One Brown Girl’s Struggle to Keep Her Indian-American Identity

Growing up, I always felt like an outsider, like I wasn’t a real American despite being born and raised here. My black hair, dark skin, thick eyebrows, and twig legs on a short stature—stood out painfully amongst the sea of blonde and brunette white peers. Fob. “Go back to India.” When kids would come over to my house, they would laugh at the “strange” Indian gods and goddesses and tease me for my parents’ accents. I was taught at an early age to hide my culture as best as I could – to renounce my Indian-ness and continuously “defend” my America-ness.  I became ashamed of my heritage.

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By the time I was a teenager, I had become “practically white” to my friends—a label I wore proudly. By being “practically white,” I felt like I made it. I was a real American. I was not an “other.” The “other” Asians only had Asian friends. They only listened to “Asian” music and gossiped “rudely” in their native languages. Those “other” Asians weren’t American enough.

Little did I know that at the University of Virginia, I would join the Indian Student Association and the Asian Student Union and find myself thrown into the largest group of Asians I had ever been exposed to. Turns out I wasn’t as different from my Asian American peers as I thought; I often had more in common with my Asian and South Asian friends than my non-Asian friends, despite being “practically white.” As a teenager, I navigated my world as a hyphenated person: two halves of a single identity that were always separate. Embracing my undesirable racial identity as Asian meant inherently giving up my desirable “Americanness.” I had spent too long defending my Americanness, too long trying to fit in with the white majority, to give it up by embracing my “fobby” Indianness.

Having other Asian friends showed me how my perceptions of race, of what it means to be “American,” were misguided. Our identities do not fit neatly into clearly defined boxes; there are no clean dichotomies where if you are one thing, you cannot possibly be another. The Asian American community introduced me to others that shared my struggle with a hybrid identity. We shared our experiences of having racist taunts hurled for being brown in a post-9/11 world. Of being stereotyped as being “good at math” and made to feel inadequate if we weren’t. We felt the blunt of ostracization for expressing any “un-American” part of our heritage. The stereotypes that led others to call me a fob were the stereotypes I had been reinforcing by refusing to accept the other half of my identity; in my desperation to be accepted, I was widening the very racial gap that hurt me as a child.

Too often, “Americanness” is equated with “whiteness.” Too often our social constructs allow us to be ignorant, to let racial stereotypes and dynamics define our own perceptions of self.  Do not allow yourself to be pigeon-holed by the perceptions of what society thinks being Indian, Asian, or even American, means.

Being a South Asian-American does not fit neatly into any preconceived notions. It is not about choosing between two halves of a hyphenated identity; it is an intersection as nuanced and complex as each of our individual identities. None of us are inferior Americans just because of the color of our skin. Embracing my Indianness does not deny me any part of my Americanness.

Mayura Iyer is a graduate of the University of Virginia and a current Master of Public Policy student. She hopes to use her policy knowledge and love of writing to change the world. She is particularly interested in the dynamics of race in the Asian-American community, domestic violence, mental wellness, and education policy. Her caffeine-fueled pieces have also appeared in Literally, Darling, BlogHer, and Mic.com.

This blog post is part of ActToChange.org’s features of voices against bullying. “Act To Change” is a public awareness campaign to address bullying, including in the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community. For more information, visit www.ActToChange.org

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