This past weekend, I went to a bar with my white boyfriend. We happened to meet another interracial couple: the man, an Indian born in England but raised in the states, brought along his white-American girlfriend. Before I could formally introduce myself to the white girlfriend, she and my boyfriend decided they both needed to go to the bathroom.
As I stayed outside talking to the Indian man who shared a name with my father, the white girlfriend turned to my boyfriend before entering the ladies’ room.
“We’re doing it right, aren’t we?” she said to him.
“Pardon?” he said back.
“Our partners. You know… we’re doing it right.” She winked, swung open the bathroom door and went on her merry way.
When my boyfriend came back and told me about their little exchange, he couldn’t help but emphasize how odd it was. “It’s weird she had to make a comment about you and her boyfriend being Indian,” he said. “Like, I don’t think of you as my Indian girlfriend. I just think of you as… a brunette.”
I began to go over her words in my head. Paranoia struck, and struck hard. What did she mean by “we’re doing it ‘right?'” How can she even know? I didn’t so much as say “hi” to her, which can only mean she’s making assumptions about my character based on the color of my skin. Why did she choose to see my color before my character?
Then, I tried putting myself in her shoes: if I were to have gone to the bathroom with the Indian guy, would I have made a passive-aggressive comment to him about the fact that we’re both dating white people? No, I wouldn’t have. Because white is the “norm.” Because I’m constantly surrounded by white people, and even though they look different than I do, I can identify with them because I’m also American.
But even after trying to be my most logical, empathetic self, all I could conclude was that this woman’s comment was nothing more than a microaggression. There, standing side-by-side with my loving boyfriend on the balcony of a karaoke bar, I questioned my worth: as a girlfriend to a white man, as an Indian-American woman, and as a human being.
A microaggression is “a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group (such as a racial minority).” I like to think of microaggressions as discrete forms of racism, ones that are not as jarring as a racially charged shooting of an Indian man, but that are just as impactful on both the safety and mental health of minorities.
There are subtle microaggressions and there are those that are blatant. NowThis News, an online news publisher, recently tweeted the following:
As excited as I was to see a big publisher finally recognize the importance of South Asian storytelling, I was just as let down to see the comments that followed. These comments were from people who are either ignorant, uneducated, misinformed (or all of the above) about minority representation in mainstream media:
It wasn’t a surprise to me that the comments were made by white men. And by telling us people of color that we, especially, are not entitled to have our stories told, these white men remind us of their failure to acknowledge that voices of white men have drowned out the voices of POC for decades, and that POC are practically begging white men and women in power to help them catch up for lost time.
And then, there was this comment:
Again, this person is misinformed. Yes, you nimrod, there is Bollywood. But Bollywood tells the stories of Indians living in India, while Hollywood mostly tells the stories of white people all over the world. For this reason, girls who look and think and act like me – Indian girls born and raised in Long Island, New York who oscillate between feeling more Indian-ized than Americanized and more Americanized than Indian-ized – have no such forum of representation. Girls like me count on Hollywood and Vogue and Cosmopolitan to tell stories of first-generation Americans; after all, these are the pieces of media we grew up with, fell in love with and hoped to see ourselves reflected back in.
But they all continue to fail us.
It hurts my heart to have to even write this post. It hurts to have to explain why South Asian women deserve to be represented, but it’s these microaggressions that shape the identities of first-generation Americans – or lack thereof. It’s these microaggressions that contribute a great deal to why so many of my Indian-American girlfriends have little-to-no sense of self: because we are made to feel as though we’re nameless, faceless.
The theory goes something like this: if women like me were given a place to be just as seen and just as heard as white people, then we’d become part of the “norm” just like that Indian man’s white girlfriend, and we wouldn’t get hot flashes every time we went to a majority-white gathering with our white boyfriends. People wouldn’t be shocked or scared or threatened by us. They’d welcome us freely, treat us respectfully…
and, well, we’d love ourselves just a little bit more.