My Complicated Racial Identity

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Recently I was being interviewed on the radio and while speaking about diversity, I blurted out that I am a “cis white woman.” I heard the mistake as soon as the words left my mouth. I didn’t have time to correct myself but it made me stop and think. Am I white? Well, sort of. My mom is white. She has a British background, mostly English with some Scottish and Irish thrown in for good measure. My dad is Indian, specifically he’s Punjabi Sikh, something I point out almost immediately because the vast majority of people who find out I’m half Indian almost always follow with, “Are you Hindu?” as if that’s the only religion that exists in India. As for me….well, I look white. Unlike other people who are mixed, I give off no hint of my Punjabi heritage. I have dark eyes and dark hair but the majority of the people who look at me predictably guess wrong when they try to figure out my ethnicity. The guesses have a wide range: Italian, Greek, Spanish, Irish, Mexican, and the ever popular “Arab”, usually asked by leering men who turn away dejectedly when I tell them, “No, I’m not Arab.” For the most part I don’t mind playing this game usually because I know that no matter what the person guesses, they’ll be wrong and I take some sort of strange pride in my ethnic ambiguity. I could be anything.

But when it comes to how I identify, that little slip up made me start questioning everything. I’ve been raised in a predominantly white culture by a white mother. I don’t speak Punjabi, despite years of trying, and although I have good intentions, I haven’t yet learned how to cook Punjabi food (but I will gladly eat it). On the other hand, a huge chunk of my experiences growing up relate to my Punjabi side. My mom’s family consists only of her parents so my familial experience revolves largely around my dad. Visiting my extended family means being surrounded (and occasionally consumed) by Punjabi culture. I had to go to Punjabi school once a week and most Sundays were spent languishing for hours at the gurdwara (Sikh temple), unable to understand anything that was being said but anxiously awaiting a sweet and oily serving of prashad. Much of my childhood was spent at huge, loud weddings for people I didn’t know, being introduced to faces I wouldn’t remember while bhangra music blared from the speakers. It’s only now, as an adult, that I’ve been able to institute a personal rule that if I don’t recognize the name of the bride or groom on the invitation, I won’t go to the wedding.

Despite all these experiences, I’ve never fully fit into my own culture. Whether it’s getting glared at by strangers in a gurdwara or being expected to nod along as family members talk about “stupid goras” (white people), I’ve always felt like a bit of a black (or white?) sheep. This is when it gets complicated. Because just as I’m going to be offended when people talk about “Pakis” or I hear of yet another Sikh man being denied entry onto a plane, I’m also offended when I hear disparaging remarks about my British side. If I’m going to be completely honest, it’s always been easier for me to fit in with white people than Punjabi people because somehow, no matter what I do there is always a sense that I’m “not a real Indian.” At the same time, I’ve had to painstakingly explain to some white people why I get offended when they show their true colours and talk about “Paki dots” or “towelheads” – it’s amazing what people will say when they think they aren’t in mixed company.

Sometimes I just ignore the question of my identity altogether until it comes up. But that’s the thing, it comes up regularly. Simply introducing myself leads to comments of, “Oh, I’ve never heard that name, where is it from?” When I meet other Indian people there’s often a strange kinship once we start talking about our families and experiences. And I will always relate to episodes of Master of None or YouTube videos like “Sh*t Punjabi Mothers Say.” To put it simply, I can’t pretend to be 100% white because that’s not what I am. I have no interest in hiding my Punjabi heritage either. But for people who question my identity, I will say what I’ve always said: I am both things, all the time. It’s not a switch you can flip on and off. I will always be 50% British, 50% Punjabi, and 100% me.

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