Person of colour

Race is a brutal imposition on identity

Editor's Note: The recent spate of racially-motivated attacks against Indians in the US has raised several troubling questions. The principal among these produced by heightened xenophobia; go back to your country. Firstpost set out to interrogate the messy, complex and dislocated experience of being Indian in America; is this my country? The series that resulted, Homeland, is a compendium of interviews, analyses and opinion pieces.

In this, the sixth part, read about what it means to be a 'person of colour'


Over the course of this series, I have had many conversations with people about the distinctions between culture and race. Curiosity led me to the US Census categories of race through history.

The US Census originally had three categories: free whites, all other free persons, and slaves. In 1950, the census bureau moved to a model of self-identification. For the first time, people were able to select their race on the form. (It should be noted that they weren’t quite sure how Indian identity fit this racial system. Indians were to identify as “Hindu”, regardless of religion.) It is telling that race, though the concept is as old as this country, was never a means of self-identification. To strip people of their tribal and cultural identity during the forced migration of the enslaved was a deep and horrible violence. Blackness originally came to fill this void that could not be filled. Initially, race was used to justify so-called physiological differences between people in order to justify slavery and colonialism. The strictures of race force everyone to participate in the messy remnants of this oppressive system.

Moving from race to ethnicity is also complicated. Last week, Nikesh Shukla, author of “The Good Immigrant,” spoke about the complications of his identity on the Allusionist podcast. Though he is of South Asian origin, he grew up in Britain. His mother was born and raised in Yemen and his father was born and raised in Kenya. So where is he from? And when people ask him this question, what answer are they expecting. He points out that they want him to say that he is Indian, and that the question is only posed because of the colour of his skin. People wouldn’t ask a first-generation German immigrant with a seamless British or American accent where they are from. “At what point do we become British?” he asked.

What if someone left France for the United States? Are they more likely to be assumed American than a third-generation Mexican-American? What does it mean to be Mexican-American when you didn’t cross the border but the border crossed you? What does it mean to be an indigenous person on conquered land? What does it mean to be “Indian” for that matter? India didn’t come to exist as India until 1947. Ultimately, these identities are political.

We are constantly dissolving and constructing identities for swathes of people, often for bureaucratic purposes, often to make it easy to dismiss certain people. Race is the most base of categorisations because it is pre-loaded with inequality. Separate never meant equal. If we didn’t have such a disproportionate allocation of resources and manufactured scarcity (of jobs, of food, of shelter), would we need race? If some people hadn’t been enslaved, would we have needed to use gradations of skin color to categorise ourselves?

Race is constructed and ever changing to meet the demands of the system. We’ve moved from “whites and non-whites (free and slaves)” to the five categories we have now, but how much has changed when your own society projects a certain (lesser) identity upon you?

Culture is different. Culture and heritage are willingly inherited. They are received from our affiliations with communities. Culture is shared and in that sharing, regenerated and reproduced organically. Culture exists and changes between people. It exists in a mutual and chosen identity. Race is imposed upon people. Culture is our warm and gentle sea of origin while race is branded on our backs.

I have some connection to my cultural history and roots and have lived a life of connection to this culture. Before I had this political identity, I had a childhood that felt isolated in some ways, but also wonderful and connected to something big. But I wonder how my future children, twice removed from this heritage, will feel when they are asked “Where are you from?” and are expected not to say “here.”

The reason why I didn’t realise that I was a “person of colour” until I was older was that I didn’t understand my political role in this world. As South Asian – Americans, we do not realise we are “people of colour” until it dawns on us. It is a cruel process. We spend our childhoods feeling a little excluded. Usually, it’s a pointed comment here and there. It’s tightness in our parents’ faces when words that we couldn’t understand as children are exchanged over our heads.

Being a person of colour is an understanding that whether you’re a “dothead” or an “illegal,” you are in some way vulnerable to individual and systemic violence and coercion because you were born looking a certain way. Being able to self-identify as a “person of colour” is a stepping-stone but it is hardly freedom.

Images Credit: Reuters and Getty Images


Read part one: Go back to your country

Read part two: Subdrift: Indian Americans find a sense of community

Read part three: Republican Hindu Coalition: A misguided sense of community

Read part four: It's not a turban, it's a crown

Read part five: The economic history of hate

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