Category Archives: Outside the Binary

Illustration from Hazlitt

Link Love: ‘Our Brownness Does Not Belong Here’

An amazingly layered and nuanced long-read from Adnan Khan seeks to answer the question “How Brown should a Brown person be?”

His prose strings together the all the stars of racial interactions and microaggressions that form our constellation of racial identity, moving effortlessly from Indian restaurants to Wu-Tang, whiteness and anti-blackness, love songs and Harold and Kumar, the meaning of ABCD and the subtle pain that comes with forging a sense of self. Here’s a short selection:

My parents were eager for us to assimilate and there was no surplus of Indian affectations around the house—Bollywood tapes were played on the DL and we never joined a mosque or came into regular contact with other Muslim Indians. Memories of family were left unopened and ignored. I learned nothing about the cousins, uncles, and aunties who remained on the subcontinent. My mother missed India silently but my father hated the country. She visited her family occasionally, but nearly 14 years passed before my father went. When my mother wanted to send me back for a month in Grade 10, my father asked, “What’s the point?” They grew up as the first generation after Partition, during a time of chaos and uncertainty. He didn’t look back because there was nothing to look at.

My high school, meanwhile, was so multicultural that post-9/11 racism barely made it flinch. One of my oldest friends, Korean, called me a terrorist in my grade nine yearbook, and I still think of him with abiding affection. Another kid who’d casually lob the word at me was so Muslim that his last name was Islam. But I felt there was a deep shame at being Indian, some of which came from my father, who spoke badly of the country whenever he could, and some from the “smelly Indian” legacy that trails us: our body odor, our stinky food, our houses marked by a mash of unknown spices. I tried to pass as Arab. Since I was born in Saudi Arabia, I thought I could latch onto that, even though we were like mercenaries in the country, living in an isolated compound and only there for work opportunities India didn’t have. I couldn’t escape my brown skin, but at least I could be rich like an Arab. The distinction between Arab and Indian was messy, but I didn’t know that—I was only looking for a way out. This fell apart when an Egyptian asked if I could speak Arabic and I replied, no, Urdu. To be Indian meant nothing good. I had picked up enough from stray White culture to understand that the “smelly Indian” stereotype had real world implications and that we were somewhere near the bottom of a structurally explicit hierarchy.

Even though I couldn’t say why I was imagining myself as White, adopting Black culture, pretending to be Arab, I could sense that there wasn’t a clear role for me. Life was cleaved neatly: white identity (Korn), black identity (Ma$e), and brown identity (Amitabh Bachchan movies in the background, the dull dishoom-dishoom sound of our noble protagonist punching out the bad guys). I didn’t fit into any of these, so I borrowed from all. This kaleidoscope identity made it hard for me to locate myself in the world, and I felt for a long time, an ache for definition.

Read the rest, it’s worth the investment.

(via HRD CVR)

Solidarity is for white women and Asian people are funny

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By Guest Contributor Lindsey Yoo: originally published at Filthy Freedom

Disclaimer: The discussion of inclusivity and solidarity is relevant to many constituencies in different ways; this is my unique take as an Asian, female-identified individual.

I’ve come to a curious, heightened recognition these past few weeks: My ethnicity is something to laugh at. When an Asian woman is denigrated and exoticized by a group of white men in an offensive video entitled “Asian Girlz”, I am told I shouldn’t be so upset because the woman clearly enjoyed it and the video was clearly just a joke. When the lone Asian character in the critically acclaimed Netflix series “Orange is the New Black” perpetuates negative racial tropes through easy, cheap humor that capitalizes on her awkward silences and accented, broken English, I’m supposed to double back in laughter, shake my head, and say “Well, at least they have Laverne Cox!” When I express my anger at careless, racist reporting of an Asiana Airlines crash that killed two teenage girls–KTVU fired a producer after the network broadcast the pilots’ names as “Sum Ting Wong,” “Wi Tu Lo,” “Ho Lee Fuk,” and “Bang Ding Ow”–the immediate reaction I get is a giggle and a laugh.

