I’ve been feeling very secure in my various identities lately. Even my Indian-ness and my Hindu-ness, which are things that are not a huge part of how I hold and present myself.
In the wars over cultural appropriation, I do think a lot of Indian-American anger is driven by a feeling of insecurity. We know we aren’t really Indian. Like, we go back to India, and people are like…you’re an American. There is no equivocation on their part–to them we are one hundred percent American, as much so as any white person.
So our Indianness consists of these shreds of tradition–our food, our religion–and the truth is, although we’ve done fine in America, a brown person can’t be fully 100 percent accepted as American by every American. I mean people will still ask me "Where are you from?" and if I’m visiting middle America, they might say "You speak such good English."
So when white people adopt Indian stuff, it feels like they’re taking away something we have, our culture, which we get in lieu of total Americanness. If white people can be Hindu and American, and we can’t be fully American, then what are we? Are we just worse?
But to me, it seems like the basic problem here is people trying to hold onto something they know to be false. Like, we are not Indian in the way someone who lives and grows up in India is. We wouldn’t want to be, quite frankly. I definitely wouldn’t want to be a trans woman in India…
But what we are is something that really can’t be taken away. The idea that any white person can really appropriate Indian culture is kind of laughable, to be honest. The knowledge we have is knowledge that cannot be faked. And any white person who had it would’ve needed to acquire it honestly. Like, when I try to explain how complicated colonialism is in India to my wife–how there is a holiday in Mumbai where dalits celebrate the victory of a mostly-dalit British regiment over the forces of a local King–that’s just not something that can be taken away.
I feel like if I was going around trying to claim to be something I’m not–to claim to be a practicing Hindu, to claim to be deeply conversant with our theology, to claim to speak Hindi and understand Hindi film and dance, I’d definitely be insecure. Like, yeah, there are probably a LOT of white people who understand Bollywood more than I do. And when they talk to me about Bollywood movies they liked, I’m like, I haven’t seen that movie, and I’m probably not going to. And yeah, if I’d grown up in India, I’d probably like Bollywood movies. But it’s okay. It is what it is.
To be honest, I also don’t really buy the premise that I’m not fully American. When someone is surprised I speak good English (which happens very rarely, I’ll add), I’m like…wow, you are a hick. Life, if you don’t get that America is full of brown people who are totally acculturated, then you don’t really know this country. And that person would probably agree. They’d be like, "This isn’t my country anymore." They’re more insecure than I am.
I guess what I am trying to say is that maybe people would get less hot and bothered if they weren’t trying to make claims that really didn’t entirely hold up. Like, if I claim to be the sole arbiter of Indianness, that doesn’t really hold up, and I know it doesn’t. Similarly, my life is really different from that of most trans women. I almost never get street harassment, I’m financially secure, and my family is pretty supportive. But that doesn’t mean I’m not trans. If someone was to tell me I’m somehow not queer enough, it’d be annoying, but it’d also be laughable. I felt the same way when I was a bisexual man married to a woman. Was it the same as being in a visibly queer relationship? No, obviously not. But I had still navigated queer desire, I had dated and slept with men. It was what it was! And even if I had never had romantic and sexual experiences with men, I still would’ve experienced that desire and navigated the feeling of shame and of being askew with what the world expected.
I’m not saying "We are all queer" and "We are all Indian" and "You can take as much as you want from any identity you want". What I’m saying is…people are what they are. An identity can’t be stolen. What I am can never be taken away from me. It’s when I lay claim to something I’m not, like if I was to lay claim to Bollywood, for instance, that I feel insecure.
But you can like Bollywood, you can love India and feel at home there, you can even practice Hinduism, but if you’re white, you can probably never have what I have. Which is exactly why I don’t feel the need to go around telling white people "You can never have what I have." Because it would just be petty.
Similarly, it feels like some queer people get so aggro oftentimes about bisexual women, particularly bisexual women in relationships with straight men. And it feels so petty! For one thing, there is nothing intrinsically superior about being gay or being in an opposite-sex relationship. For another, people are what they are. People in opposite-sex relationships know they’re not in same-sex relationships. The two things are different. If you know what things are, and if you know the thing you’re trying to hide or to avoid, then there’s no need to try and police other people.
I guess part of my perspective comes from being a trans woman who, if she just goes out in jeans and a t-shirt, reads as a large and not un-threatening man. It’s not crazy for a woman to feel threatened by my presence. It doesn’t mean I’m not a woman. And it doesn’t mean I need to feel bad or to cater to her feeling of being threatened. I didn’t grow up as a girl, andd I didn’t experience the first thirty years of my life as a female-bodied person. I’ve faced my own challenges, which were in some ways easier and in some ways harder than what many cis women have faced, but I understand what they were, and nobody can take the reality of those challenges away from me.
There are probably many cis women who see me, including some who are reading this, who are like, well, you’re not really a woman. And they’re thinking of some feature of their lives that I can never and will never experience. But most cis women are like, so what? You are what you are.
For me there is a lot of power in ccalling myself a woman and in laying claim to female pronouns, etc. But there’s also an ambiguity there that I can’t and don’t ignore. So when people are like, "You’re not really a woman" it doesn’t make me happy, but it also doesn’t erode my sense of self, because I know exactly what I am and what I am not, even when that knowledge can’t be articulated in precise or palatable ways.
Honestly, sometimes I feel kind of worried about people in this country. I think there are a lot of people out there who just have no idea who they are. They seem dangerously unmoored from any source of tradition or identity. And there’s really no need to be! Like, being American isn’t actually a blank slate. You’re heir to the entire English language for one thing. Read Chaucer, read Shakespeare, read old English, like I’ve been doing–it’s great. There’s a nice little identity right there. Even if you’re just the prototypical white person who’s a mix of German, Scot, Irish, Italian, and 1/16th Cherokee, you’re not a blank slate! You’re still a thing! Read on the Italian Renaissance! Read about the Irish beating back the Norman conquest over the course of four centuries. Or about Irish missionaries converting the Anglo-Saxons. Read Thomas Mann, read the Radetzky March, read Stefan Zweig. Don’t do or read any Cherokee stuff though, because people will make fun of you. You’re not nothing. You have a culture. You are special. You didn’t arrive on this earth de novo. You’re the descendent, most likely, of agriculturalists who migrated from the Near East up through Europe eight millennia ago, created an immense urban civilization, from 5500 to 3500 BC (a civilization about which we know virtually nothing), and then were conquered (just like my ancestors!) by horse nomads from the Eurasian steppe. It’s not nothing. It’s not any more or less culture than anyone else has.