How Brown is My Navel – Part 1

Off and on, I’ve been asked about how I want The West to react to some such thing I’m doing. I was asked here and in a forthcoming interview (that I shall link to later in my shameless self-promotion habit, when it’s up).

And then, I’ve been reading some things about race, tokenism, colonialism, feminism and the internet. And I have been having thoughts.

The thoughts I’m having are not so much about this current blogsplosion (which I don’t usually refer to at all but follow kind of avidly really), but about race and the relevance of the term for the kind of work I think I do.

So here are some thoughts-in-progress.

1. Expat

I’ve realized recently in a way that I didn’t before that there’s a vast difference between the US South Asian and the subcontinental South Asian. Maybe this is obvious, but maybe it’s not. But I realized it when I wrote a scathing and angry critique of Yoni Ki Baat for GlobalComment at one point and, in the responses of the creators of that project, realized that we were operating from very different premises.

My experience of South Asian identity in the US has been one of unification. Where the sub-continent is deliberately divided into is constituent countries and those national identities are virtuously adhered to, in the US, boundaries are erased and everyone’s a Desi or a South Asian.

Desi is a racial category. It signifies people from the sub-continent. It calls up brown skin and black hair. It is dominated by Indian identity, but it consists of Pakistanis and Indians primarily.

I don’t know if Desi includes Bangladeshis or Nepalis or Sri Lankans in the same way, or if in the US those points of origin fall under the category of  South Asian. I don’t know the nuanced difference between American South Asian and American Desi. Is South Asian also racial? Probably, but it’s also more. It’s an umbrella of some sort, but I’m not sure what sort.

The reason I can’t go further than this is that I’m decidedly not a South Asian American. Which is to say that, while I am South Asian, while I am Pakistani, while I am also American, and while I am mixed-“race” and mixed-nationalities, I am definitely not a South Asian American because in order to be a South Asian American or a Pakistani American, it seems imperative that one be in the United States. The identity [Ethnic]-American requires residence in and a primary dealing with the US context.

I am asserting this because, in contrast, in Pakistan, I’m half-gori. Or my mother’s American. My identity here is racialized to whiteness, but it’s not the same whiteness that I have when I’m in the States. There I am a light-skinned brown person of ethnic and Muslim origin, and therefore a kind of peripheral subject. Here I am a light-skinned Pakistani of Amreekan ancestry, but not peripheral as a result. Having an American mother does not trump having a Pakistani father or a regular Pakistani accent or fluent Urdu.

In the US, my ethnicity and religious identity marginalize me, and racialize me. Here, I have always been racialized, but that racialization doesn’t consistently marginalize me. Often it privileges me. Sometimes it does marginalize me, or at least put me on the back foot. Occasionally it combines with gender, and then it certainly marginalize me. Mostly it doesn’t matter. I’m gori, but I’m not not-Pakistani.

Gori is a racial characteristic. But race doesn’t mean here what it means in the US.

So, what’s the point? I guess to extricate one kind of Desi from another, one kind of South Asian from another. South Asians in South Asia identify by their national origin. Using the umbrella of South Asian usually comes difficult and it comes with conditions attached, and a time limit. “We will be South Asian for this conference or this SAARC summit or this project we have going together, but when it’s over, I’m Pakistani, you’re Bangladeshi, you’re Indian and we’re all going home now, thank you very much.”

In the US, it seems to be an ethnic and/or racial identity in the face of a larger hegemonic identity of whiteness.

Is that because the whiteness is up close? It’s not like the subcontinent doesn’t deal with the hegemony of the US. But perhaps it is about which hegemony is closer because if you’re using your national identity, that means you’re asserting yourself in the face of someone else’s national identity and so their race doesn’t matter. Whereas if you’re using your race, it means you can cross or have already left behind (to some extent) national borders and the relevance lies with the racial identity that is the South Asian (brown) (desi) person.

It occurs to me, however, that this definitional exercise is in itself bound up with the White-and-American-centred push to define non-white non-American subjects. By the very nature of this definitional process, I am and we are thrown into a world in which the ultimate centre resides in the US.

What I’m trying to do here is say that US South Asians and subcontinental South Asians are not the same thing at all times. A project like Yoni ki Baat (which is how this whole thought process got started for me) needs to acknowledge that, when it’s talking about South Asian, it’s not talking about every kind of South Asian. That a “South Asian” project initiated in the US has to be aware of its own circumstance.

There is a corresponding blind spot, I think, in subcontinental notions of South Asian projects that don’t acknowledge diasporic concerns. That imagine that if there is peace on the land here, there will be peace between people there and that if there is war here, there will be war there, as if the diaspora is a mirror of the “real” South Asia. There is no greater reality to either South Asianness.

Up next:

2. Islamophobia and Racism

3. White Skin Privilege

4. Talking to “The West”

Stumble it!


#1 Urmila on 03.02.09 at 3:45 pm

Last year I was invited to a conference on racism and hegemony in Asia. The organisers had invited people from the ‘diaspora’ (me and a guy from the USA). I not only noticed the difference between the perspectives of the diaspora and people based in Asia themselves, but also between the US perspective and my German one. I kept on asking myself what could be a common link between us (other than an imagined essentialist Asianness).

