On minorities

Being a minority is not something I think much about anymore.  Yay, assimilation.

I grew up in suburban Jerz in an area that still had cows and farmstands to buy bottled milk and fresh produce when we first moved there.  I remember visiting the house as it was being built, my sister and I walking between the beams that separated her room from mine, not yet able to visualize having my own room as she and I had shared a room for the first 4 years of my life.  I was the only non-white Brownie and one of the youngest people in my grade; I would not know until I was 8 that my birthday was in December, and not November as my parents had told me and the school in order to get around the cut-off date.

It probably wasn’t until junior high that I observed that most of us kids of Asian and subcontinental descent were clustered in the top tracks.  We all took honors classes, and eventually AP classes in high school.  I tried to balance being good at math with cheerleading [only for 1 year] and smoking [lasted closer to 13].

I managed to not make a single Indian friend in college, though the place was teeming with Hindus.  I fell in with the film school crowd while I wrote a thesis for a European Studies degree and took theory classes for an Economics minor.  I have played a dead body, a ghost, a temptress and a little girl in student films.  My friends didn’t think of me as a minority and that may be how this happened:

Me on the E train to JFK airport as it moved farther away from the city toward Jamaica: [thinking to myself]: I’m the only white person on this train.

<beat>

Me: [thinking to myself]  Huh.  That’s not right.

Still, in the largest private university in the country, fellow students assumed I was in business school.  Once, in a park with two friends, a stranger gruffly inquired, “Hey, pretty, are you from an island?” to which I replied, “I suppose New Jersey could almost be a peninsula.”  A friend of Vietnamese descent and I were propositioned together in a bar by a group of men.    

This exchange has taken place more times than I can count:

“Where are you from?”

“I live in New York.”

“No, where are you really from?”

“OK, I live in Brooklyn.”

“No, but where are you from originally?”

“I grew up in New Jersey.”

“But before that?”

“I was born and raised in New Jersey.”

“You were born here?”

“Do you hear an accent?”

Sometimes being dusky works in my favor:  I can pull off colorful makeup without looking like a hooker, I have never been sunburned, and in my line of work, people assume I’m smart and good at math [okay, so I am decent at math, but I’m no quant].  But even in this “post-racial society,” I’m reminded of my status when people assume the friends/guys I talk about are Indian [I have 2 Indian friends and have never dated one] or ask if I know some Indian person they know [because I should know every Indian east of the Mississippi] or try to set me up with Indian guys.  Two former bosses asked if I spoke “Hindu” and tried to imitate Bollywood dancing by doing The Bangles “Walk Like an Egyptian” dance [offensive on at least two levels, although one of them is The Bangles themselves].  After Slumdog Millionaire came out, a group of co-workers approached me to ask about the Indian headbob [something I noticed and mocked at a very young age so my parents weaned themselves off it…for the most part].  I try to be away from my desk when we order Indian food for lunch in the office and to also be last to pick up my food, otherwise:

  • Someone calls me to “translate the menu”;
  • Someone refers another person to call me to “translate the menu”; and
  • Co-workers in the kitchen will ask me what is in just about every dish and how it’s made

all of which ignore the fact that India is a very large country with a diverse population, made at least somewhat obvious by well-known decades of conflict.

And these are the cosmopolitan coastal elites who look down on the rednecks in the south and the racist morons in “flyover country”.

So, this was pretty great:

But for those who think the message isn’t directed at them, it still kind of is.

More pics here.

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