 #SolidarityisforWhiteWomen was a worldwide trending hashtag originally created to expose the tendency of feminism to exclude the experiences and narratives of women of color. The hashtag led to robust and much-needed discussions that unmasked the tendency of all progressive circles to work in silos instead of calling for true solidarity across multiple race and gender identities. Filthy Freedom founder Bea Hinton and I both participated in the discussions and watched as they yielded hashtags such as #blackpowerisforblackmen, which highlighted the privileging of black male voices in discussions on black empowerment, and #fuckcispeople, which called out the tendency of all social justice narratives to focus solely on cisgender struggles. Through the steady stream of well-formulated tweets (and angry trolls), I kept wondering: Is my voice, as an Asian, female-identified individual, relevant at all?In Matthew Salesses’ “How the Rules of Racism are Different for Asian Americans,” Matthew recounts how he came to realize that Asians seem to have no place in discussions about racial hierarchies:

For my day job, I organize a seminar at Harvard on the topic of Inequality. I attend these talks both out of responsibility and out of interest. But after two and a half years, I can only remember Asians being mentioned twice, once in direct response to a question by an Asian student. I remember sitting beside another Asian American student and listening to a lecture earlier this year. He said something like, “Nobody ever talks about Asians,” and I said, “Asians don’t exist in Sociology.” We both laughed. It was a joke, but it stung with a certain truth.

I also learned that Asian-Americans occupy a very limited niche in conversations about social justice. In my sophomore year in college, after I learned of Japanese-American activist Yuri Kochiyama’s role in the civil rights movement and asked a sociology professor why none of our classroom discussions included any mention of her role, she told me that “bringing an Asian into the discussion on civil rights would just confuse people.” When I pointed out to another sociology professor that the statistics we were studying that day, on the parenting styles of black and Hispanic parents versus white parents, did not take into account the unique perspective of Asians, she told me bluntly that “the Asian perspective can be found in the stats on white people.” Continue reading

Modern Love In Mumbai’s “Wild West”: A Critique Of Orientalist Fantasies In Contemporary Travel Narratives

by Guest Contributor Aditi Surie von Czechowski

Recently, the New York Times has been beefing up its coverage on India.

Presumably, there is no quality journalism about India that isn’t produced by an American news outfit. Associate Managing Editor at the Times Jim Schachter notes “…I don’t want to cast dispersion [sic], but there is not a great media diet for the non-resident Indian.” The assumptions embedded in his statement are staggering. What would a “great media diet” look like? Is it only constituted by bourgeois forms of media consumption? Are NRI’s unable to seek out a “great media diet” for themselves? Must they be spoon-fed by the venerable New York Times? It appears that knowledge about India from India (or the Indian diaspora) just doesn’t cut it.

In addition to the new blog entitled “India Ink,” which has been operational for just under a year, I’ve seen an uptick in articles on India recently–a very unscientific and cursory perusal of the more recent articles reveals news on “dirt-poor farmers,” sex crimes, and corruption, or about how India is a growing economic powerhouse. This is of course, followed by discussions of how India is “between two worlds,” with respect to “tradition” and economic disparity–with no indication about how neoliberalism is complicit in the widening income gap, not just in India, but worldwide. Combined with Nick Kristof’s regular martyring operations to rescue underage trafficked prostitutes in Kolkatan brothels, what we have here is a consistent picture of an India that is not yet “fully modern,” informed by the liberal discourse of rights and progress. It seems that the New York Times will never, ever tire of incessantly replicating imperial tropes.

