Monday, June 01, 2009
Some Big Words About... *gulp* Race
So I've been following the news coverage on the recent racially motivated attacks on Indian students in Oz-land, and been suitably astounded by the whole situation. Irish Coffee remembers Australia as the ultimate chill place, full of beer and shags on pick-up trucks, but does acknowledge that race might well be an issue for the peeps down under. And that set me thinking, with due apologies to President Obama and his wonderul speech on the subject, what about race here in the US? More specifically, what's it like being an Indian grad student in the American Midwest.

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And to make it even more specific to this blog: what's it like being a gay Indian grad student in the American Midwest?

The truth is: I've never had to face a racist slur (much less an attack!) here - and neither have any of the other Indians I know. Now, admittedly, I'm a really bad NRI-type, in that I don't attend bhajan-sessions organized by the Indian Student Organization when navratri rolls along every year, neither do I actively seek out the Durga puja community around here, I don't hug every single South Asian I meet on campus (even though most of them make goo-goo eyes at you when they see you're brown as well, and then look quizzically at you after you don't reciprocate!), and I don't attend any of the ISO meetings (formal or informal) either. Let's face it: Indians (not just Bengalis) are an intrinsically clannish species, especially when we're abroad. There's nothing really wrong in that - in fact, it's quite natural to want to ally yourself with like-minded people... but when that clannish-ness is on the basis on etnnicity or skin color or regional roots, can that be construed as racist?... and does that give the impression to the larger community (be it White, Black or Hispanic) that hell, these people don't want to mix with us, so we may as well treat them as Other and weird...?

The answer to both questions are decidedly problematic, and need constant negotiations and recognition. The answer is not to adopt an uncritically-in-love-with-White-people approach and abandon one's roots - and yes, I deny having done so! - and is most likely to be found in embracing Tolerance and Openness and Diversity. Big words, I know, if not in a dictionary sense then at least in real-world terms.

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When I first came to my little Midwestern university town, despite my carping and bitching about it's decidedly non-big-city status, I was pleasantly surprised (and a little impressed!) with all the polite nods and smiles I got from random strangers, while walking downtown. Perhaps it speaks to my own unresolved issues (reverse racism?) that I wasn't creeped out if a random White/Black/Hispanic guy on the street smiled at me, but it's another story if a fellow South Asian did.

Being gay added yet another weird component to the whole mix. There's a strange feeling for some of us gay Indians, when we worry about how the whole queer thing will be received by other South Asians - given the lack of familiarity about the concept back home. There's an assumption - usually premature - that Americans understand what being gay/ lesbian/ bisexual means much better than South Asians do. Almost two years hence, however, my world-view has matured somewhat. I've come to realize that not every American is clear - or comfortable - about being queer, and not every South Asian is as clue-less - or as bigoted - about it, as I might have imagined. During the past two years, as I have slowly but surely come out of the closet to the people around me - both Americans and Indians/ South Asians - I've had to negotiate and re-negotiate all the different facets of who I am - male, gay, Indian, Bengali, NRI, grad student - continuously, both consciously and unconsciously, for myself as much as for those around me and those I have come out to. To use an awful pun, it's clearly not been a quick 'race' to the finish, more like a slow, important process, with often unclear dividends at every turn.

When I think of the racial attacks on Indians in Melbourne or Sydney or anywhere else, the first question that usually pops up is why. Obviously, that's not an easy or small question, by any standards, but it does deserve some conjecture on everyone's part. Are we considered soft targets, as so many in the media seem to suggest? Are we the new representatives of a resurgent Third World, and thus the whipping boys of recalcitrant White bullies? How many of us were queer, and how many of us were straight, in these attacks and did the perceptions of being queer play a role at all? Or is it primally because we are not White?

Bottom-line: none of these are good enough reasons.

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