Must I Be a POC? / Sreshta Rit Premnath

Lasercut Rubber
Sreshta Rit Premnath, 2012
The following is part of a forum on Asad Haider’s Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump. To read the editor’s introduction to the series, click here.

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During a racial justice training session, attended by those who needed it least, we were asked to recollect the first time we had thought about our own race. For me, that was probably in my late teens, when I moved from Bangalore to Cleveland and suddenly felt the color of my skin through the glances of others. But if I had been asked when I first thought about privilege and discrimination, I would have placed that date much earlier.  

Economic class was an unspoken category in my sheltered, Hindu Brahmin family in Bangalore. The social category of Brahmin in India is arguably equivalent to that of being white and middle-class in the US. I went to an alternative school that encouraged the arts–a place that very few could access or afford–where I dreamed big dreams about my future. The world was my oyster. But even in my relatively privileged and liberal milieu, I certainly noticed and worried about those who were underprivileged. I was surrounded by people who were actively involved in social justice and environmental justice work, whether they were literacy programs or reforestation initiatives. While we participated in and reproduced the unequal relations that structured our society, we were not oblivious or passive in our relation to that reality.

While we lived a comfortable life in India, the need to leave the country to make a career was deeply ingrained, and with it the acceptance that the country’s weak currency would mean a steep downgrading of one’s lifestyle as an immigrant elsewhere. The same people who had servants tending to their needs in India would happily work as waiters in the US while getting an education. To be in the US, let alone to become a citizen, was in itself a symbol of status. Today, half of my high school class lives in the US or Europe. Economists call this “brain drain”—the flow of young, academically promising people, often from the middle and upper classes of society out of “developing” countries and into “developed” ones.  Still, the effort it took to leave one’s country and its comforts for the unwelcoming shores of the US was seen as a small price to pay for future gains.

Perhaps it was for these reasons that I was unaffected when another patron at the Cleveland Museum of Art, where I worked as a security guard, spoke slow and loud to me as if I were a child. My own privileged background veiled by my economic standing in the US wrote this behaviour off as another confirmation of American provincialism. And when I was later complimented on my English, I had adopted the simple retort that “India was colonized by England for five centuries, so yes, I speak the language quite well.” In the late 90’s no one had taught me about racial microaggressions, and I had come to expect a certain degree of humiliation as part and parcel of the immigrant experience. It began with my treatment at the American Consulate in Chennai where I applied for a student visa and was interviewed through bulletproof glass, and it was repeated by immigration officers every time I re-entered the country. Friends in college, whose only frame of reference for their new Indian classmate was Apu from The Simpsons, did not help the situation much either.

Interactions like these revealed a willful ignorance on the part of most Americans regarding the rest of the world (save North-Western Europe) and most White Americans about how to engage with cultural difference, or even with those who just looked different from them. A difficulty that recursively produced a sense of guilt amongst liberal white people who felt unsure of their complicity with a fundamentally racist society, still reeling from the LA Riots and the O.J. Simpson trial. This difficulty bubbled up as an uncomfortable anxiety in mainstream American comedy in the 90’s and early 2000’s, whether it was Babu, a caricature of a Pakistani immigrant in Seinfeld; Fez, the horny foreign exchange student in That 70’s Show who is a brown foreigner of unknown origin; or a Diversity Day gone awry on The Office. Each show seems unsure about how to cast a character who doesn’t fit the imagined racial dichotomy of America and ends up using the character as a foil for the surrounding white characters to play out their fantasies, attempt to redeem their guilt, and then go about their lives, quickly and blithely forgetting their failure.

Consider Babu Bhatt, a Pakistani character played by the Israeli-English actor Brian George, who becomes Seinfeld’s obsession. Bhatt has opened a generic restaurant across the street from Seinfeld’s apartment and is not getting any customers. Seinfeld theorizes that the lack of ethnic focus in Bhatt’s menu is the cause of his cafe’s failure. He imagines Bhatt unable to send back money to his poor family in Pakistan (Jerry somehow gets the country right) and later advises him to focus on his native cuisine, which Bhatt does only to fail once again and lose his business altogether. Jerry compares Babu’s fate with that of “a spider in the toilet struggling for survival–even though you know he’s not going to make it, you root for him for a second.” Elaine’s dismissive retort is “…and then you flush.” This was the fate of the clownish ethnic stereotype, something pitiable that warranted a little attention but nothing more. It is an unfortunate fact that this stereotype has continued to define Brian George’s career.

While the homogenizing force of racial stereotypes is indefensible, there is an unintended positive side to misidentification. Taking a cab home to Brooklyn from the airport I find myself engrossed in long conversations with the driver, who is often South Asian. They begin something like this: I am asked where I am from. I say India, Bangalore, to cut to the chase. There is silence, so I ask the driver where he is from. He says Pakistan, near Lahore, or Bangladesh, near Dhaka, as the case may be. He then hastens to add: “What difference does it make, brother?” I agree, here in the US it makes no difference at all, but back home people are killing each other over it. Brothers through the eyes of others. How beautiful it is to be misidentified and thus to be othered into unity.