So, I was naturally curious to see whether there might be an alternate, less polarizing narrative about India when I came across this New York Times Modern Love column; a Canadian woman’s account of her trip to India and how she (maybe) fell in love with an Indian man nearly twice her age. At first pass, I found myself caught up in her stylish prose. But there was something about her essay that unsettled me: Jeong’s writing is of a piece with that familiar eroticization of India–Orientalist imaginings of the lushness of nature combine with the well-worn tropes of India as chaotic, as a seductive and sexual place of pure experience, spirituality and true self-knowledge, with sinewy yet docile natives. If I had a penny for every time a (usually white and almost always North American or European) person has gushed to me about how much they love India because they found God or themselves there/how it was wild and filthy and beautiful all at the same time, I’d have a serious amount of change by now. Continue reading

Neither Black Man Nor Black Woman: Living On The Outside

By Guest Contributor Toi S., cross-posted from The Scavenger

I have been grappling with the intersection of gender identity and race lately. I feel as if the concept of gender is entrenched in the black community–if not the pillar of it.

Roles have been defined for black women and black men and the socialization of black women vs. black men is intriguing. As I’ve come out as genderqueer I have found it difficult to imagine disassociating myself from black womanhood.

So much is tied to a black woman’s identity. The struggle of a black woman–the burden on her back–the solidarity in calling each other “my sister” is something I have come to own and appreciate, slowly but surely.

I feel that in taking on the trans identity and calling myself genderqueer that I am betraying my sisters in some way. I also feel that I am rejecting the women’s spaces which I felt so comfortable in for years and years. I am becoming an outsider to the community of women of color that I fought so hard in the past to understand and be a part of and protect through my academic writing.

As I was accepting the fact that I am genderqueer … that I am masculine of center, that I may not have been socialized as your typical female and had always seen myself as androgynous or leaning more toward the masculine spectrum–I began to panic.

Well…that means I’m a black man! Ohhh great! Not only do I face oppression on so many other levels, but now I’ve got this new added burden of being perceived as a black man, should I choose to transition or present myself as male? I’ve been presenting myself as male for years now without really calling it that.

Now I would have to routinely see white women clutch their purses and turn up their noses, and white men feel threatened/disgusted by my very existence. I did not, do not…want to be a black man.

But, unfortunately, I don’t have much choice in the matter. And I’ll explain what I mean.

Continue reading

On Interracial Dating – The Outside of the Constructs Panel (2 of 2)

Irene Bedard and Husband Deni

Welcome back to the Outside of the Constructs panel on Interracial Dating.

Our panelists are: Cecelia, friend of the blog and blogger at AnishinaabekweJulie, friend of Cecelia; Brandann, friend of the blog and occassional contributorLyza, friend of Cecelia; Andrew, blogger at KABOBFestMay, blogger at KABOBfest;Fatemeh, Racialious crew and Editor of Muslimah Media WatchEl, long time friend of the blog; andRichard, friend of Cecelia.

Since minorities are seen in different lights (and with different accompanying stereotypes), what types of reactions have people had toward you and your partners? How are white partners perceived, as opposed to minority partners? Were any partners considered “off-limits” or “forbidden?”

Cecelia: I have been fortunate to be in spaces where I have not had odd reactions towards me and my partners. Generally, people have been interested in my Ojibway/Anishinaabe heritage in a very respectful way. Friends of the past and current friends have been very mindful and culturally sensitive towards me and my partners. In some cases where there have been comments made about me or my partner we were quick to stop the assault before it got bad.

White partners weren’t perceived as good because generally these folks [as individuals] were no good. They often did not take ownership for their various privileges even though they said they would attempt to. Where as minority partners were seen as good because they were good people. No partners were considered as off limits.

Julie: When with white males, I would get the side-eye from other asians (they would be wary of me) but would get the approving nod from all whites, or other white/asian couples. Reactions from non-asian PoCs were along the lines of: “asian girl with white male, nothing new”. When cozy with other PoCs, I would be considered less than, different by anyone with oppressive tendencies, be they marginalized or not, and targeted.

White partners meant that I was less targeted for outright racist comments (but there was no end to the subtle ones). PoC partners meant that we were both targets (let the bulls out!), or that we were ‘so cute’ (let the condescension begin…).

