Why I’m OK Being White

In the past couple of years I’ve noticed that many caucasian people I’ve come in contact with are experiencing a growing discomfort with being white. Something within us feels a bit guilty, like we are the ones who have caused the world’s problems. We think of the Nazis, the British in India, slavery in the US, and remember all the times in history that white people have made non-white people’s lives miserable.

Authors Paula Harris and Doug Schaupp have so appropriately named this comfort “Great White Guilt” in their book Being White: Finding our Place in a Multiethnic World. This feeling makes us feel like somehow our ancestors were responsible for suffering in the world and that we today are responsible. We hear the voices from the from the outside world, and the more powerful feeling from within. Something that tells us that being white is not OK.

In my community, I spend time with a lot of non-white people, and the white people I do spend time with behave with some level of “brownness.” There are some people who I meet who it is so obvious they are trying to fit into a brown culture that they’ve totally lost themselves. And I don’t blame them, because it is very easy to. I lived in India for a number of years and there was a lot to pressure to “be Indian”. To dress Indian, to eat Indian, to walk Indian, to talk Indian. There was simply no other right way, and when nearly everyone in society corrects your “white behavior”, the pressures wear on you. Finally, you start to think less of yourself and question if being white is really OK. Then you feel that being who you are is wrong or shameful. Being white becomes not OK.

I’ve been told many times that I am a “white Indian.” I used to take this as a compliment as I had worked very hard to learn the Hindi language and adopt certain lifestyle changes in order to survive in India. They eventually became a part of me. Now when someone says that, it bothers me. Why?

There is a theory called the “Coconut Generation” where it has been said that some Indian American kids are “brown on the outside, white on the inside”. I find a growing trend of white people who somehow are striving for the opposite “white on the outside and brown on the inside.” Personally, I think it is a short-sighted and an awfully one dimensional way to look at a person or to view oneself.

Cross cultural change is good and important. We need to learn about each other’s lives. Adopt behaviors which come to us naturally, enjoy each other’s cultures and be comfortable in our own skin.

As we think about atrocities like slavery in the US, the British occupying India, and the holocaust, we have to consider that these atrocities were caused by white people who oppressed others out of fear because they were insecure in their own racial identity.

I’m writing this because I think that white people need to move past “Great White Guilt” and move into healthy reconciliation. There are lots of reminders and pressures in this world to make us feel guilty for bad things that white people have done in the past. We don’t have to deny this and disassociate completely. Realize that you can do your part in creating positive change in society, but don’t try to be someone else while doing it. Be yourself. Be white.

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The New America at the Laundromat

There are a few places where I like to go to people watch and reconnect myself with the ever changing population of my urban neighborhood. There are some places that are thriving with life, freshness, and diversity. The Laundromat is one of these places where one can keep their finger on the pulse of “the New America”.

Few places in this country allow you to see the real grit and hardship of people. The fights they choose to pick in public, the dirty laundry they bring in, the things they keep themselves busy with while waiting for their laundry to spin…

A tragic but telling story unfolded before my eyes a few months ago. Dozens gravitated to the laundromat on a Friday night, slowly trudging in with huge bags of dirty laundry. A Pakistani mother in law/ daughter in law dragged a week’s worth of clothing, bedsheets and cloth diapers. A single African American mom fed her kids Cheetos and Mountain Dew for dinner while her hands worked almost disconnected folding clothes while keeping her eyes glued to the TV monitor above. Some brought in carts, while others dragged cotton bags across the busy streets. Around 10:00pm, two gang members rushed in chasing a teenage boy of a different color. The boy had no shirt and was running at full speed. He came for refuge, but what he got was a beating. Dozens of us stood in shock as the two boys beat this boy to the ground. Blood gushed from his nose and after about 30 seconds some other men stepped in and starting yelling. The two gang members sprinted off, banging the glass doors on the way out, and the rest of us stood in shock, some trying to mind their own business, while others looking wide eyed trying to memorize the culprits’ features so that we could report them to the police.

The Somalian woman across from me paused her phone conversation, as she stood motionaless in a purple polyester burkha with her phone tucked into the side of her hijaab next to her right ear. The Latino twins that were previously enamored with the telenovela playing at maximum volume on the TV mounted on the wall, stared at the bloody teen while their popcicles dripped on the floor, mouths hung open in shock. After about 20 minutes, the cops showed up, took the boy’s story, and took him off to a safe place. We all breathed a little easier.

