Co-opting Words

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I sat between my twins, Laddu on my knee as the opening credits for Hidden Figures rolled on the screen. Pattu jiggled her knee, a clear indication she was done waiting for the actual movie to start. I hit pause and gathered the eight-year olds close.

“This is a movie for grown-ups. There is a lot of dialogue. You can walk away anytime you are bored.”

The two nodded a little too quickly and I hit the play again.

We watched about half hour of the movie before the twins gave up. I hit stop and walked away as well. Even as the images moved on screen, I gave a running commentary on why each scene was significant. I found myself pausing, struggling for words to explain what was happening on screen, a casual dehumanizing of people of color.

I stopped every once in a while stressing how important it was to understand how much this meant for women in science and technology, especially for women of color. My words slid off my children like oil on water. They responded with platitudes.

“One must never be rude.”

“Kindness is better than rudeness”

We reached a point when I felt overcome and decided we had enough for the day.

The conversation and the accompanying feelings stuck with me. The ideas swirling in my head were deformed, half baked, snatches of thoughts.

On Twitter this morning, I stumbled on something a group of writers of color in young adult literature was discussing. It made me think of my position in the hierarchy.

I am a person of color no doubt, but my lived experiences are vastly different from what I think the term means. I grew up privileged. I never doubted my place in society. I remember being treated with deference where none was merited. I am old enough to remember being part of dinner time conversations where ‘othering’ happened. There is so much of my lived experience from the other side of the glass so to speak. There are times when I sit to write about my childhood and formative years for a memoir in the works and it is hard.

It is hard because I have to be brutally honest. I have to make peace with the person I was. I have to wonder why was it I never raised uncomfortable questions. I struggle with those silences that meant I was complicit. I abandon writing because it is overwhelming.

So, when I stumble on to conversations online and offline where I watch people like me with no lived experiences that encompass what a person of color connotes, co-opt that term, it makes me uncomfortable. There is no doubt succeeding in today’s white America as someone of color is difficult but should people who come from privileged backgrounds crowd into spaces that are distinctly different from where they come from?

Brown is different from Black. Brown is different from White. Yet, we find more overlap than distinct spaces.

As my children grow and we talk about race, how do I want them to see us fit into the big picture? Another friend on FB talks about how being colonized has erased, whitewashed and taken away identities and I nod along in solidarity but I have no idea of what it is like to grapple with the question of identity from her shoes. I have American pride by virtue of adopting this country and because my daughters were born here. I have Indian pride by virtue of having been born, nurtured and raised there. How does it make it okay for me to co-opt #BLM or #POC tags? It does not mean that I don’t see racist behavior against me. Where then, do I fit in the narrative?

Most of my questions are rhetorical. There are no right answers. Just more questions.

4 comments

  1. Interesting post. I don’t usually call myself a person of colour because I don’t think I have the context for it. I didn’t grow up here, and I see myself as a visitor to this country. Even the rules don’t make it easy for me to meaningfully contribute here or achieve a sense of permanence. Though there are no rules for the use of terminology, and though I am a person of colour in these United States from the point of view of optics, maybe I even forget to think of myself that way.
    Taking a detour to the book Americanah, the narrator Ifemelu arrives in the US from Nigeria and suddenly realizes she’s a Black person. But so far in her life, she has never thought of herself in those terms. So she doesn’t call herself that even if others think of her that way.

    • Am yet to read Americanah. Will check it out. I never really thought of myself until I morphed into a writer with a goal of getting published. When writing the setting/characters and stories I weave in my head are so dissonant from the world outside that I am not sure where it fits. I don’t want to whitewash but acceptance hinges on it.

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