White partners earned me the honorary white badge but since it’s not what I wanted, it didn’t matter. I preferred the approval of my asian peers. With asians, it was ok to be a PoC, and by extension, all marginalized bodies became visible. With whites, it was never ok to be unapologetically PoC/handicapped/marginalized except to provide exotic flavor.

Forbidden to date lesbian and very forbidden to be trans.

Brandann: We’re a military family, and I think that adds an extra layer of stereotype, if you’ll bear with me for a moment. One of the most common interracial couples among military families, at least in our circles, is White Man/Asian Woman, which carries so many ugly stereotypes that it has basically become a trope, in my mind. We are read as the opposite of that, since I am read as white, much to my irritation.

Among the military I think there is a construct of gender and masculinity that does not exist outside in the civilian world, and often Asian men become shunted into a very narrow box of this stereotype. I think “white” is certainly seen as superior, even with all the military’s efforts to be racially sensitive, and despite the fact that Asian men are the largest and fastest growing demographic in the military. A white woman and Asian man flip the stereotype and I’ve noticed a lot of people have, in my opinion, a difficult time accepting this.

May: I have been told that one of the biggest cultural taboos in regards to dating in the Arab American community is that of a relationship between an Arab female and a black male. Someone has even told me, “good luck trying to find an Arab guy who will marry you if you have been with a black man.” To further enforce the point, I know an Arab American female who “admitted” to dating a black male and made recipients of that information swear to keep the information mums lest it hurt her future marriage prospects. Although marrying someone who is white is also frowned upon, it is not on the same grounds for familial or cultural excommunication. Continue reading

Interracial Dating – The Outside the Constructs Panel (1 of 2)

Khloe and Lamar

Welcome to the Outside of the Constructs panel. This one is a little strange as compared to the others. Originally, this was to be the panel for Indigenous people, but then I expanded it to include people who are normally outside of U.S. racial constructs. But then, we didn’t get very much response originally, and I asked for help recruiting. Cecelia responded, but she invited a mess of folks – but who didn’t fit the original idea for this panel. I was going to move Lyza, Julie, and Richard’s responses – but then I realized their experiences probably fit a bit better here, since they were radically different from other responses on the White and Asian panels. So, it all worked out.

Our panelists are: Cecelia, friend of the blog; Julie, friend of Cecelia; Brandann, friend of the blog and occassional contributor; Lyza, friend of Cecelia; Andrew, blogger at KABOBFest; May, blogger at KABOBfest and Sawaha Sumra; Fatemeh, Racialious crew and Editor of Muslimah Media Watch; El, long time friend of the blog; and Richard, friend of Cecelia.

What types of messages did you receive about interracial relationships growing up?

Cecelia: My parents are an interracial couple. My Dad is Ojibway/Anishinaabe (enrolled tribal member in the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community) and French and my Mother is various European heritages, the majority of her is Scandinavian (Norwegian and Swedish) and German. When my parents started dated my Mother’s Father said to her, “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.” Despite the one negative message from my Grandfather my parents tried their best, with all of the complications, family issues and life stresses, their overall message on their interracial dating was a positive one. My Dad grew up in Highland Park, MI which was what he called “mixed” and not diverse. He once described the neighborhood he grew up in by having “all the colors.” My Mother grew up in a working class, product of Ford and auto industry, mostly white inner ring suburb of Detroit. They moved to a more lower middle class neighborhood of an inner ring suburb and the compilation of their upbringings gave me a positive message about interracial dating, even despite our struggles as a family and individuals inside the family unit. Because of our various struggles from generational trauma, historical trauma and PTSD from being survivors of genocide on the Native side, I came to the conclusion that most relationships would be a struggle. This struggle can change as well heal. If our liberation and return to culture, language and traditions as Native people means feeling our ancestors pain then it may manifest in struggle within our family and therefore the interracial relationship of my parents.