Some call my community in Chicago a melting pot. I’d call it more of a stew pot. Everyone is thrown together, but people often keep separated. Indians over here, the Orthodox Jews over there, The West African Muslims over there. Living in a community where many people are FOBs (fresh-off-the-boat), sometime the FOB mentality never goes away. People recreate a community where their ethnic group is safe, protected, and free. When outbursts like this occur, you can almost feel the stereotypes of other ethnic groups being reinforced and prejudices forming. I almost wonder if our little ethnic communities are more harmful than helpful. Are they breeding grounds for prejudice, fear and stereotypes? I think about that boy and realize the impression he made on all of us at the laundromat. Will we harbor fear and anxiety about ethnic groups that we are afraid of? Or will we let it go?

Why I Found NBC’s “Outsourced” Irrelevant

A lot of people have asked me over the past year:

“What do you think of the show Outsourced?”
“Did Outsourced really depict India?”
“Is the work environment in India really like that”

In the beginning NBC had a lot of potential material to work with. Most Americans are curious about exotic India. A fascinating world of elephants, masalas, chaotic traffic patterns, and sarees…and almost every American has had the experience of call center frustrations. How are these two worlds compatible?

As frustrated as Americans are about calling a call center, most Indians who work in a call center are equally as frustrated. Long hours. working at night, dealing with rude ethnocentric people. There was A LOT of potential material that could have been used for the TV program.

Creative Downfall

I understand the “Office-like” concept of the show. Overstretching stereotypes to the point that everyone feels uncomfortable with the overly awkward dialogues. You laugh at the expense of the characters and ‘foot in mouth’ outbursts.

But the script writers ran out of intelligible content fast. Then the show digressed to blatant sexual humor, and overstretching some very untrue stereotypes. It simply became a trashy “America Pie” type of show.

I don’t know why, but I had a vague hope that this would be something that lightly poked fun at common stereotypes and helped people understand cultural differences.

Harmful Stereotypes Reinforced

From someone who lived and worked in India for a number of years….If anyone behaved like Charlie or Todd, you won’t survive.

Yes, we know that America is far more open with our lack of shame. But do we need to make each episode a moral debauchery of Americans?

Bachelor parties? An Australian mother and an American call center manager having a rendevous in plain sight on an balcony above a busy Indian market? Sleeping with the boss then bragging about it in the workplace? The blatant sexuality was too much. Even for American TV.  Americans already have to deal with some Indians assuming we are all morally inferior, un-spiritual, hypocrites. Why would we air a show that projected this harmful and untrue stereotype?

As in most declining TV shows, dirty humour is used as a sad replacement for clever witty interactions. Another cheap American show filled with filth to get ratings and attempt to entertain viewers with false stereotypes.

Character Flaws

Least Realistic/ Most Exaggerated Characters:

  • Charlie– The awkward American cowboy, perverted borderline sex offender. I’m met very few of them in life. And certainly none in India.
  • Tonya- Obviously she was a complete skank and too undignified to be believable. If a woman behaves like that in India without a support system, she will most likely have her ‘easy going’ attitude broken by perverts grabbers on the street, or possibly even become the victim of rape. The show portrayed her as a happy go lucky professional who seemed to bounce back from any situation. Not possible.
  • Rajeev — His character was far too articulate for someone who would typically be so closed minded and money hungry. Like an Indian Michael Scott, he was far too verbally abusive to be real.

Semi-Realistic/ Semi-Exaggerated

  • Aasha- You will find some confused Desi women caught in the middle of a modern and traditional world, but her Indian accent was so bad it was hard to ever believe her character. Sorry Rebecca Hazlewood. Stick to British films next time.
  • Todd– The football loving American boy that just wants to watch football and hook up with pretty women certainly exists, but don’t last long in India. Generally his open romantic relationships would have gotten him a lot of disrespect from subordinates rather than being the fun loving boss that the show depicted.
  • Manmeet– The awkward and womanizing cassanova definitely exists. Men who want to be a stud, but not sure how. Manmeet was too openly determined and eager. You will find sneakier versions of this character in real life. People who behave this week behind closed doors, but are ashamed to openly talk about it.

