Brown In The South
“I want to go hang out with Avery!” I said to my nerdy, highly opinionated brother.
“Um, Avery doesn’t want to hang out with us anymore,” he retorted.
My brow furrowed and I exclaimed, “What do you mean?”
“Her parents won’t let her anymore, because we’re Indian.”
My dad looked up from his newspaper first with concern in his eyes, and then anger: “You know what? They’re rednecks — that’s what they are.”
“What? What’s a redneck?” I inquired dejectedly.
Being different from my peers was a part of life that I experienced as a Brown kid in the southern United States. Sometimes I was rejected for it, and other times, I was the subject of intrigue.
After immigrating to the United States, my parents became economically successful. They had achieved the elusive “American Dream.” What that meant was that my brother and I were often placed in predominantly white environments, particularly as we grew into adolescence and moved to the South.
The city that we ended up in was a major port for one of the 13 original colonies as well as the beating heart of the confederacy in the Civil War. In the present, it’s known for its cobblestone roads, rich history and culture, and antebellum architecture.
Many who visit and live there glorify its beauty and historic density, but in doing so normalize and erase the atrocities of slavery and Native genocide that were implicit in the construction of its present form.
Living there in my early years involved attending schools where I learned and participated in the fanatics of college football.
“Do you root for Clemson or Carolina?” I would ask my perplexed family members after returning home from school, methodologically marking tallies with a pen and paper in hand.
These schools also introduced me to the social hierarchies amongst pre-teen girls, who knew that the two options for life in middle school were to sink or swim. To swim, you needed an attractive white boyfriend (you gained extra points if he was in the grade above you), wear makeup (but not too much), and dress the part (manicured, mature, and somewhat suggestively).
I was a shy and rather insecure child, but in middle school I challenged myself to live up to the social standards that would make me more well-liked amongst my peers.
Being raised between this environment and my home, with occasional visits to family members in India, I became an expert in detaching myself from South Asian culture and, as a result, my family.
I had masked the parts of me that didn’t fit into my social world until much of life felt like a performance, because I dreaded the alternative possibility of feeling like a rejected loser.
What I didn’t have the language to articulate or the understanding to grasp at the time was that my insecurity and the social pressures around me drove me into a process of assimilation, which began to feel natural the older I got and that eventually drove me to feel estranged from my genuine sense of confidence and individuality.
Upper-class Indians in the United States that I’ve encountered often speak about assimilation as if it’s a good thing. “You need to do what you need to do in order to get ahead, beta, simply put!” I can almost hear an uncle repeating in my head.
But what my first-generation elders might not understand in the same way that I do is that it can have really harmful consequences. While on the one hand, masking your culture to adjust to a local environment can be a recipe for capitalist achievement, it isn’t guaranteed to instill a balanced sense of cultural belonging and a strong social awareness, especially for those of us who are still forming our identities in these contexts.
My assimilation and the way it has impacted my sense of self has been destructive in many ways. But the opportunity I had to assimilate was also a massive privilege that set me apart from others of my Black and Brown peers. It indicated the proximity I experienced to white spaces, resources, and financial comfort.
Upper-class Indians and Hindus in particular hold significant privileges as Brown people in the United States. In 1965, the United States Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act which based its guidelines for entry into the country on “professional status and reunification.”
In the book Bengali Harlem, Vivek Bald remarks that “while it seemingly put an end to the exclusion era, the 1965 act essentially maintained the exclusion of working-class immigrants.” As a result, Indian Americans are now three times more educated than the US population and have a higher annual median income than other Asian Americans, as well as the general US population.
Being Brown in the South, for me, meant being a specific kind of Brown — the kind that benefits from caste and class privilege as well as the social privilege of being regarded by many White Americans as nerdy, hairy, and educated than dangerous, irresponsible, and inherently criminal. These outside perceptions definitely aren’t guaranteed, particularly in the current U.S social climate, which paints all Muslims of color as suspect. But the financial comforts that upper-class Indians enjoy offers our families higher social statuses in our communities and often in public due to our dress and demeanor.
And when our communities advocate for assimilation, we implicitly encourage each other to sink into these comforts that our Black and Brown kin don’t share. We say, “It’s okay to enjoy our wealth, because our lives were tough in India and we’ve worked hard to get where we are today.”
There is validity in this statement that I can’t fully comprehend as a second-generation immigrant to the United States. What I do understand, though, is that upper-class Hindu Indians tell themselves that they feel comfortable connecting with other Indians, but they separate themselves from other communities of color, because they think they have nothing in common or hold negative stereotypes toward other Black and Brown people.
The result is insular communities in which Indians are largely disconnected from those who are not other Indians or White — the prime comfort in which to say things like: Family and community first; We earned it. Indians are smart because…. It’s all about networking. Dress for success. Why isn’t that other community more respectful?
Encouraging our family members to assimilate implies our comfort with distance from other communities of color. It allows us to maintain our privileges, acclimate to White culture, and leave our biases unchecked.
In instances like the last Thanksgiving I shared with family friends in the South, assimilation enables upper-class Indians to invite White people over for dinner and to laugh together at a joke told to the crowd by one White guest: “This Thanksgiving, the Pilgrims and Indians are together once again!”