Into the Heart of Not Whiteness

Review of Sharmila Sen’s Not Quite Not White: Losing and Finding Race in America (USA: Penguin, 2018)
by Prasanthi Ram

In today’s America, celebrities of Indian descent such as writer and actress Mindy Kaling, comedian and host Hasan Minhaj, Youtuber and late-night talk show host Lilly Singh, and Miss World-turned-international actress Priyanka Chopra have come to occupy the forefront of popular culture. However, the openness to and acceptance of Indian celebrities and people in America is still a relatively recent work-in-progress. Behind caricatured representations of Indians (such as the well-loved but undeniably problematic Apu of The Simpsons or Rajesh Koothrappalli of The Big Bang Theory) have been hundreds and thousands of Indian immigrants whose stories have rarely made it to light, that is other than to reinforce stereotypes about the community or the notion of a ‘model minority’ in comparison to the dominant American identity (male, white and Protestant). It is precisely this lack of honest and dignified storytelling about the Indian immigrant experience that literary academic and Harvard University Press editorial director Sharmila Sen addresses in her memoir Not Quite Not White.

Published in 2018, this book examines Sen and her family’s experience of emigrating in 1982 from Calcutta, India, to a white-dominated America for better economic prospects. The writer conveys a very personal account of emigration in a writing style that is strikingly self-aware and poetic. Her fiery attitude towards the subject matter emerges progressively towards the end of the book. The central idea posited is that race is a concept that an immigrant has to learn, not something they instinctively understand. In a thought-provoking formula, she declares that it was race that “was the immigrant” and she became the “homeland where it came to rest.”

The preface describes the memoir in this manner:

This book is an immigrant’s pagan confession, an assimilationist’s tongue-in-cheek DIY manual for whiteface performance, and the story of an American’s long journey into the heart of Not Whiteness.

Organized into four chapters, ‘Enter the Dragon,’ ‘The First Remove,’ ‘The Autobiography of an Ex-Indian Woman,’ and lastly, ‘Heart of Not Whiteness,’ which is an obvious play on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the well-paced and insightful memoir explores Sen’s growing-up years in Calcutta, and the socio-psychological changes she underwent as a twelve-year-old when she made the seismic shift to America, thus becoming a racial minority in a white man’s world.

First and foremost, Sen underscores that privilege and marginalization do not prevail in America only but in Calcutta as well. By taking readers back and forth between 1970s Calcutta and 1980s-till-present day America, she captures two intertwined journeys: first is the disorienting journey of a young Indian child who belatedly realizes her native privilege upon emigrating to America; and second, the ceaseless journey of a non-white immigrant becoming American as America’s own racial politics goes through multiple paradigmatic shifts.

A large part of Sen’s credibility stems from her willingness to acknowledge that the Calcutta of her childhood too had its fair share of hierarchical labels, even if none of them had to do with race: Bengali or non-Bengali; Hindu, Muslim or Christian; upper or lower caste; English-educated or not. What makes Sen’s recount of her childhood particularly strong is that she uses it to establish her own privilege growing up; she stresses that she in no way came from a “society of equals.” In fact, as part of the dominant Hindu Bengali majority herself and as an upper-caste elite who attended a private English-medium school, Sen was taught at a very young age to avert her gaze from the underclass. For the most part, this meant physically avoiding the people of the basti who dwelled in slums near Sen’s middle-class residential neighbourhood of Dover Lane and working extremely hard in school to ensure that she never became poor herself.

Yet, in a country with a burgeoning population and severe job scarcity, even the advantages of social privilege and cultural capital from notable familial predecessors did not guarantee Sen success, unlike what one may assume. Her family lived in a one-bedroom flat on the ground floor of a rental home and the insecurity of such an arrangement led her to consider the basti a constant and “silent reminder of where [she] would end up if [her family] slid downward.” Soon, Sen’s fear of downward mobility became reality. She was forced to give up luxuries such as “new school uniforms” or “meat at the table” and eventually, her family was compelled to seek economic opportunities in faraway America instead.

