Some Brief Notes on Sharmila Sen's "Not Quite Not White: Losing and Finding Race in America"

I picked up Sharmila Sen's book, Not Quite Not White: Losing and Finding Race in America, as I was beginning to prepare for my upcoming spring class, "New Brown America: Race and Identity in the 21st Century." I have been looking for writers who help us theorize an emerging concept of 'brownness' as an identity formation in the U.S. Here are some of the other books I've been looking at:

  • Kamal Al-Solaylee's Brown: What Being Brown in the World Today Means
  • Richard Rodriguez's Brown: the Last Discovery of America, and 
  • Steve Phillips' Brown is the New White: How the Demographic Revolution Has Created a New American Majority.

These are of course very different books. Phillips' book is really a political strategy essay -- pointing out how immigrant groups tend to lean democratic, and what this ought to mean for the Democratic party going forward. And Rodriguez' book is more a literary essay and memoir than it is a broadly applicable 'theory' of brownness as an emergent racial formation. Finally, Kamal Al-Solaylee's Brown -- a book I would actually strongly recommend -- is more globally focused than it is an account of race and ethnicity in the U.S.  Al-Solaylee's book looks at migrant movements around the world and notes a striking pattern: there are 'brown' migrants working in the middle east (think of the South Asians in Qatar and UAE) and Chinese cities like Hong Kong (many of them Filipina maids and nannies), as well as in the U.S., Canada, and the UK. These workers are 'brown' mainly relationally: their brownness is a sign of their subordinate and migrant status. But they don't form a group or an identity; by and large they are defined only by their relationship to dominant communities wherever they are.

Taken together, these books, along with essays by people like Jose Munoz (who surely would have published his own book on brownness by now had he lived) and the performance and creative writing of people like Hasan Minhaj (Homecoming King), Elizabeth Acevedo (see "Afro-Latina"), Suheir Hammad, and others, are giving us a critical mass of conversation about an emerging 'brown' cultural moment.

As I see it, Sharmila Sen's book is an important part of that unwieldy, wide-ranging, and sometimes awkward conversation. As a community of writers and teachers, we don't quite know what we mean by 'brownness' yet -- but we're increasingly using the term in our conversations nonetheless. We don't quite know what the implications of demographics changes will be on American concepts of race and ethnicity yet (think: "Waiting for 2042"), and we don't yet know whether Trumpism will remain in place in our system (specifically after Trump himself is gone) as a counter to those changes.

In the interim, brownness remains an awkward subject position, a coalitional politics more than a coherent identity. (We need to keep working on it.)

* * *

As I was reading Sen's Not Quite Not White, I was struck by how similar her story of migration was to my own family's story, though there are of course some significant differences. The most obvious one is that she was born in Calcutta and moved the U.S. around age 12 (whereas I was born in the U.S., and lived here my whole life). She had a whole life and cultural world emerging as a child in India that she essentially jettisoned in the earnest attempt to fit in and 'Americanize' herself as a new arrival in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the 1980s. I always had an American accent, but because I was raised in an observant Sikh family I was always marked as different -- and this made straightforward 'Americanization' somewhat elusive. We both did Ph.Ds. in English, and started teaching as English professors. Sen later left formal academia, and is now Executive Editor-at-large at Harvard University Press. (I stayed.)

Many of the discoveries and dilemmas from her adolescent experience of American acculturation in Sen's book dovetail with my own version of this experience. One is the way her family came to intuit dominant cultural definitions and boundaries, such what it means to describe someone as "American":

At home when Ma and Baba spoke of Americans, pejoratively or admiringly, they really meant white Americans. No one had to spell it out. Most Indians of my parents' generation, as well as some who are younger than them, continue to believe that 'real Americans' are white Americans. All others are marked as deviations from the normative. [...] After three decades in this country, my parents continue to think that real Americans are white Americans. Everyone else is Not Quite. In those early years, when Ma and Baba spoke of American food, American homes, American customs, American habits, it was implicit that they were not speaking of those Americans who also happened to be black, or Chinese, or Hispanic, or Jewish. (129)

Everything here rhymes with my own family experience, with the exception maybe of whether or not our family understood our (Ashkenazy) Jewish friends in suburban Maryland to be 'white' (we did).  As Sen points out, her family's absorption of white America as the norm also implied an acceptance of American racial hierarchies. Many Indian Americans start with a strong bias against black folks:

My family is no different from the majority of Indian families who immigrated to the United States after 1965 in at least one aspect--our anti-black bias is strong. When I tried to pass as white, or silently accepted the badge of honorary whiteness, I was trying to proclaim to our neighbors that I was not Black, that I was Not Hispanic. Every news story we saw on television, every innuendo Ma and Baba picked up around the workplace, every suspicious glance we spied in grocery stores, every gesture I clocked in the schoolyard taught us that blacks and Hispanics occupy the lower rungs of American racial hierarchy. [...] Once you see the American racial hierarchy through the newly arrived migrant's eyes, you will understand why Toni Morrison once wrote that the road to becoming American is built on the backs of blacks. (122-123)

In effect, what she is describing here is the strong compulsion many immigrants feel to perform 'model minority' status -- even when they come to know the model is flawed. It's not that immigrant communities are more 'racist' (here, meaning specifically anti-black) than white Americans; it's that their education into the workings of race and ethnicity in America lead them to understand that the way to success is to emulate whiteness and disavow the traces of their own difference. (It takes a lot of time and work to come to realize how damaging this process of disavowal can be to less-privileged people of color.)

Sen has many compelling anecdotes of her quest, as a young person growing up in New England in the 1980s and 90s, to get as close to the Heart of Whiteness as she could -- before eventually becoming self-conscious about the absurdity of that project as a young adult. Many South Asian Americans of our generation might relate to her stories about trying to learn American cuisine, manners, and rituals, from how and when exactly to say 'thank you', to gift-giving rules and etiquette. Growing up, many of us lived double lives, with a 'home' personality and Indian friends connected with one's parents' social circle, and an 'American' life that was sometimes radically at odds. In adulthood, we tended to learn to reconcile those different lives -- or, in some cases, choose which was the more important to us.

The hardest step in this process of growing up 'brown' along the lines Sen describes is to challenge the system itself. This is the real payoff of her book -- and it comes in a series of brilliant passages towards the end of Not Quite Not White. One such passage might be the following:

I learned to name whiteness for their sake so that the white officer in front of the consulate door--the man I saw as a sahib-- did not go unnamed while the other men were made extraordinarily visible with an array of adjectives. A person of color. An Asian man. A Hispanic man. An Indian man. A South Asian man. A black man. A brown man. A yellow man. Having been a young immigrant, I already knew that real power lies in being so dominant that you need not be named. The normal needs no name, no special qualifier. In the United States, there is no need to name the male, the white, the Protestant because these are attributes of the normative. And when we who are not male, white, or Protestant choose to name these things, we risk sounding like people with grievances--angry, shrill, dangerous. (173)

Coming as it does after Sen's entertaining -- but at times slightly depressing -- account of trying to emulate whiteness, this passage seems like an important revelation. The first step in really pushing back against the white as normative, and whiteness as the American default, is to name it as such. (And take the risk of "sounding like people with grievances.")

The next challenge -- and this might be one the next generation of brown Americans might have to solve for us -- is to work with others (including, especially black Americans) to radically challenge the American race-ethnicity formation itself. If whiteness is no longer the destination of acculturation into Americanness, what else can we imagine? 

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