On Being Othered in an Enlightened Elevator

3089136578_c9dfc6e152_b.jpgI trudged into the elevator, miserable with stomach cramps and a half-assed fever which made my body the same temperature as this 100 degree day. In my hands, an austere haul from Whole Paycheck: a four-pack of Reed’s “Extra Ginger” Brew and a wheat baguette. I have food poisoning, the worst case I’ve had in years.

My body was still in revolt as of 3 am; I slept for four restless hours and then forced myself to get up for work. In exchange for not calling in sick on my third day back after two months of medical leave (which allowed me to walk again), I allowed myself to wear my “Are they or aren’t they”-yoga pants. No, they are not from NuNu Nimbu. I don’t know where they are from, but they are clutch as hell. From five or six feet away, they look like pants. I have them in charcoal, too.

I calculated that no one would be scrutinizing my lower half based on my hideous reflection in the bathroom mirror. Black under-eye circles, dazed red eyes, green skin. Merry goth Christmas! If anyone made it past my face, the black Alternative Apparel v-neck which makes my boyfriend look like a euro-trash hipster would distract my coworkers. On me it looked like the raiment of a round woman who had given up on life. At least I’d be comfortable as my innards putrefied.

As I reached for an elevator button with a shaking hand, manicured fingers swept past my sallow skin.

“Oh! You got it before I could.” The innocuous comment was punctuated by a curious smile.

I slowly turned my head, reflexes dulled by…well, you know.

It’s why my spider sense didn’t tingle in time, either.

“You have…very interesting…skin.”

The way she paused before uttering “skin”. It was almost as if she hadn’t decided exactly what she would choose to “compliment”. It was an awkward moment to hesitate. Does she mean “color” because I’m greenish toda-

“Where is the origin of skin like that?”

Uh?Deep— I can’t believe this shit. I also can’t believe the timing of it– if I were my normal, pert, lethal self, I wouldn’t have been able to refrain from cocking a brow, narrowing an eye, somehow visibly demonstrating what I thought of that query. But I feel like crap. I’m lethargic. Slow. In pain. Hold up, did she really just go and ask about the “origin” of my skin like it’s some foreign object? Or an unfamiliar wine? And what exactly does skin “like that” mean? Dark? Hairy? Foreign? She’s got long glossy, blown out blond hair waving away from her face, which is pale. She looks about 45. Of course it’s foreign to someone like that. Wait, why should I assume she’s unfamiliar with brown skin? She could have an adopted South Asian kid for all I know. Oh, I hope she doesn’t. Wait, that’s mean. Is an ignorant but well-intentioned parent better than no parent? Of course it is. What am I going to say to her? — …breath.

Without realizing it my lips parted and I hear myself reply, “My parents are from India.”

“Oh! INDIA! I would have never guessed.”

Ah. She wouldn’t have guessed. She already knows what she thinks I am, she just wants me to confirm it. Got it. I’m not going to ask her what she would have guessed. I just want to sit down and drink this ginger juice before I’m sick again.

“I would have guessed that you were Iranian. With your skin. Like that. Iranian.”

Wow, really? I haven’t gotten that one in a hot minute, and by minute, I mean 32 years. I’m so surprised and perplexed I forget to be sick for a moment.

“Well, it’s your hair that threw me…don’t get me wrong, it’s beautiful”, she adds hastily. “But it made me think you were…”

At this point I was staring at her numbly. We were out of the elevator, heading to separate ends of the floor.

“Your hair…and your skin like that…I wouldn’t have thought ‘Indian’ by looking at you.”

What does THAT mean? Indian hair is some of the best hair on earth. Ask all those trollops in Holly-would with extensions imported from Tirupati.

“Well…I’m 100% Indian.”

“And what a beautiful Indian you are!”, she muttered before taking off.

I shook my head, to clear it like an etch-a-sketch, as I walked back to my desk at the job where I proudly and gratefully cover racial issues for one of the largest NPR stations in the country, in a fragile city which buckles under the twin stresses of class and race.

Color.

Privilege.

Discomfort. It’s right outside my door…even here.

:+:

photograph: me at age four in San Francisco–the last time my “hair” and “skin” led people to believe I was “Iranian”.

48 thoughts on “On Being Othered in an Enlightened Elevator

  1. If only food poisoning granted one the power to get upset and downset all over another person at will and use the sickness as an excuse.

  2. people have mistaken me for turkish at times. eay i was dressed today, was looking well fresh.

  3. Ah, people. Ya gotta love em. My cousin has been getting a twist on this. When she takes her blonde-haired, brown-eyed son to the park – lots of women assume she must be the nanny. But, he probably throws some Bengalis off when they see this little white kid speak Bengali to his mother.