Upon migration, her family did not belong to the “glamorous and cosmopolitan” community of expats in America, but rather were seen as “undesirables who [brought] down the real estate value of a neighbourhood” for having moved from “a country with fewer resources to one with greater resources.” Being relegated to the position of the undesirable immigrant, Sen highlights, was a source of “irritation and embarrassment” because of the misguided narrative about the greedy, undeserving foreigner, whose sole goal was to steal jobs from locals, a narrative that regrettably persists still. At the same time, the pernicious narrative reinforced the racial hierarchy within which a non-white immigrant should always be the “grateful recipient” of supposed white generosity and so should never question the hierarchy itself.

As a new and young immigrant in America in the early 80’s, Sen, like many others in her position, consciously made it her objective to blend in with whiteness, playing the role of a good immigrant by mastering whiteface and always remembering to smile for it was the “road to becoming American.” In order to mask her foreignness and Americanize herself, Sen learned to eat with fork and knife, incorporated American foods into her diet, and watched American TV shows such as General Hospital or Hawaii Five-O in order to acquire a convincing American accent and develop a sufficient grasp on “cultural references” and “colloquialisms.” Such a concerted overhaul of one’s own habits in order to fit into a new country is not unfamiliar to immigrants worldwide. Furthermore, perceiving India and America to be two different worlds, Sen deliberately kept them separate for fear of discrimination and the desire for survival. She locked up Bengali and Hindi as secret, hidden languages within the space of the home or between select Indian friends while communicating in the public sphere strictly through her third language English, even if she lacked a “deep sense of intimacy” with it. She was also light-skinned enough to pass as white—a white friend once commented that she had forgotten Sen was in fact not white.

However, in spite of all her efforts in Going Native, Sen realizes in retrospect that she was never granted “[admission] into the freemasonry of the white race.” Instead, she ended up in a liminal space as a perpetual outsider, an ex-Indian who was Not Quite White enough to be seen as the quintessential American by the white majority, nor Indian enough to be viewed as “authentic.” At this point, the memoir momentarily pauses at a seemingly insurmountable impasse.

It is only in the final chapter that the titular ideas of Not Quite Not White take shape. Sen suggests that it was after giving birth to three American children, who have made English the language of both their and her emotions and whose darker skin has subjected them to an even more trying experience of America, that she realized her approach to race in America was gravely insufficient. In a poetic moment, she writes that it is the American-born child who “gives birth to a foreign-born parent.” Indeed, unlike Sen who is able to fall back on the assurance of an Indian past and qualify her experiences of discrimination as the ‘immigrant experience,’ her children are born into a society that is predicated upon race, that immediately marginalizes them in their own country as non-whites.

Therefore Sen argues that to continually accept an armature of racial labels such as person of color or Asian only affirms whiteness as normative and as an invisible dominant force that shapes everything and everyone else. Instead, she demands for more on behalf of her children and by unsaid extension, their generation. Following her maternal instinct, she questions the very language surrounding race in America. This culminates in her coining the label Not White, which she claims is her way of explicitly naming whiteness. Although such a label seemingly does nothing to de-center whiteness, Sen argues that it in fact localizes the notion and brings it “down from its high perch of normativity” by compelling it to “assume its rightful place among all other colors.”

Sen writes that “A truly dominant group is unthreatened by minority cultures as long as they can be domesticated, consumed, transformed into an accessory, a condiment, a bit of swag.” Hence, Not White is a “grunt,” “negation,” “refusal,” and “belligerence.” It turns whiteness on its own complacent and oppressive head, and others it, just as whiteness has othered everything unlike itself. It rejects domestication and by doing so, threatens the long unthreatened. Where Sen is concerned, to be Not White is to refuse to play the role of a model minority whose mandatory benign and smiling presence conveniently fulfills diversity quotas or completes the “cosmopolitan experience” for the white majority. To be Not White is to question, despite the risk of being labelled a “bad American,” “an ungrateful immigrant,” or an “angry brown woman,” the slippery ease with which immigrants are turned into the enemy. Above all, Sen implores us to recognize that to be Not White is to do the aforementioned and still be considered unapologetically and undeniably American.

Prasanthi Ram is a PhD candidate for Creative Writing at Nanyang Technological University of Singapore. Her interests lie in South Asian literature, feminism(s) and popular culture. She is currently working on her debut collection of short stories that explores the Tamil Brahmin community in Singapore.