Being Brown – Emmen Ahmed


What makes us connect with culture? Is it something that is just present from birth? Is it something you acquire over time? Can it be built upon, or is that not original? Is it acquired by a bug bite like Spiderman?

It has been of great interest to me to study a population that I see and interact with every day. We are of the first generation of South Asians born in America with immigrant parents. Now I’m not taking about the subtly racist, stereotypical boater Indian/Pakistani parent that chases you around the house with a belt, shoe, rolling pin (choose your weapon) and starts dropping hints towards marriage when you reach puberty. I want you to read this without that image in your head. I’m talking about just simple families that left their home regions to come to America to start a family. Simple and sweet, no beatings involved.

What makes us so interesting is that there is strange dynamic between so many multifaceted factors. There is a connection to family and traditional values (which can vary depending on religion or region), and a connection to this environment that is drastically different than the one our parents grew up in.

The premise of this ethnography is to look at this hybrid culture that comes from a liminal community. More specifically, looking at behaviors and specific reasons as to why we pick and choose what parts of the culture we want to be a part of. It’s a common practice, especially among younger generations because of the difference between the settings in home and out of the home.

To get a more ground level perspective of this concept, I invaded the lives of three South Asian American students here at Michigan State University.

But first, a little background on South Asians. They are the third largest immigrant population in the United States (both first and second generation) (MPI Diaspora Profile, 2014). That’s a whole lot of brown people. It is also said that the Indian immigrants have a deep and multifaceted engagement with India even though they live away from their home country ( MPI Diaspora Profile, 2014). Some common values that are shared amongst south Asians as a whole are concepts of family loyalty, obedience, and self sacrifice (Shariff 2009). An example of that would be if my grandmother was becoming ill, it would be frowned upon to send her to a nursing home. It is expected that I would house her and take care of her myself. This is really common amongst families (its exactly my situation as of now). I thus exercise loyalty, self-sacrifice, and obedience all in one fell sweep.

Now, what do they look like? Here is a photograph of my immigrant grandfather. He looks pretty American right? Its just the skin that “apparently” doesn’t match that groovy American fashion.

Cool Grandpa Right?

As many immigrants that came before, alongside, and after South Asians, they were met with a lot of racism and dislike. It has carried on into the present day through small aggressions and institutionalized prejudice just like any other ethnicity. Our struggles are not as bad as our grandparents or their parents, but it is a byproduct of it.

An article written about the perils of South Asians owning land in America

Now enough fooling around, lets dive into the lives of our interviewees shall we?

The first subject is Vinai Reddy. He’s currently junior and his family comes from India and they practice Christianity. He’s enthusiastic and makes sure during interviews to fully understand the question before answering. He’s tall and built and walks with great brown boy purpose.

The second subject is named Hiba Abdullah who is currently a sophomore and whose family are Muslims from India. She was super interested and introspective while being interviewed. She has long curly brown hair and a nose ring to enhance her soft north Indian features.

The last participent wished his name be changed for privacy, so between you and me, lets call him Shah Rukh Khan (this Shah Rukh Khan should not be confused with the real billionaire Bollywood actor). He’s a junior as well and his family comes from Pakistan and are practicing Muslims. Although he is not the real actor, he dressed up well for the interview and all his answers were long and detailed. He was the kind of guy that would continue to talk to fill up silence, so my silence worked very well to my advantage and his as well because it eventually made him more comfortable to speak.

Looking back at my work, I realized I should have taken the perspective of someone who comes from a Hindu background; I’d be able to introduce this ethnography off with some lame joke that starts off something like “A Christian, a Muslim, and a Hindu walk into Rick’s..” but alas that opportunity has passed.

To break this down a little bit, I’m going to separate this whole ethnography into certain topics under the umbrella of this research question. First will be perspectives of eastern culture, second will be perspectives on western culture, and last will be perspectives on identity. Simple? Yes? Good.

 

Perspectives on Eastern Culture

Hope you’re sitting on the edge of your seat for some hardcore concept breakdown. Vinai, out of all three interviewees, says that he sees himself as more Indian than American. How? What determines that for him?

As articulated by Vinai, even though he lives in a different country than where his parents grew up in, he is still connected to his heritage in certain ways where he identifies as more Indian than American. The food and entertainment play a big role in his ability to connect with the culture. Often times those are the only things immigrants can take with them, their knowledge of food and their want for authentic entertainment. Movies and TV shows are a great way to keep up with the language and current events. He mentions towards the end that even if you teach your kids all the traditional concepts and keep them educated through entertainment, as the generations change, they will take only some of those concepts with them. This has happened to him as his generation is much different than his parents, and this will happen to him too as he too becomes a parent.