#2 fathima on 03.02.09 at 7:57 pm

this was excellent — or maybe i’m only saying that because it brings up a lot of the things i’ve been thinking about wrt constructions of south asian identity.
speaking as a Sri Lankan, as someone who identifies as both Tamil and Muslim (conflictedly in both instances), as a resident of Canada (or, more specifically, Toronto), and thus a member of the (a?) Lankan diaspora, all these issues of needing locate oneself and identify specific contingencies are familiar to me.
it’s true, i feel alienated by the word “Desi” — it privileges a specific linguistic heritage and with it assocated cultural trappings. and so i prefer to use “South Asian,” but most of all i just like to be blunt (coarse?) and say “brown” — which i use specifically within a NAmerican context to highlight the tangibility of racial and cultural presence and the ways in which (perceived) skin colour often trump the nuances of inter-cultural difference.

#3 Feminist Review on 03.12.09 at 8:01 pm

Thank you for this post, Kyla. It really brings out a lot of the complications of ideas of race and ethnicity and discrimination vs privilege and difference vs. sameness, which are important discussions that are (largely) not being had.

#4 belledame222 on 03.16.09 at 2:12 am

-nodding along to all this-

I expect there’s a similar disconnect with a lot of hyphenated U.S.Americans of various origins and people who actually live in/are from that other country.

I had a (family) friend visiting from Argentina on an author’s circuit who was talking about this a bit, how she was staying with this other American during her tour who was very earnestly trying to reconnect with his Jewish roots. (She’s Jewish too). Like, being the uber-Jew, culturally speaking, everything was about Israel even though he’d never actually been. And she said…I forget what exactly, but something to the effect of how Americans seemed so concerned with getting it right, identity, or…something along those lines, I wrote it down somewhere when it was still fresh.

and I said something to the effect of, I think it’s because a lot of us from (various) diasporas don’t really know who we are, and sometimes overcompensate. certainly it’s at least partly a backlash to the earlier paradigm about America as a “melting pot” where you were supposed to lose your background, origin, past, to blend in.

but still i think a lot gets lost in translation, somehow.

#5 sabina on 03.26.09 at 5:46 pm

really appreciated this post, as well as the one on YKB 2008, in which I was a performer. it’s apparent that you feel marglinalized or excluded by YKB but i urge you not to generalize:

“A project like Yoni ki Baat (which is how this whole thought process got started for me) needs to acknowledge that, when it’s talking about South Asian, it’s not talking about every kind of South Asian.”

yes and no. i performed in 2008 and am directing the 2009 production. we send our call and do outreach in all sorts of SA communities, and we hear back from all sorts of SA communities. some choose to participate, others opt out. YKB doesn’t claim to represent every kind of south asian, nor does it need to make any acknowledgments to the contrary. what it does claim and uphold is an OPEN space for EVERY kind of south asian, self-identified, where you are invited in and you have a choice to speak about whatever you want. There are plenty of South Asians in this production, myself included, who were born and raised in South Asia before making the US their home.

of course, terms for South Asians are as messy as the concept itself, as you outline. We are often not sure whether we’re South Asians or Southeast Asians! But the dream is to find solidarity, rise above divisions and acknowledge a shared history and heritage without glossing over diversities and differences. this is a big task and brings big speed bumps, yes, and language is tricky. but desi means “of the land” and my punjabi friends use “apne” or “our own.” i assume there are reflections of this in other SA languages too. so even if i don’t understand the word, it’s nice to know that i’m being included, celebrated, broadly, as one of our own.

i think that’s beautiful.

#6 sabina on 03.26.09 at 6:01 pm

oh and i forgot to add that your YKB post sparked quite a debate amongst this year’s group. i really wish you were here to watch this year’s show, in which there is a direct response to your post… and in other thoughts, it would be really cool to have you involved in such projects, yoni or no yoni…

#7 kyla on 03.27.09 at 10:04 pm

sabina: thanks for your comments. i really wish i could see this year’s show as well – i’d love to see that direct response.

i understand that ykb is meant to be an open space. i also understand that over time it is evolving. my attempt, and this one more so even than the last one, is to contribute to that evolution, not to tear it down. i acknowledge that in 2008 piece, this wasn’t obvious. i’m making it obvious now.

language is tricky, but it needs its play. the openness of the space can be completely undermined by a tag or rubric that is or seems to be homogenizing. desi does that. yoni does that. it doesn’t necessarily mean that neither should be used, but that what is used should be complicated.

here, though, what i’m really saying is that there is a definite difference in the priorities and the language of those who have “made the US their home” and those who have not. i have always found this difference glossed over in US South Asian communities. I appreciate that you’ve complicated by take on it by pointing out that some South Asian Americans are born in S. Asia and others in the US – which I hadn’t acknowledged. But I stand by my larger point that the difference in language matters especially where you’re dealing with “homeland” (for lack of a better term) versus “diaspora” communities.

Best of luck for the coming production. I really wish I could have been there.

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