On Privilege, Race And Unpacking Cultural Legacies

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Late one night this week, I stood at my doorway waving my friends good bye. There was a bite in the air and a breeze that made me long for a warm wrap and perhaps a hot cup of tea. The clock showed a little past eleven. I turned the porch lights out and made my way to the basement. I cleared the table, pushed the sofa against the wall and looked around before I turned the lights out.

I rinsed out trays, packed away the remaining pieces of the vegetable puffs I had baked earlier in the day. My mind was active, the way it is after stimulating conversation. I knew I had to go to bed but I was not ready yet so I retired to my study instead. Reclining, I idly perused my social media, skimmed through and replied to emails and shut down the laptop. I sat in the dull light trying to make sense of many things.

The book we discussed was The Mothers by Brit Bennett. A book set in a small subdivision of San Diego almost exclusively populated by African Americans. The story meanders in an out of the tightly knit community. It is at times reflective, at times judgmental but mostly real. Real in a way that most other books I read don’t feel. There is nothing fanciful, no uplifting ending, no neatly tied plot resolution. I loved the book for the way it offered an immersive experience, not spelling out things for the others. It is casual, the way it shines the light on systemic injustices, on choices that are organic and the desperation that seems to permeate most of the lives the book talks about.

As we traded notes, one friend remarked she could not relate to the book as she felt far removed from it and I understood exactly how she felt. I pitched in about the ‘wake’ parents I see on transracial boards when they realize their children are are being pulled over, followed in the stores and being targeted just because of the color of their skin.  The conversation felt awkward at times, like dipping toes into uncharted territories. There was so much I wanted to talk about but felt hesitant to bring up for fear of sounding resentful.

A day later, I sat late into the night again with a different set of friends with whom I share a common upbringing. We talked about politics, race and prejudice. For probably the first time in my life, I vocalized the privilege I experienced as a brahmin in India. The kind of things I took for granted, the ease with which I assumed things would work. The accommodations people made for me without having to ask for it. The way friends would feel defensive about eating non vegetarian food alongside me.

The conversation went on to include self deprecating jokes and we kept the banter light. Under the surface though simmered an altogether different conversation that was the result of moving from privilege to being at the receiving end of racism.

In the calm of the evening after my friends have stepped out, I hear my children playing in the basement oblivious to the kinds of things they will experience as they grow up. Two of them being insulated by the color of their skin and the third being defined by it. We talk about race in simple terms at home and the idea of being Indian by heritage and American by birth is hard to comprehend.

Mostly the twins refer to the three of us (Laddu, Saathi and I) as Indians and to themselves as Americans. Digging a little deeper, I find they equate white with being American. I reason, I challenge their assumptions but most of all I am stumped by how this happened despite being aware of what we talk about and what we consume on TV.

A day later, a lot of the thoughts whirling in my mind are a jumble with no coherent threads. The overlap between being raised as a brahmin and now raising children of different races leaves me unsettled. It makes me realize there is much to unpack, deconstruct and understand. I struggle with trying to put into words all that I feel.

Any links to people, resources that will help me gain an understanding much appreciated.

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10 thoughts on “On Privilege, Race And Unpacking Cultural Legacies

  1. I thought I understood but I realize I don’t – I mean your dilemma. May be next time we catch up we can discuss?

  2. You are so strong and are facing so many challenges. I wish I could say that love will conquer all, but the world defines us in so many ways and love, no matter how unfailing, often gets pushed aside and swept away. Stay strong.

    1. Thank you! Love does conquer much but this is more about parenting and raising aware children in some sense. To see the change we want in our lives, we should start at home right? Except in this case, I feel I have to first understand where I fit in and where I should start. With myself obviously. 🙂

  3. I really have no answers to this dilemma, Laksh. You’re right in talking about things the way you do and unpacking questions. I hope you find the answers you need. Hugs coming your way.

  4. I can’t help you with your problem, because it is so alien to me (and most others, I am sure). I hope you can find an understanding of it.
    However, in India, racism is in full force and has always been. I am surprised that you thought you were privileged in being Brahmin. I always felt ostracised for being one – starting from the difficulty in getting college admissions, to the overt “Iyer voottu kutty” eve teasing (I invariably corrected them to “iyengar voottu kutty”, sometimes in my head, and in non-threatening situations, to the perpetrator himself ;), I have always been uncomfortable about my birth caste.
    My daughter is Indian, and born to parents from identical backgrounds. She is, however, oblivious to caste. She knows by name what caste she belong to, but has no other inkling of what it involves. Perhaps the insulation comes from living in a cosmopolitan academic township. I wonder how it is outside here.
    But I suppose my comment has nothing to do with your post. I am an irritatingly compulsive commenter 🙂

    1. LG, What I meant by privilege is that distinct deference that your food choices have over others. It is being fawned over for skin color. It is about assuming you are brilliant because you are a brahmin. I am not saying all of us have had the same experience. I have experienced a few things that have made me uncomfortable. I have also seen my family (older generation) practice bigotry towards the house help and anyone who was not brahmin. I hated it, it made me uncomfortable but I never spoke out assuming these things will never change. This week just talking about it brought out many things I had stuffed deep inside. Having gone to college in Coimbatore, I have experienced what you said about being “iyeru” or condescending comments about the way I speak. But, they have been less of an issue with me than the things I saw within the family.

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