  4. Anna’MoLe, the only thing anyone could have mistaken you for is the daughter of a fortunate couple, a couple so blessed to have a girl like you, a thavappudalvi

    thavam = tapas (not the thing in the Mexican restaurant but that thing that ascetics in ochre perform for millions of years) pudhalvi = daughter (pudhalvan you guessed right, if you know your paandi is son :-)

  5. I’m sorry but i can’t figure out what was so terrible about what that lady said. If anything, she was being kind and complimentary. Can someone explain it to me in plain English? I am asking because I want to know… not being a troll. (and to anyone is mislead by my screen name, I am a brown skinned mallu too.)

    • Well, I guess there are a couple of things. Firstly, why is it that people have to mention race and skin colour at all? It is a measure of the shallownesss of a person’s character that the first thing they see is colour. Secondly, perhaps browns and other minorities may feel a little self conscious generally as they tend(ed) to get noticed for their skin colour. Maybe they just want people to recognize them for who they are ie just regular people, rather than a superficial interpretation of them.

      I’m not sure I buy the oh she’s just trying to make conversation line. If you have even a modicum of intelligence you could probably think of something better to make a conversation about.

  6. I wish blondie asked me that. I wouldnt take it personally unless her tone was haughty. She is probably one of those socially awkward types who just makes weird conversations in closed spaces out of nervousness and doesn’t know much about other types of people. But if I felt anything weird about the interaction, depending on my mood, i might use it as an opportunity to be silly myself. i would ask her “are those tits real?”. “Hmmmm, interesting, I thought all blonde women got fake tits”. “wow, that’s a lot of makeup on your face. Can I see what your face looks like without the makeup, do you mind rubbing a part of your face so I can see what interesting skin you have under that makeup”.

    Ever since I started buzzing my head, I have been mistaken for black or Latino. I get pulled over more often by the cops and pigs. When I was in Thailand, some street vendor shouted out to me “Hey obama obama” in a way that reminded me of random white people being called Clinton or Bush in foreign countries.

  7. @John Jacobi

    The moment you see someone with 2 first-names (christian-ish), then chances are very high he’s a mallu. Example: John Thomas, son of Thomas John :-)

    Mallu myself, btw.

  8. I would say the woman was being awkward and maybe a bit tactless. She was trying to compliment you, I guess. I fail to see anything that deserves physical violence that someone else suggested in the replies

    I can understand the discomfort, though. I don’t like to be seen as :interesting skin” either

  9. @Possibly said “Well, I guess there are a couple of things. Firstly, why is it that people have to mention race and skin colour at all? It is a measure of the shallownesss of a person’s character that the first thing they see is colour. “

    There is nothing wrong with acknowledging our differences and celebrating them. Pretending that we are not different in some ways actually implies that there is something wrong in being different. Also, just like discussing the weather, when we meet strangers, we discuss the superficial and nothing wrong with that. Racism comes into the picture only if people believe that their race is inherently superior to the other and there was no indication of that in the lady’s conversation.

    @Possibly said “Secondly, perhaps browns and other minorities may feel a little self conscious generally as they tend(ed) to get noticed for their skin colour. Maybe they just want people to recognize them for who they are ie just regular people, rather than a superficial interpretation of them.”

    Pretty much everybody gets noticed for their color consciously or unconsciously. I don’t see why browns should feel bad about their color being noticed especially when it is being praised. And considering that white people spend some much effort getting a tan I think its genuine praise.

    • Those are your opinions and I reserve the right to completely disagree with them!.

      A truly enlightened progressive society would move beyond such nonsense and look to the character of a person as the most important thing. Noticing colour, in my opinion, makes you a shallow person.

      Being noticed for your colour otherizes you – people are people, we are all the same – colour is irrelevant, unless you are ignorant and shallow, in my humble opinion of course.

      As I say, there may be an element of self-consciousness in there as well, which minorities may feel due to growing up as a minority.

  10. BTW, i am sure white people get plenty of stares and weird questions when they go to India.

    • I’m sure they do too, in fact I have no doubt about it. However, if you were born and brought up in a the US for example, rather than just being a traveller, then you would hope that you wouldn’t have to deal with this type of thing on a regular basis. Also, who holds India up as being a paragon of an enlightened society?

      However, most societies in the west tend to think of themselves as more sophisticated/ cultured/ wealthier/ educated – so they should step up and act that way.

      Focussing on colour is a negative, backward trait, in my opinion.

  11. “I wish blondie asked me that. I wouldnt take it personally unless her tone was haughty. She is probably one of those socially awkward types who just makes weird conversations in closed spaces out of nervousness and doesn’t know much about other types of people. But if I felt anything weird about the interaction, depending on my mood, i might use it as an opportunity to be silly myself. i would ask her “are those tits real?”. “Hmmmm, interesting, I thought all blonde women got fake tits”.”

