Post 2.3: Problems Within

My WP2 was focused on interviewing other Indian American’s to learn more about our collective experience, share stories, and ultimately advance all of our understanding of what being Indian American means. In this process, I interviewed two close friends of mine, Shantanu and Pavan. Shantanu’s story was quite similar to mine — he was born here in America, doesn’t speak much of any Indian language, and grew up with many of the same qualms about his identity that I did — not feeling American or Indian.

Pavan had a vastly different experience than Shantanu and I did. Unlike us, he spent much of his formative youth living in India and grew up surrounded by the culture, the language, and more. Pavan can fluently speak, read, and write in Telugu, one of India’s major languages. He regularly watches Bollywood movies (without subtitles), knows India’s top songs word for word, and is very in tune with Indian culture in general. It feels weird to say, but I’ve internalized that Pavan is more Indian than I am. He doesn’t feel out of place when he visits India, and can talk to his extended family without being lost in translation. For years I envied Pavan, despite our similarities in our American experience. It seemed that he had everything Indian that I wanted so desperately, but I was ignorant in that. A key difference in our experiences, that I overlooked until recently, was our difference in skin color and the fact that he was from South India.

Pavan, in his interview, brought up a moment that he recently experienced on the streets of New York. He met an Indian American girl while out exploring Manhattan with friends, and their conversation eventually came to the topic of being Indian. He asked her if she knew how to speak Telugu, and was impressed when she said yes. When he revealed that he could also read and write, she told him that he was “too Indian.”

“I didn’t know how to feel about that. I’d never been told anything like that before.”

It seems strange, but Pavan brought up an excellent point that relates to other experiences he's told me about: although overlooked, there is divide among the Indian American community, dating back to the colorism and casteism that controls India.

The caste system in India has a long twisted history, but ultimately is now an outdated, irrelevant social force that certain people cling to in hopes of superiority. It creates an unnecessary divide among people and is closely intertwined with the rampant colorism that has plagued India for centuries. Darker skin is frowned upon, an idea that was driven home during the British occupation. The concept was so widespread that face cream’s were developed in the name of becoming whiter (Unilever’s Fair and Lovely is a prime example), which even my mother used as a child. I’ve heard derogatory comments from even my own family (who are fairly light-skinned and higher caste) towards people at the bottom of the social ladder. It’s maddening to witness, and is something I thought stayed in India.

Pavan opened my eyes to the diversity within the Indian American experience, and the fact that how we treat each other is often overlooked. I spoke to him more about this, and he told me he has definitely heard degrading comments about how dark is skin is, not only from other Indians but from other Indian Americans. This difference introduced me to a whole new aspect of the Indian American identity, one that I was uneducated on and unprepared for. But the fact of the matter is, colorism and other forms of discrimination exist within our community, and it’s important to acknowledge. It harms the solidarity that is supposed to help define and empower us, and is something I want to work to combat in the future.