Most Realistic Characters/Least Exaggerated characters

  • Madhuri–The shy and naive woman is the fact that a lot of Indian woman like to put on. I found her to be one of the most loveable characters as she would occasionally let her fun side come out.
  • Gupta–His character was realistic to the point is that this is how some 14 year old boys behave in India, not 30 year old men. His charming sense of humor was the only thing that kept the show going for a few months. He was a partially embodied “Michael Scott” of the show. The man that refuses to grow up.
  • In short…

    I had hopes in the beginning….and was ashamed in the end.

    The show reinforced harmful stereotypes of Indians being bobbleheaded order takers. AND Westerns being moral bottomfeeders that slept around with every living breathing human available.
    This is not the message that our world needs today. Thankfully the American public is smarter than that, got bored with it, and the show got cancelled. One less cheap show with worthless content crowding the airwaves.

Cultural Values in Kids’ Movies

Movies reinforce ideas of family, culture, and societal expectations to kids, but especially they reinforce expectations of love and relationships. If I ever had doubts about this, they vanished last night as I watched “Shrek Forever After”. An innocent kids movie, as I watched it I realized how much these kids of movies subconsciously influence kids in their expectations of how relationships work.

In this movie, Shrek is trying to win back his wife Fiona after a confusing bout with Rumpelstiltskin. Due to a magic spell, she doesn’t know who Shrek is and he has to convince her that he knows her and in a previous time they were in love.

One dialogue goes something like this:

“Fiona I know everything about you.

I know that when you see a shooting star you close your eyes and make a wish.

I know that you don’t like the covers over your feet when you sleep.

I know that you only like grape jelly, not strawberry on your toast.”

Notice that every single statement is a very personal and focused on her as an individual.

My husband laughed out loud and made the comment: “In knowing so much about her, he didn’t say anything about her family, her upbringing, or her education.”

He was right. In America our love stories are based on affection between two people. A common understanding. The here and now.

Often times our view is, if you find someone who can understand you completely and that you get along with, those are real signs of a long lasting relationship. But is that a faulty expectation that comes out of our individualistic culture? These simple quote from a movie are small pointers to individualistic values communicating through film when it comes to love and relationships.

Imagine this same dialogue in an Indian (communal) context:

“Fiona I know everything about you:

I know that your mother made you moolee parantha every morning for breakfast.

I know that you got your family wanted you to go to IIT, but you did not get admission.

I know that your father had to take out a loan for your sister’s dowry that took him 13 years to pay back.”

Most likely, every statement would be family related!

I’m not saying that Indian culture is superior, just pointing out the differences in priorities and examining the differences in traditionally communal and individualistic cultures.

What do movies communicate about relationships?

After growing up in the US, I have been desensitized to see cartoon characters kissing. After several years of being immersed in Indian culture, I was very weirded out to see that they showed cartoon ogres kissing. Kissing was a central part of the story…and therefore a pointer to True Love. I never uncoded it as a kid, but now as an adult I can clearly see the message.

What kind of things are we teaching our kids with these movies? It is intended as an innocent fairy tale, but we need to be careful to make sure our kids understand that real love does not have to be wrapped up or expressed in physical affection.

And maybe we can learn to be careful what kind of values are being reinforced with film love stories like this. Is the here and now and personal preference all that matters in choosing a life partner?

Lessons on Global Competition from India

Even with the deepening of global business relationships and the influx of immigrants coming into the US, many American professionals still don’t realize how globally competitive markets really are. The past few years in the US, we’ve felt the pain of a tight job market. And I’m not convinced that my generation is prepared for the next wave of competition from abroad.

In the small town I grew up, it seemed we all deserved to be handed jobs once we graduated high school. If someone lost their job, it was NEVER their fault. And if someone’s job was outsourced, uh oh! Not fair!
Like my mom always used to tell me “Jessica, the world is not fair. Get used to it.”

But maybe the world is more fair than we think….

With the global nature of markets and the ease of communication between East and West, maybe we should seek to learn from our peers across the world who are putting in extra study time, specializing from a young age and sacrificing greatly to get ahead.

Expectations

When I lived in India, I noticed a few major differences in the way that middle class children are raised in comparison to American kids. Especially regarding the expectations that their parents have for their academic performance.

