The issue of race is a topic that I’ve been wanting to write about for some time but have never really found the right opportunity to do so. Race, more specifically, racial identity, is something that I’ve personally grappled with for a long time, and considering the week’s past events, I finally feel that I have entered the right time and space to candidly talk about racial identity from a personal point of view. Keep in mind that this is a completely personal narrative, and is intended to be raw, in order to express my own personal truths about this topic.
Yesterday, news was revealed regarding the identity of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People president of Spokane, Washington. Rachel Dolezal, a prominent figure in the civil rights community, was outed by her parents as being Caucasian, even though for her many years in the spotlight, she had portrayed herself as a woman of colour. While the situation and circumstances in itself are quite bizarre, what really intrigued me about this story was the aftermath.
The term “transracial” was one that began being tossed around shortly after the news broke. Appropriating the recent story of Caitlyn Jenner to the one of Rachel Dolezal, proponents of the idea of being transracial claim that people can be born a certain race, yet identify with, and live their life as another, and that it is perfectly legitimate behaviour. Obviously people were upset by this revelation, taking to social media to express their disapproval.
While many of the reactions do paint the idea that people are defending “every single thing white people do wrong” (according to twitter user @IceCreamEaterr), it may be possible that being transracial (or at least some degree of it) is a reality for some people. And this is where my personal struggle with racial identity can relate.
I am Indian.
My mother is Indian, my father is Indian, my grandparents, great great parents, and relatives even further back are Indian. However, I am a first generation North-American. I have spent more time outside of India than I have in it (I only go to visit about once every five years). I don’t currently own any traditional Indian clothing or jewellery, and I’m not the world’s biggest fan of Indian food. I cannot speak my family’s mother tongue, and my last name is quite uncommon.The majority of my friends and peer group are Caucasian, and have been for as long as I can remember (my parents like to joke that this is because I’m racist). Historically, I’ve always been attracted to Caucasian-looking people. And my appearance couldn’t be further from Indian. Between my lighter skin, green eyes, and short, brown hair, I’ve been told I look Mediterranean, Latin, or half-Indian at best. Throughout my life, no one, outside of my family, has identified me as being Indian. Sometimes, not even myself.
Up until almost middle school, I never really saw the world in colour. When I lived in Europe, I was the only Indian person in my class for three years, but this never really affected my perception of my own identity or how I interacted with others. When I moved to Mississauga, Ontario, at the age of 7, I became part of a community that was predominantly made of persons of Indian origin. I was always surrounded by Indians, no matter what school I went to or what extracurriculars I partook in. Once again, I never really saw myself as being at odds with the community, but at the same time I was never really a part of it either. My parents were quite progressive and adaptable to their new North American environment, and I always found my upbringing and community to be more alike with my Caucasian friends than my Indian friends and I never questioned this.
I started to realize that I was stuck in between two identities the summer before grade 7, when I visited India for a month. Even though I was surrounded by my family, who knew the city and spoke the language, I was perceived as a foreigner. This was the place of my heritage, yet I did not feel at home by any means. Indeed I was slightly more comfortable in my North American community with my North American friends, the majority of whom were not Indian, but there was still a divide, and still experiences that I couldn’t align myself with, no matter how hard I tried. It was like I was being pulled in two different directions by completely different communities. At the same time, neither of them wanted me. Here I was, stuck in limbo, not sure who I was or where I belonged.
When you live life in such a state for long enough, the zone of limbo that is your existence becomes comfortable enough for you to get by. I accepted my racial ambiguity, my multicultural community never bothered to question it, and I didn’t go back to India for another 5 years. Racial limbo became a bubble for me to live my life in, but this all changed in August of 2014, when I traveled to Arizona for an Advanced Facilitation Training trip with the organization Me to We.
Throughout my time in Arizona, we learned to think critically about different social issues and their repercussions. One of the issues we spent a considerable amount of time talking about was the idea of privilege. One activity in particular that I will never forget involved a group of us, carrying backpacks, and standing around a pile of books. In our hands, we held a list of different privileges that a person could have, including things like male privilege, heterosexual privilege, environmental privilege, etc. For every item listed that we felt we were privy to, we had to grab a book and put it in our backpack, in order to “feel the weight of our privilege”. Interestingly enough, one of the privileges listed was white privilege, or “societal privileges that benefit white people in Western countries beyond what is commonly experienced by non-white people under the same social, political, or economic circumstances”. Upon reading the description, I chose to stay put, while each and every single person around me went to load up their backpack with a book to represent their white privilege. I did this because I automatically associated being white with something that I, biologically, am not. And while it was quite sobering to see that my little bubble of racial limbo had been burst upon the realization that not every community I became a part of would be as racially diverse as Mississauga, I was undergoing an even more revealing internal struggle.
On the one hand, the idea that being Indian meant being distinctly different from others was an idea that, for the first time in my life, was staring me straight in the face. On the other hand, I felt tremendous guilt, because, even though at a genetic level, I was not white, I didn’t see myself as being any different then the rest of my peers who were experiencing the weight of their white privilege. I could have easily taken a book to represent my experience of white privilege, and my peers would have been none the wiser. Just because I wasn’t technically white didn’t mean that I had never experienced white privilege. For my parents and other relatives, who moved to Canada in the mid-to late 20th century, white privilege was certainly something they did not have the pleasure of experiencing. But for me, someone who was born and raised, essentially, as a Westerner, and who the rest of the world saw as being white, had I not informed them otherwise, white privilege was something that I could have, and did experience from time to time. For example, the chances of me being racially profiled, or labeled, are extremely low, considering most people spend their time trying to figure out my racial constitution, than make assumptions about me based on what it appears to be. The activity made two points very clear to me: 1. I was Indian, and 2. I wasn’t as Indian as I thought.
At the end of the activity, the group of us stood silent for a minute or two while we felt the weight of our privileges. While I had one book less than a lot of the people in the group that day, I felt as though I was carrying the most weight. I felt like I was cheating for not identifying myself as benefitting from white privilege. At the same time, I felt guilty for aligning myself with being something other than Indian.
Now while I would love to say that my internal struggle for racial identity is one that has been resolved, that is far from the truth. The university I now attend is predominantly Caucasian, and while I am quick to remind my friend group that my race is different from theirs, I still more closely align myself with their identity then those of other Indians I know. I still feel pangs of guilt when I’m applying for some sort of position that prompts me to identify myself as a person of “Asian” descent.
Despite this ongoing search for racial actualization, I still have my doubts about the circumstances regarding Rachel Dolezal, or the whole ideal of being “transracial”. The issue of race is one that is more complicated than it seems, and it not only skin-deep, as it is usually regarded to be. I don’t know if Rachel Dolezal, or the transracial phenomenon, or my ongoing struggle for identity are real, or just some things I’ve had a copious amount of time to think about and rationalize for myself. I only know my own personal truth- whether that is the nature of the transracial truth is another issue entirely, and something only time will tell. All I know is that personally, this internal struggle is a truth I will have to carry with me for an indefinite period of time, and one that I can hope to understand in this lifetime.