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Unmasking America’s whiteness

Avantika Mehta


Sharmila Sen was born in Calcutta, India. Amid the spectrum of brown visages she grew up seeing, the young Sen never used race to identify herself. This changed when, in 1982, her family migrated to the United States. Her memoir Not Quite, Not White chronicles her metamorphosis from a fresh-off-the-boat girl in White America to a Non-White American citizen redefining the meaning of Americana.

Told in four parts, NQNW begins with Sen’s memories of 1970s Calcutta, where she lived until the age of 12. The author paints a graphic and depressing picture of India’s abject poverty and also the country’s racism and casteism.

Having “grown up in Calcutta with an entirely different set of extended labels for putting people in boxes” she recalls being taught to be “vigilant” about trespasses like mixed marriages or Muslims posing as Hindus to gain entry into sanctums. Before migrating to the US, Sen is aware of her privilege – being a light-skinned Indian, her ability to speak English, and so on. Within the pages of her memoir nestles an incident when the young girl observed a servant boy of her age sweeping the floor of her room while she sits on her bed. The short description of her idle observation of an angry boy cleaning her mess is a penetrating commentary on her, and the circumstances that helped her.

Early on, Sen, at the American Consulate, is fascinated by the first black man she’s ever seen. This speaks volumes about the coddled childhood that she led. So when Sen tries to distinguish her idea of race from the Indian practice of casteism, it falls flat: “We all had distinguishing labels. But race we did not have.” It’s hard to swallow that she could not or does not see a direct line between caste and race, given the practice of and history behind both social evils.

This inability to perceive the similarity flips on her in 1982. When Sen’s family migrates to Cambridge, Massachusetts, suddenly, she’s a minority. Now, race becomes a pivotal point. Going from Calcutta, where she half-heartedly watched American movies and ate American food, she finds herself in the heartland. Sen and her family are desperate to conform. Her description of her family’s attempts to learn “whiteness” – by learning to eat “American” (mostly Campbell soups and Bisquick mixes) and changing their accents – is an intimate account of how immigrants carve out a space for themselves in a white man’s world.

Sen herself tries to develop a “new American accent” by watching popular Americana-triple-dipped television shows like Happy Days. As she grows into her teens and through college and graduate school, she finds herself navigating and somewhat circumventing the hazards of race politics. She writes of silently accepting the “badge of honorary whiteness”. Simultaneously, she describes her attempts at revealing parts of her culture in ways carefully packaged for white American consumption. This is to ensure she’s not seen as the “other”. Of these tries, Sen recalls being more like “a brown woman mimicking a white man pretending to be a brown man.”

Race – her brown face – are often thrown at Sen. In middle school, when her class goes to see the film Gandhi, the teenager’s classmates talk in exaggerated Indian accents in front of her. It is disappointing that Sen notices this childish joke but never comments on why an English actor was cast as one of the most Indian Indians in the world. In sharp contrast, after Sen is hired as a university professor, a colleague questions whether she was a diversity hire – implying she took the job away from a more deserving candidate.

The memoir and “part manifesto” is a heartfelt account of what it means to be an outsider. With wit and through poignant moments, it calls for the dismantling of the idea of white being equivalent to American-ness. NQNW tells the tale of non-white immigrants attempting to be smiling eager-to-please Appu. Not quite part of the main cast, but bringing a new spectrum to the narrative nonetheless.

The culmination and the title of the book come from the moment when Sen is forced into a whiteface performance, uncorking years of rage. The memoir becomes about unmasking the whiteness of America and rendering it visible. This enables more challenges to its claim as the country’s dominant culture.

Sen’s memoir is essential reading. In the end, it is a story about trying to hold on to your identity as opposed to accepting the one that is thrust upon you by the world.


(HT Media)

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