My family on my Dad’s side is multi-racial, so mixing was already in the family and our family gatherings had all of us mingling which was most always a positive space for me. I am really thankful for my family being so awesome and open-minded! Some messages I received from my Dad (which he said weekly, if not daily): “the white man messed up everything,” and/or “don’t trust whitey.” Therefore, I wasn’t very trusting of white males in relationships, although I have had my share, I have retired dating white males because my Fathers statement that was ingrained in me since I was a child has proven true in the dating world. Sadly, I had to test the waters to prove his statements to be true.

Julie: Light-skinned = good. Dark-skinned = bad. Gay/lesbian also = bad. The races fell into those guidelines.

I grew up Vietnamese in a predominantly white area where they pulled eyes at me and made fun of my parent’s height and accents. As a displaced people who were just trying to survive, and as we watched other PoCs in our neighborhood/family turning to drugs and guns, assimilation seemed like the key to our well-being. I was surrounded by the ‘goodness’ of white people (some were pretty nice, but ignorant) and was brought up to appreciate them and to adopt their ideas, including their racist ones.
I may have received these messages, but more than what I was ‘sold’, was the fact that I was a target for racism (Seventeen Magazine was definitely not written with PoC in mind) and thus differentiated. I grew wary of white people and started gravitating to other races for my friendships (mostly latino and asian) in my late teens.

Brandann: I grew up mixed-race, and only slightly conscious of what that meant. I am assuming that my being a product of a mixed-race relationship meant that my family didn’t frown upon the idea of interracial dating or relationships.

I’m Ojibwe/Anishinaabe and European by descent, registered with the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. If there were problems with such relationships, there was no indication of it from my immediate family. Though, as I got older and understood racial identity better (things such as the endearing nickname my father’s father gave me, which was a bit of a jab at my mixed-heritage but meant to be affectionate), I noticed that other people within my own community had ideas about what was right and what was less-than. Relationships between two Native people, at least in my own limited experience, were looked upon more favorably than those between Native and non-Natives.

The only time race ever arose as an issue was when I met my husband, who is Asian. My grandfather is a Korean War veteran, and I personally had fears that it would be an issue, however right or wrong that fear was. Turns out, it was never something I needed to worry about. He was accepted with open arms.

Lyza: Growing up in a rural farm community, where my mom grew up in a suburb of Grand Rapids and my dad grew up on a farm in Rockford, MI(which back when he grew up there it didn’t have the reputation it does today), allowed me to have a simple growing up experience that was for the most part homogeneous(white working class to middle class) in nature of where we lived. My mom was very intentional(coming from a Civil Rights and Feminism background) when it came to making my brother and I aware that the world was not homogeneous in nature she would yearly take us out of class to walk downtown Grand Rapids during the Martin Luther King Jr. day parade, as well as have literature and different avenues where we would be challenged with how we viewed the world from where we lived.

I thank my mom for being so progressive and going against the norm of ignorance that was prevalent in the community that we grew up in. My dad came from another generation where rural was rural and the only people of color in town were generally from the city and didn’t plan on staying any time soon. When I was in my early twenties I dated a Latino man that I worked with and after a date where he dropped me off at the home and met my family my dad sat me down and asked me what my intentions were with him and if I planned on dating him seriously. This comment disturbed me because of the undertone of racism that happened to ooze out of the comment. That was when I realized that there was a standard when it came to dating, and I was at a point in my life where I decided that was not acceptable. Within the past 3 years my father has changed his world view considerably with some hard life lessons that have come his way as well as my consistent challenging of how the world really “is” with all of the double standards.

My Grandpa (mom’s side) has been very adamant that interracial dating is unacceptable, however his deep seeded racism comes from generationalism and growing up in Benton Harbor pre and post WWII era. I constantly challenge his worldview by giving him an opportunity to explain why he has these views towards specific groups of people and offer him a different POV. Bringing some of my friends with diverse backgrounds to family events has allowed him to be around people that challenge where his fears and racism hold so closely to his belief system.

