Growing up Brown in the Very White Suburbs of Boston— Caught In-between
Caught In-between is a series of stories highlighting and explaining my memories of growing up as an Indian-American in the United States. This article is going to be a little bit different from the rest because I want to talk about my experiences through the lens of race.
In the past, I’ve written articles about Thanksgiving and Christmas and how I’ve celebrated them as an Indian-American person in the United States. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been reading Layla Saad’s book, Me and White Supremacy. Although this book is written for white people to confront their own internal white supremacy, I’ve found it to be very useful for a person like me, who grew up in a predominantly white suburban town while being a person of color. Growing up surrounded by mostly white people has made me less aware of terms like white fragility, white silence, white apathy, and so many more. I recently read an article about how proximity to whiteness does not make you white, and was inspired to reflect on my own upbringing and how it has affected me. First, I’d like to give a little bit of background on where I was raised and how I’ve navigated race throughout my life. I also want to go a little deeper into how I want to continue navigating race in the future.
How it all began
I have spent most of my life in a small suburban town right outside of Boston. The town is predominantly white (91% as of 2010) and the average household income is $130,000. It probably fits most of the stereotypes you imagine when you think of a rich, white, liberal town in the Northeast. Families with multiple summer homes, the ability to dress their kids from head to toe in Patagonia clothing, and send them to elite liberal arts schools all across America. Growing up as one of the handful of Indian kids in the public school system (yes, I mean a literal handful), I knew I was different from a very early age.
First, I’d like to say that I was never bullied, or outwardly excluded for my race, and for that I am very grateful. Over the past few weeks, I’ve read many accounts of people my age talking about their experiences with racism in both homogeneous and diverse communities. I cannot speak for those people, but these racist incidents are inexcusable. I don’t know if it was because I was oblivious, or if it truly didn’t happen, but I can pretty confidently say that I have never really experienced overt racism. I will expand on this later on, but I have had very supportive friends of all races and am very thankful for that. With this being said, it was still extremely confusing for me to grow up surrounded by white privilege, and as a kid, I had to adapt to the environment around me.
This kind of adaptation manifested in the forms of shopping at Aeropostale, begging my parents to buy me a Webkinz and trying to get my mom to pack me “American” food for lunch instead of smellier Indian food. Looking back, I am very thankful for my parents and for their stubbornness in pushing me to be proud of my Indianness. My dad never understood the hype around Aeropstale, “why are we paying money for you to wear an advertisement on your shirt, that company should be paying you!”. Twelve year old me thought he was crazy, but he was completely right! While a lot of my friends were getting Webkinz from every relative for Christmas, I got a total of 3 over a couple of years. As for food, I remember getting a lot of “what is that” (in reference to my chapati and vegetable curry roll-ups) at lunch in middle school. When I told my mom about these comments, she would tell me to tell my friends exactly what it was, and so I did! To my surprise, a lot of my friends were just really curious, and it turned out that a lot of them would love to eat my lunch instead of their own. Sure, it smelled a little different, but I was lucky to be surrounded by people who were very willing to try new things.
I would also like to note that I was very aware of the financial privilege in my town that accompanied whiteness. I consider myself to be financially privileged, and my parents definitely had the resources to buy me what I wanted, but I learned the value of money from an early age. I’ve been perpetually employed since the age of 14 and most of the possessions I own come from my own bank account. This was yet another way I felt a little different from those around me, and definitely felt left out when I saw people my age with fancier things that I knew that either I couldn’t afford, or that my parents would never buy me.
When you are the only Indian kid in your grade of over 200 kids, you become pretty aware of the racial makeup of every room you walk into. From a young age, I almost always knew that I would be the only person of color in that room. This sort of observation is something I still make to this day, and it only magnified when I became a computer science major, a male-dominated field. I think that this awareness is not a bad thing, and it can lead to more active work being done to listen to voices that are not the majority. I think that every single person should stop and consider what the breakup of every room they walk into is. Are you always part of the majority? Why do you think that is? Are there ways to bring other types of people into this room? The larger range of voices we have in each room, the better ideas we will create, and the better products we will implement. (This was a tangent, back to the story).
