Byline: This article is specifically about Indians, but that’s mainly because I happen to be one. I hope that this is an invitation for more Frankly writing about identity, so we can better live, work, and laugh with each other. I don’t claim that the experiences I talk about below apply only to Indians, nor do I claim to speak for all Indians. Here’s what I’ve learned:
It’s been a long time coming.
All around the world, the discourse is growing. The country with the most people, with the world’s largest and most influential diaspora. CEOs of big tech companies, the prime minister of the UK. From students to indentured laborers, millions working hard from the UAE to Ukraine, sending billions of dollars, and a promise of a better future, back home. We’ve surely shaken up something.
We have been a significant presence at Olin for many years. A group that is celebrating its presence with increasing confidence, holding some of the largest events on campus. Yet it isn’t a group that we have explicitly thought or talked about.
So let’s do that. Let’s talk about us.
A few months ago, I interviewed six Olin students who consider being Indian at least a part of their identity. Unsurprisingly, I heard six completely different stories. Trying to weave together these stories, find a common narrative, a well-packaged identity has been next to impossible. I’ve raised more questions than answers, but that’s why we start here, beyond this.
What is Indian beyond culture? Every single American-born Indian spoke about the struggle of connection with their culture, in a community that often predicates your Indianness as colorbar depending on how “cultured” you are. Do you watch Bollywood movies? Check. Do you follow cricket? Check. Do you speak your parents’ first language fluently? No? Oof that’s too bad, you’re a coconut – brown outside, white on the inside. Claiming your identity becomes an Olympics of cultural connection – an Olympics in which some come out first in, but being on the podium isn’t enough. It never is.
What is Indian beyond food? Someone pointed out a line from an American children’s show where the sole Indian character says – I kid you not – “Sweet Ganesh, I’m a human samosa!” That’s what you’re known as – the spice, the channa masala, bursting with flavor. But that’s not it, is it? Another interviewee said, “Food has so much attached to it – it’s not just the food itself. It has so many feelings attached.” Food is a culture. Food is taking care. It’s an indication of presence, warmth, home. Indian is (undeniably) the best cuisine because food for you is, well, important.
What is Indian beyond a person of color? “Engineering for Everyone”. Most interviewees candidly described the justice-aligned mission as a “nice to have”, but not something they think about everyday and certainly not why they came to Olin. You don’t struggle with representation or access. Your parents are engineers. Your families expect it of us, and often are willing to scrape together the resources to send you to this top-ranked, 10%-acceptance-rate, engineering school. What should that privilege mean to you? Do you know where you fall within this hegemony, or its challenge?
What is Indian beyond jokes about brownness? Every identity group has their story of reckoning with the fabric of the communities that they live in. How do you reckon with yours? Your dad’s sexism, that one Indian friend who thinks it’s funny to say the N-word, the Islamophobic comments your relatives make. What does that mean? An interviewee pointed out that “Western media is quick to poke holes in Indian society with a level of skepticism they don’t have for their own country. They’re quick to present us as backwards, so growing up I believed that India is a messed up place.” Often, the progressive path is to denounce and renounce Indianness – staying progressive despite your culture. But the same interviewee challenged this by arguing that it’s important to be proud that you are Indian and also say that sexism, colorism, racism have no place. Reframing the conversion from “I’m Indian but progressive” to “I’m Indian and progressive”?
What is Indian beyond here? The Indian story is always of migration – you are and always will be an outsider. One day, you showed up to school, with the baggage of your “ethnic background”. Maybe American legally, but really from India. Your skin, your height, your food, your religion, your festivals, your movies, your oh-so-colorful clothes. Your name. Your major. Your purported resiliency. You lug it around everyday, but you don’t want to unpack that sack in front of everyone because it sure isn’t the biggest sack – why should you get a chance? Why shouldn’t you get a chance?
I’m asking these questions because an interviewee remarked that their attempts to discuss Indian identity with their peers had been “killed with kindness”. Everyone is an active listener- and then no one talks further. Another interviewee pointed out that “to have conversations is a privilege”, especially in family. By no measure have I reasonably covered all the topics people brought up in response to the same questions. I haven’t spoken about the diversity within India, how Bollywood movies are not musicals, or what ABCD stands for. But I’m going to stop now, hoping this has helped. To reduce the dance of politeness just a little bit so that we’re a little less scared to be more honest and engaged with each other.
Now, it’s your turn.