Andrew: I grew up in Ann Arbor, MI after having spent the first four years of my life in New York City. My mother immigrated from Lebanon in the late 70s and my father’s family, also Lebanese, has been in the United States since the beginning of the 20th century. On a personal level, both of my parents have always disregarded cultural traditions in favor of their own interpretations of what’s right and wrong or how people should and should not behave. For example, my mother was 31 when she married, which is virtually unheard of in a culture that pressures its women to marry young, and was the first woman to leave her village in Lebanon. Although there are far fewer social expectations imposed on men than on women in Arab culture, my father seemed to buck the trend by maintaining an air of humility despite his charm, intelligence, and professional success.

As a result, despite the fact that my upbringing was definitely defined by my Arab identity, I was always encouraged to challenge and confront cultural norms and traditions, and push social and personal boundaries within reason. When it came to sex and relationships, my parents never shied away from having conversations with me about relationships and sexuality, yet they rarely came off as nosey or intrusive. They have always encouraged me to view dating as a process through which I develop a better understanding of myself and what it is I’m looking for in a partner. Although I haven’t seriously dated a woman that isn’t Arab, I am confident that my parents would support an interracial relationship.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about my extended family. My grandmother (father’s mother) enjoyed being racist and would regularly claim that she was no Arab; she was Phoenician. She never missed an opportunity to obsess over the kinds of people her grandchildren would date and eventually marry, regularly encouraging all of us to date within our Arab Orthodox Christian community. Such attitudes are reinforced by the rest of my father’s family which, interestingly enough, embrace culturally traditional values and lifestyles despite being third and fourth generation Arab Americans.

On my mother’s side, I grew up knowing that interracial relationships were frowned upon and not taken seriously. This obviously did not extend to Europeans; my cousin was once married to a French woman. I should add, though, that my family is definitely more concerned with religion than they are race when it comes to relationships. This is because they assume that their children will not marry/date outside of the Arab community, and so they focus on religious identity. My Shiite Muslim (now ex) girlfriend definitely ruffled a few of their feathers, but I was never openly confronted about my relationship with her. As a man, I recognize that I enjoy significant privilege and am not subject to the kind of scrutiny Arab women must endure.

May: As a US born and raised to Syrian Sunni Muslim parents, I grew up watching both sides of my family interracially/ethnically marry—it was almost exclusively my uncles though, and to mostly white European women. As Syrians are regarded as the white people of the Arab world, I would venture to say that these kinds of unions were not only considered culturally acceptable, but a reinforcement of an aspirational whiteness.

Further complicating the fact that both my parents are Syrian (my father with a Bedouin background) was the culturally enclavish way I was raised. We lived on a cul-de-sac with all my father’s family populating the six model homes that the track housing in the sleepy Southern California suburb was based on. Thus not only was I encouraged to maintain a link with my “roots” but I was also expected to only have my cousins as my friends. As my father once retorted when I asked to attend a schoolmate’s sleepover party, “Friends? why do you need friends? You have cousins!” So you can imagine the jingoistic way marriage was regarded/viewed. Continue reading

To Be Young, Gifted, and Mixed? Jean Toomer’s Cane and Questions of Identity

by Latoya Peterson

Cane book cover

Who exactly is Jean Toomer?

Scholars, academics, and American literature buffs know him as the author of Cane, one of the landmark works to emerge from the Harlem Renaissance.

And yet, Toomer’s legacy is a bit more complicated than just his work. Back in the 1920s, in spite of segregation, Toomer articulated a vision of multiracial identity that was rejected by the norms of the time. Splitting time between exclusively white and exclusively black environments, Toomer decided that he was neither – he considered himself an American, a mixture of several different races and nationalities. However, he grew increasingly frustrated with the restrictions placed upon him due to his identification with black literature – in later life, he allegedly denied having any “colored blood.” As a result of this, Toomer’s legacy and the meaning of Cane has been left open for wide open for interpretation – and a new release of Cane has done just that, with scholars Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Rudolph P. Byrd, asserting that Toomer wasn’t pioneering a new identity – he was trying to pass for white. Continue reading