  • In America, we want our kids to be involved in activities which they enjoy. Allow them to explore their creative and athletic abilities.
  • There are no extra-curricular activities in India. After school kids go to ‘tuition’- which are extra study sessions.
  • In America we want our kids to be ‘well-rounded’.
  • In India, parents want their kids to be specialized in a steady field which guarantees employment in the future.
  • In America we want our kids to be in at least one competitive sport, and some parents push their kids to perform and compete. Parents participate in the support of athletic events and show ‘team spirit’.
  • Indian kids don’t really play sports unless its cricket (typically only boys). Girls and boys also play some light badminton on the roof of their house. They stay in their neighborhood within yelling distance of their mother. The only ‘team spirit’ that they feel is for Indian Cricket.
  • In America, the ranking and division of the sports teams are a major sway factor and reason for fame of a particular school.
  • In India, schools are known only for their academic quality and ranked accordingly.

Indian kids and American kids are happy. It all depends on cultural norms and the way the parents formulate and communicate expectations.

Desire for Security

One of the possible explanations for this Indian focus on academia is the desire for security. In America, many middle class families have grown up with a sense of financial security for generations. Our grandparents remember what it was like to live a life of uncertainty (due to the Depression), but our parents may have never been directly affected by severely tough times.
In India, the possibility of poverty  is not a distant reality. It is right here, right now. Indians are forced to face this every day as beggars and slums confront them on every time they cross the street. Striving for financial security is a must and a driving factor for most middle class Indian families.

So what can we take away from this?

The world will only become more competitive.
I think we will start seeing trends of American families who give their children a bit more guidance in academia. Clearly setting expectations of which fields they hope their children will go into. Parents will creatively find fun ways where kids can be involved in academia outside of school. Parents will allow time for sports and video games, but will set more stringent boundaries on the child’s free time.

We need to make sure that kids who grew up in America are ready for the wave of competition that is about to come. Instead of feeling entitled to a job, American kids need to be prepared to compete with peers like most middle class Indians, who started doing computer programming in 3rd grade.

Desh Hai Mera Jaisa Desh Hai Tera

The other evening as I went about my routine of making dinner.

I ran out of rice, so I went to the pantry to refill my container. I had two bags that were partially used up. One from India. One from Pakistan.

As I sat they side by side, I realized…  “These look the same. They smell the same. I bet they even taste the same.”

Something profound hit me when I poured the remained of the rice into my rice cooker. When I put them in the same pot, I could not tell the difference. They mixed in together as one. I saw no border, no color difference, no distinguishable difference.

Profound, or a coincidence?

America, Let’s Not Celebrate Yet…

As I watched videos of my fellow Americans dancing in the street in Times Square last night I had very mixed emotions.  We’ve all been affected and many of us have lost friends and family members due to the  ‘War on Terror’. The tragedies of 9/11 were unspeakable and we must never forget the lives lost. However, I believe to understand the full picture, we need to keep a global perspective.  Americans are not the only ones who have suffered.

While terrorism is never justifiable, we need to examine what else might be going on in the larger picture.

We as Americans have been directly and indirectly involved in the suffering of many other nations Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, need I go on?  Have we been just in our treatment of Muslim nations? What are the consequences of our relentless presence in Arab nations?

Followers of Radical Islam look at our actions as a reason to be upset. Bin Laden himself quoted many past American actions for cause of his anger. But are we listening?

Some Americans have seen 9/11 as the BEGINNING of the story. This is far from the truth. The attack on 9/11 is one small piece of the larger picture.

Even though Obama says “America is not against Islam.” It is hard for those who have suffered as a result of our military to understand our words when our actions have contradicted this statement.

When I asked my Pakistani friend what she thought of this statement, she shared with me:

The statement is making it on the waves but there are people who are so devastated after losing their friends and families in drone attacks in past decades and their minds are kinda shelled to make any sense of it. They just want to know why it took so long to set forward this operation while the public BELIEVES that all the agencies knew all along where Bin Laden’s hiding. We are a nation of very accomplished and educated people but some of us have fallen for the Jihadi propaganda and news channels that come up with more conspiracy theories than real news. Many refuse to see the truth because it does not fit into our anti US/ West narrative that kinda redeveloped after the failure of Bin Laden’s capture hence resulting innocent killings all over the world and mainly in Pak/Afghan. I just hope that the “America is not against Islam” statement makes its mark and get through those minds the way it is meant and not make them retaliate in a negative way.

The picture of Americans dancing and rejoicing has now been spread around the world. What kind of reaction can we predict from radicals who will see these images?

We as Americans need to individually engage and educate ourselves on what is causing this anti-Westernism. The stakes are too high to make assumptions. We need to look at the big picture of what we have done, and reevaluate our personal positions to ensure that we are not fueling an unnecessary fire.

Nomadic Professionalism and Living Cross Culturally