Another thing I feel very lucky about, is the way that I was taught Indian culture and how I became more proud of it as I grew older. For the first 5 years of my life, at least one set of grandparents were living with me and my family. I grew up speaking Marathi as my first language, listening to classical Indian music and hearing endless stories of life in India. I was even lucky enough to visit India growing up on many occasions. My parents were unapologetically Indian immigrants, and pretty bluntly explained to my brother and I why we wouldn’t celebrate Christmas, or the importance of holidays like Diwali and Ganpati. I didn’t realize it until a lot later, but although I felt left out that all my friends were celebrating Christmas and I wasn’t, I knew exactly why, and for that, I was proud.
So, this all doesn’t sound too bad right?
To be honest, I don’t have a lot to complain about, but I also feel like there were a lot of things that I lacked in this predominantly white community. When you are surrounded by whiteness, from your friends, to your teachers, to your coaches, it definitely impacts your self esteem to some degree, especially in regards to your ability to achieve certain goals. I feel like this is a flaw in the public education system in general. There is a focus on teaching younger generations about all of the people who did these big, great things, and focusing less on diverse people who are making changes on community levels. I was also lucky in the sense that my parents never really pushed me into one field or another, and I was exposed to a lot of Indian parents who worked in a variety of different fields. I still think there could have been a greater diversity in representation of leaders especially when it came to my teachers in school, and the curriculum they taught.
There is a lot of power in education, especially when it comes to the types of literature you are exposed to as a child. I was not grateful for it growing up, but my mom would force me to read books by Indian authors, and authors from other immigrant cultures. On top of that, I attended an Indian school for 5 years, and read even more Indian literature by famous freedom fighters, poets and even doctors. From Atul Gawande to Nehru to Jhumpa Lahiri, I learned that Indian people not only had the ability to write incredible pieces of literature, but also that Indian people were not limited to the fields of engineering or medicine. This kind of exposure led me to be more comfortable writing about my own culture for essays I turned in at school. We need more representation in our school curriculum, especially in communities that are predominantly white.
I could probably go into a long essay about self esteem and race because this was probably the one place in my life that race has the biggest impact. No one was outwardly telling me about white supremacy, but because I was surrounded by white centered narratives, I subconsciously believed that being closer to whiteness was the only way I could really fit in. It wasn’t until later in high school that I realized that speaking up about my Indian background, and my perspective were really important in this homogeneous setting. I still felt like I did have to uphold certain Indian stereotypes, but I became more comfortable expressing my culture and what it meant to me. I would be lying if I told you that all my self esteem issues have been magically fixed now that I am older, but over the past few years, I’ve had to work pretty hard to undo these ideas inside of me that being closer to whiteness is in any way superior to my Indian culture, or any other cultures for that matter.
Not being Indian enough
It wasn’t until I came to college that I was exposed to being part of a predominantly Indian community. For the first time, I felt like I was being labeled as not Indian enough. To be honest, I hadn’t been exposed to the term “whitewashed” until I came to college, where I learned that it meant being Indian (or any POC for that matter) but being more “white” on the outside. The word “whitewashed” used to really bother me, and it still does. It made me feel very confused because for most of my life I felt like I was not white enough, and now people were saying that I was not Indian enough?
I think the term “whitewashed” is very dangerous because it is forcing someone into a label that is constructed by your own personal notion of what being a certain culture entails. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t judge people or put people into groups in my head, but outwardly calling someone “whitewashed” is dangerous. However, in college I became more comfortable being able to express my Indianness in a different way from when I was in high school. There was a comfort in being able to talk to people who had gone through similar experiences as me. In college I learned how important it was to listen to people’s entire stories, and valuing the people who were ready to listen to my entire story as well.
Some final thoughts
The overall conclusion I’ve made is that every homogeneous community has its flaws and that not everyone’s experiences are the same. Being able to read about different races, communities and experiences is so crucial in being able to better understand yourself and having better self esteem. I wish I could say that I am some perfect non-judgmental person who has complete self confidence, but this is far from the truth. Being able to reflect on how I grew up, and how certain things were problematic has been really helpful for me to better understand what needs to be changed in our society.
What the future entails
Going forward, I would like to continue learning about my own Indian culture and other cultures. I want to continue supporting other BIPOC and encouraging them to be leaders in spaces that are predominantly white. Indian culture especially encourages sitting quietly and doing your work without bothering anyone, but I think that I need to be loud. Sometimes I wonder where I would be if my parents didn’t force me to read books by Indian authors, or if my Indian school teachers didn’t teach me about the Quit India movement. Educating, speaking, volunteering is so important in spreading information and awareness.