part of last week’s talk between Melissa Harris-Perry and bell hooks at The New School (see above) was about black women’s voices: the avenues though which they convey their messages, the shift in how they are represented, why some mainstream spaces may be more open to promoting them, even if minimally (Harris-Perry on MSNBC). I had no access to these voices when I was younger. I had some Alice Walker and Toni Morrison in high school, and then college and beyond gave me the nonfiction radical texts of bell hooks and Harris-Perry, Audre Lorde, Dorothy Roberts, and more. However, I couldn’t see that I was allowed to turn their thoughts into action in my own life, no matter how deeply they touched my heart.