All posts by Jessica Kumar

Global Nomad from birth. Indophile. Cause Marketer. Veg food lover.

Being White in India – Privilege and Power

I recently had an opportunity to share my story of racial identity. This is a much more personal blog than I usually write, so please respect my story in your comments.

Growing up, I didn’t realize white people in America had a “culture” as I was living in a fairly homogenous community. As a young child, even though I had some friends who were not white, it took me a move all the way across the world to crack open my worldview. In my early 20s, living in India, I was given the opportunity to be a minority for the first time in my life. Multiple layers of being different – from the way I looked, to the fact that I had not yet learned the local language, to the fact that I behaved differently from others around me, gave me the opportunity to stand outside of my worldview and look at it from an alternative perspective.

Aside from the stares, getting taken advantage of financially, and being asked all kinds of strange/invasive questions about my life, I realized there was something else peculiar about being white in India.

I saw what it was like to be in a position of power without having to work for it. 

julia-roberts in saree

Being a white woman gave me a status that I didn’t earn. Whether it is the history of British colonization in India or the social power of Hollywood, white equates power, wealth and beauty in the Subcontinent (none of which I was really considered to have a whole lot of in my own country.) This presented me with an internal dilemma. I didn’t feel like I identified with this stereotype of white woman “power, beauty and class,” but I wasn’t Indian either.

In Indian culture, it is often a compliment to an outsider when they are told “You are so Indian.” or “You are becoming Indian.” I also used to find this a great compliment as I was working hard to learn the Hindi language, and be able to adapt to live in India without too much unnecessary struggle. Now I find it unsettling when someone says “You are so Indian.” Because the fact of the matter is, I’m not. 

Playing skimpy Indian dress up? Or appreciating the culture?

In recent events, a white woman was sexually harassed in Mumbai and took her abuser down when her social media post went viral. News outlets ran the story like wildfire, but many Indian women were left feeling outed. “How come when we Indian woman try to do this, no one listens. One white lady posts about her harassment, and the internet lights up.”

There is a painful truth of white privilege in this story.

I think about the Indian women I know. Many who have had to overcome family expectations to delay marriage and get an education, women who struggle against stereotypes of the subservient daughter-in-law, women who bridge two worlds- fulfill family obligations and succeed in the workforce. I haven’t participated in these struggles, but still reap the benefits.

When the Rachel Dolezal scandal went down, I had an epiphany. I can actually say that some part of me related to Rachel Dolezal and her wrestle with the pain of being a white person when she so badly wanted to disconnect herself from the story of white privilege. However by pretending she was something she was not, Dolezal disrespected not only black people across our country, but herself.

When I face someone who flippantly says “You’re so Indian” I know they may actually mean “Wow, you’ve adapted very well to Indian culture,” but the comment scrapes at the root of white privilege. Making perfect rotis, speaking Hindi, wearing a saree, or even marrying an Indian – does NOT make a person Indian. One can appreciate all things Indian, while still maintaining their own identity. 

Respect for Indian people and my own family, keeps me from trying to imitate something that I am not. My family raised me with values that I deeply appreciate. I will never forget the rugged individualism and creativity that they allowed me to have – things which make me very American deep down inside. I can never forget that when I put on a saree or attend a Diwali celebration. An American is who I am, and yet I can love Indian culture and appreciate the deep traditions, history and ancient cultural practices without trying to paint on a facade of “being Indian” to be accepted.

In fact, I have so much reverence for India, that I would never flippantly claim to be Indian when I have not shared in the struggles of what that truly means.

Jai Hind! 

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Thank you to my family for accepting me and walking with me on this journey of racial and cultural identity. Thank you to my Indian friends and family who accept me for who I am and yet generously invite me to experience their culture alongside them. 

For more on my thoughts on racial identity see Why I’m Ok Being White.

5 Documentaries That Should Exist About India

Netflix has dominated the market for popularizing obscure documentaries, particularly about exotic corners of the world that the American public never even knew existed. This is my take on five documentaries that I think would be interesting and successful about India. Or maybe I’m just putting this out there because I’m curious.

The Innovative Bucket Fixers of India

One of the most unbelievably specialized jobs I’ve ever come across, the plastic bucket fixers heating-rod-supportof India embody “Jugaad.” These guys are scrappy in all the right ways. Only making a few rupees per transaction, they make a living by walking around neighborhoods and fixing plastic buckets, an item that every household has at least one of. If you’ve never been a person who has lived with the reality of the bucket bath, there are many things that could go wrong with your bucket: 1) it could burn from the electric water warming rods, 2) the handle could break, 3) it could crack – ok maybe only three things could go wrong with your bucket. I am shocked these guys even make enough to feed themselves. How do they survive? What if you miss your chance to have your bucket fixed when the bucket guy walks by? These are questions for which the world needs solid answers.

The Lifecycle of an Elephant

The Indian Elephant captures the imagination of everyone who even thinks of the exotic jungles of the subcontinent. Used for entertainment, transportation, religious purposes, weddings, and tourism, these lively beasts are one of the most fascinating animals on the planet. I want to see a documentary on all the roles elephants play in Indian society. I want to understand their intelligence, versatility, and what happens when they are abused in captivity. Think Blackfish for elephants.

Debunking Sati Sati-Ka-Yogagni-Mein-Aatmdah

The mythological story of Sati throwing herself on Lord Shiva’s funeral pyre has had more than just a place in Hindu mythological books. Reports of widows allowing themselves to be burnt alive hundreds of years ago has long plagued the minds of Westerners. For those who have more than elementary school book knowledge, we know that India is more than caste, cows and child marriage. Does sati still happen? Yes. Is it common? No.

Mussoorie, Worlds Colliding

Mussoorie has to be one of the eeriest microcosms on the planet. A hill station with stunning scenery, fresh weather and access to the plains of India, it is one of the highly coveted vacation spots for Indians and visitors alike. However, the sociological makeup of Mussoorie is one that leaves me scratching my head. As a highly accessible mountain area, many people end up there from all over the world from partying American college students doing internships at local hospitals to wandering goat herders from Garhwali villages. The Landour Language School and places lake Rokeby Manor throw you for a loop with their international guests, mingling amongst wandering Sadhus and pilgrims seeking solace in the cool foothills. The colonial history of Mussoorie hangs thick in the air along with the dense clouds that sweep your feet as you hike the mountain roads. The world needs to understand how all these people mix, mingle, and call Mussoorie their home.

An Indian Taxi Driver’s Survival in Urban America

Like any traveler, I’ve talked to a fair amount of Indian taxi drivers in various cities across the United States. On any given evening, a passenger will stories of young men who drive taxi in the evening while they study engineering at American universities during the day. One would see the crushed dreams of old men who came to the U.S. with intentions of practicing medicine in their youth, but couldn’t pass the USMLE, and ended up driving a taxi their whole lives to put their kids through college. The cabby hangouts in urban America are epicenters of conversation, food experimentation, networking, and even community development. What do these drivers see on a nightly basis? How do they interpret America nightlife when they come from some of the most conservative cultures in the world? Someone needs to take a camera, and capture these guys’ lives.

 

When you see these documentaries come out, just remember, you heard the ideas here first. 🙂