In the 80’s we had only one TV channel in India: the government run national channel Doordarshan, which broadcast from the early hours of the morning until late at night. Programming gaps were filled with national integration songs. Ek Aur Anek (The One and the Many) taught the virtues of unity in a country of diverse languages and religions. Mile Sur Mera Tumhara (Let Your Song Merge with Mine) appeared to fill any length of time necessary and featured musicians singing the same words in fifteen Indian languages to the same tune. Language and religion were the most significant markers of difference in a country attempting to imagine itself as unified only decades into its independence, with the wounds of religious hatred always ready to erupt into communal violence. While it is often argued that the embers of religious difference are stoked into flames only to distract from the more insidious and fundamental inequality in India, that of economic class and access to resources, it would be naive to not realize that these axes of difference are often mapped onto one other. It is because a certain social group is socially privileged that its members are likely to have more access to wealth and resources, and it is the discrimination that is attendant to these differences that sparks sectarian anger and violence. Within Hindu communities class differences could be mapped onto caste hierarchies, which remain culturally robust despite being constitutionally outlawed. By constantly calling out religious and linguistic difference, only to preach their equality, those same axes of difference are reiterated and cemented. Conversely, not acknowledging caste and class discrimination as real and alive allow them to be practiced out in the open.

If to be racially marked means to be other than white, then most people in the world are “of color.” But to be brown in a country of brown people does not guarantee equality, respect or dignity because there are other markers or difference and other reasons for discrimination that shape social hierarchies, which are often reproduced in their respective diasporic communities. A case in point is the current Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, who espouses a hard right Hindu fundamentalist social agenda and receives a great deal of financial and political support from the Indian diaspora in the US. It goes without saying that political difference—my brief cab communion aside—continues in diaspora, and I am not among Modi’s supporters.

It is this simple point that concerns me in the current use of the phrase “People of Color,” or POCs, in America to imagine a homogeneity of experience that binds people who are not white. It is a homogenization produced by a country mostly unaware of the rest of the world (even as it invades many of these countries either militarily or economically), and reified by those non-white people from diverse backgrounds who have internalized this abstraction. To rethink how solidarity must be forged between individuals and groups also means being attentive to multiple axes of commonality and difference that cut across categorical positions defined by the hegemonic discourse.

I have often felt uncomfortable in my own academic setting about the establishment of so-called safe spaces for POCs, which are often separatist and bar white people from entering. It is not the barring of whites that worries me, however. It’s the inclusion of myself in such a group. It is simply disingenuous for me to consider myself a victim in this society and pretend to have had similar experiences as members of African American communities that have experienced and continue to experience institutionalized violence and incarceration, or those others who have fled war or poverty to find refuge in America. I stand in solidarity with them, but it would be misleading to state that my lived experience is of the same kind.

One pitfall of this conflation is clearly seen in the anti-affirmative-action lawsuit filed against Harvard University by the conservative lawyer Edward Blum on behalf of Asian-American students, claiming that Harvard discriminates against this group of students because of their ethnic background. What Blum learned from his loss in a prior case in which he argued that a white student, Abby Fisher, had been discriminated against and denied admission due to the affirmative action admissions policy of the University of Texas, was that he had selected the wrong plaintiff. Cleverly using a blind spot of American identity politics, which conflates black and Asian students under the title “students of color,” Blum is making an alliance with Asian Americans in his racist agenda of undoing affirmative action, and those Asian Americans who support this alliance cannot be considered innocent victims either.

I do not wish to casually poke holes in a form of solidarity amongst people engaged in anti-racist struggles, but rather to suggest that paying attention to the fact that the varied forms of solidarity that bind us in some ways are coupled with forms of privilege that divide us. By reifying the imagined category of race as being the primary axis of privilege we not only mistake adversaries for allies, but also alienate potential allies who could join us in anti-racist politics. To fully self-identify with categories that we have been interpellated into, and to retreat and speak from positions of relative victimhood, is to reify an identity that must in fact be counter-interpellated and undone. The misunderstood homogeneity amongst white people that is perpetuated by the ideology of white supremacy, forces into existence its mirror image, People of Color.

It is sometimes said that the universality of class underlying all other differences offers a way to move beyond identity politics. But since universals beget competing universals, I believe this to be a false step. I have insisted here on the multiplicity of my own experience, and, in so doing, insisted on the multiplicity of others’. I am not claiming a new universality but rather insisting on nuance and complexity as the only mode of being. I want to find language for such complexity and remain with its difficulty.