Shah Rukh on the other hand says that he doesn’t really practice cultural viewpoints in his every day life. He instead believes that he is more religious if anything. Interestingly enough, Pakistani culture is very much intertwined with religion, so most of the time there is a blurred line between what is a cultural practice and what is religious.


Hiba used to really want to assimilate into western culture, yet was more practicing of Islam amongst her family. She was often afraid of outwardly showing her heritage. Here she recalls an instant where she was bullied for being Muslim in middle school. While she was talking about this event, she wasn’t expressing sadness or anger, but happiness. She went on to say that this time in her life made her want to connect more with her culture if anything. It brought a certain sense of pride. Not enough to become immersive, but enough to want to educate herself more on her background.


Hiba’s worldview changed a lot once she began college. She says “I didn’t have an outlet before you know being so suffocated in highschool and middle school in a public school system because you know you saw how whitewashed everyone was collectively as I mentioned earlier, uh but I think that being here now, its also a change in environment, college makes people a lot more open minded.”

Hiba enthusiastically speaking on her experiences in middle school facing bullies

Although she was scared about her identity before, coming into college made her more in tune with her cultural background rather than her religious one. Maybe since she has a different experience than Shah Rukh, her lines between religion and culture are drawn differently. The mechanism of change was a crisis she found herself in after her grandmother passed away. The two were very close, and her passing made her really question a lot of things about religion and purpose.

Once I asked if traditionalism was right, the whole game changed. My method behind this question was to see if they would acknowledge that they’re not adherent 100% to traditional beliefs. Hiba says that the desire to follow a view 100% should not be a bad thing, especially in America considering that this land is supposed to be home for a multitude of different people. Shah Rukh believes that there shouldn’t be too much of one thing and that traditionalism has its faults.

Experience also plays a large role in cultural connectivity. Vinai was sent to India for three years of his life for education, whereas Hiba and Shah Rukh have rarely been back to their mother countries, so their connection is very heavy on their relationship with their parents. Vinai also has strong connections to his family back in India, so he exercises a lot of those traditions and partakes in speaking the language often.

Shah Rukh’s experience with his heritage is like a guideline, but is only applied to what he feels is important. He doesn’t drink, and says it is for personal reasons and acknowledges that a lot of his Muslim friends do. He says that

“my religious values hold me back from interacting in certain social situations like parties, like.. there’s a gap there that makes me stand out a little you know, but I’m not mad at it, like everything should have its boundaries”.

I could tell during this part of the interview he became a little uneasy speaking about alcohol. I feel as though he was not blaming his religion from holding him back, because it definitely didn’t hold his friend back from doing it. This is interesting, isn’t it? That there is a little blame put on traditions for now allowing assimilation. Is that why people forgo practices? So that they can experience other things they may not be able to if they were orthodox?

Perspectives on Western Culture

What is “western culture”? Shah Rukh says its football and beer.. but is it? Hiba says its being open minded and American. Vinai says its “work hard play hard”.

The main question that I based this idea off of was what values have you learned from living in America. Let’s see the results shall we? Vinai says that the best thing he’s learned was to respect everyone he meets. Hiba says its to keep an open mind. Shah Rukh says its also being open minded and individualistic. All these are good points, but this doesn’t mean they felt suppressed in the culture their parents taught them, they just felt that it wasn’t well rounded. Shah Rukh goes on further to say “some aspects of being orthodox are good but some don’t fit [with the culture]”. He personally thinks that this is progressivism but believes that it is a different process for everyone.

Are there boundaries between when people play Asian and when they play American? Shah Rukh says “when you go home, the food you eat, the family you’re surrounded with makes you feel connected, but when you step out of that bubble, its all western culture”. For Vinai, it’s a little different. His boundary extends more into his friend group in college because of his active participation in South Asian clubs.

Hiba brings up an interesting concept during our conversation about “white-washing”. No, this is not related to laundry, it is a term that expresses the need to assimilate. Essentially washing away your brown heritage to act and appear white (or western). She faced a lot of identity issues through middle school up until college because of how many of her brown friends were actively hiding parts of their heritage from their white peers.

Shah Rukh also had issues with white washing. He says it had to do with

“how I pronounced things, how I dressed, what I ate at lunch, how I talked and interacted with my parents, uh, like even how I viewed my parents were all dependent on how I wanted my peers to view me”.

As he went on with his list, he sounded a little sad about how he was so easily influenced to change his actions. It is the same sadness Hiba expressed when she said she used to be ashamed of her grandfather’s darker complexion as he walked her to school. It is the same sadness I felt when I got uncomfortable explaining where I was from to classmates who had never met a Pakistani before.

Perspectives on Identity

So what are we? Why are we? Is that proper grammar?

Why do we pick and choose? Why do people only see themselves as 50/50 and not 100%?

I started asking questions about how they incorporate culture into American life and how they incorporate American life with culture. Hiba and I started to have this very interesting conversation about South Asian/ North American art.

This artist that she brings up, Babbu the Painter, takes a lot of aspects of being brown, so bindis, other traditional jewelry, interest in Bollywood, and traditional idioms, and portrays them through Americanized portraits of South Asians.

Babbu the Painter often makes portraits of South Asians with emphasized features to fit both American and Indian identities. Her artwork and clothing are all available to see and purchase on her website, babbuthepainter.com

“She has a lot of shirts with her paintings, they’re more animated looking versions of Indian people and Pakistani people and shell caption it with something funny… …she has a bunch of jean jackets that she paints and um the way she models them is she wears those jean jackets and then she wears traditional Indian jewelry” – Hiba

These artists and content creators become so appealing to this generation is because they themselves over advertise this mix and duality in their own works, so it becomes the only thing representative of their struggles.

So for the big question, why do we have to hold onto the duality and why does it dictate how we perform our identity?

The epiphany hit while I was interviewing Vinai. He said the phrase “you’re not a saint” and continued to say that ideally you shouldn’t pick and choose, but it all comes down to if you are a good person or not. Hiba and Shah Rukh both expressed that as long as they know they are doing the right thing, they are content. They decide what that right moral code is by taking what they perceive as right and implementing that into their lives. Those guidelines don’t exclude what they like and they exclude what they dislike. This behavior is like a customizable culture which makes it easier to cope with the fact that they don’t belong to one group as a whole. It was also shaped by how easily influenced we were as children on wanting to assimilate. Like the desire to eat the mac n’ cheese being served at the school cafeteria over your mom’s home cooked naan and chicken because you didn’t want your food to smell.

Vinai’s case is a little different because of his active participation in cultural groups as a mechanism for revitalization for his own purposes, but considering that his religion matches up with the majority of Americans in the U.S, it is not that hard for him to see himself as part of the majority as well. With Hiba and Shah Rukh, there is a much larger divide between when to act brown and when to act white.

A flyer for the annual Indian Dance performance that is put on by the Coalition of Indian Undergrad Students every year. Vinai was heavily involved as a board member and dancer

I see this in my own life a lot. Here in America I stand out from the majority white population, but when I visit Pakistan, I know I stand out there as well because my Urdu and cultural knowledge is not the same as native people. It can become alienating and confusing for the most part, so this desire to mix and match like a pick n’ mix candy store is a coping mechanism. Here I want to be seen as American as possible, and there I wanted to fit in and be as Pakistani as possible.

White-washing, for the purpose of my observations, seems like the main way my interviewees tried to assimilate. Although it was their first attempt at fitting in, its not a new concept by any means. The colonized India before the partition was riddled with Indian men and women being pressured into dressing like Englishmen and Hindus would even be pressured into eating beef like the British. As any anthropologist would say, it all stems from colonialism!!

Since it is embedded in them from years of pressure, now they more or less put on different personas around different groups of people. Shah Rukh wouldn’t ever think to play rap music around his dad but they still hold a strong relationship. Hibas family doesn’t agree with her like for concerts but she still goes to them. Vinai connects with his brown friends with movies and music and with his white friends with working out and school. It is all a juggle, so the image of individuality and personal culture seems to be the most enticing and useful way to live in America.

Sources:

Shariff, Aneesa, and Noorfarah Merali. “Predictors of Parenting Stress Among South Asian Immigrant Families.” PsycEXTRA Dataset (2009): n. pag. Web.

“The Indian Diaspora in the United States.” Migration Policy Institute. Rockefeller Foundation-Aspen Institute Diaspora Program, July 2014. Web.

Images:

Old Advertisement – https://www.saada.org/tides/article/20151001-4458

Bindas Jacket – http://www.babbuthepainter.com/shop/page/11/

Bakwas Jacket – http://www.babbuthepainter.com