    I agree with Pravin here. This woman sounds like one of my co-workers who is probably a nice person at heart, but so socially awkward and tactless that she makes similar faux-pas all the time. I think the woman Anna encountered is probably not “racist” so much as socially clueless and rude. I’m sure if someone turned the situation around on her the way Pravin suggested, she would undoubtedly be offended. The whole situation just sounds so uncomfortable and awkward.

    I hope you feel better Anna; food poisoning is awful :(

  12. Also – am I the only one who gets weirded out when I pass a hair salon that has a sign stating “Real 100% Indian Remy Weaves”? I’ve started noticing these more and more in Queens. These types of salons are generally geared toward African American women, though I know hair extensions and weaves are popular with women of all backgrounds. Still, there’s something kind of odd about it. Imagine if it were the reverse and American women started buying hair from Ghanian women and gluing Afro’s to our heads; wouldn’t the African American community be weirded out by that?

    This article explains more about http://www.minyanville.com/dailyfeed/2011/05/17/human-hair-now-more-valuable/

  13. as i’ve said before, age is a big variable here. people over the age of 40, and baby boomers and up especially, are more likely to be weird like this. they didn’t grow up with too many asians who were americans, so they are kind of frozen in a period when america was black and white, and everyone else was an object of curiosity. people who are gen-x and younger can be racist or insensitive obviously, but they tend to do so in a different way, which has less obvious awkwardness. stuff that wouldn’t bother me 20 years ago probably gets under my skin today just cuz i don’t have to deal with too much, but then i often remember the age of the person and don’t stress.

  14. This post reminded me a little bit of something me and my sister remember encountered when we went door to door in the neighborhood trying to sell stuff for school or Girl Scouts. Occasionally there would be a few people, yes usually older, who would compliment our hair and looks in a way that was superficially very polite and even effusive, but just off in a way that suggested they were just really surprised or maybe had never seen up close an actual little brown girl at their door speaking English to them.

    As for KXB’s comment (#3), I suspect the confused-for-nanny phenomenon is one that a number of desi moms to half-desi kids have experienced. Moms who are not desi with desi-looking kids probably have their own interesting stories about how they’re perceived too.

  15. First off, in light of the bay boomer post above, I’m a 59 YO white guy. If i wondered about their nationality I can’t imagine ever asking where they got their skin from — that’s a mighty bizarre construction for asking about nationality. If I’m uncertain of a person’s nationality I just ask them what their nationality is. I’m wondering if the author didn’t misunderstand the question and take it the wrong way by accident. I say that because of the odd way the woman’s question was worded.

    Could she have been asking about the author’s complexion instead — expecting to be told about some skin cream or something similar — and then got thrown for a loop by the “My parents are from India” answer?

    Just throwing out a thought because “Where is the origin of skin like that?” is really a weirdly worded way to ask about Nationality (BTW, I’m of Eastern European ancestry so I’ve had people wonder if I was Spanish, Mexican or Middle Eastern now and again, so I’ve got the “what’s your nationality” question on a few occasions).

  16. First off, in light of the bay boomer post above, I’m a 59 YO white guy. If i wondered about their nationality I can’t imagine ever asking where they got their skin from — that’s a mighty bizarre construction for asking about nationality. If I’m uncertain of a person’s nationality I just ask them what their nationality is. I’m wondering if the author didn’t misunderstand the question and take it the wrong way by accident. I say that because of the odd way the woman’s question was worded.

    Could she have been asking about the author’s complexion instead — expecting to be told about some skin cream or something similar — and then got thrown for a loop by the “My parents are from India” answer?

    Just throwing out a thought because “Where is the origin of skin like that?” is really a weirdly worded way to ask about Nationality (BTW, I’m of Eastern European ancestry so I’ve had people wonder if I was Spanish, Mexican or Middle Eastern now and again, so I’ve got the “what’s your nationality” question on a few occasions).

    (Reposted because I accidently posted anonymously)

  17. My friend, who is Slovak and married to a desi, used to get these “are you the nanny” questions from desis each time she took her kids to the park in Princeton, NJ. Five years down the road, living closer to DC, she now gets regular and effusive “how gorgeous is their skin color” comments about her kids from white people. Sometimes the same people give the same compliments over and over… almost as if they’re drawing attention to her family’s otherness. And that is as apt to get under her skin as the nanny comments.

  18. On a similar note, I’ve noticed that one of the nicest compliments to Indian girls – whether DBD or ABD – is to tell them that they don’t look Indian, but in fact, Mediterranean. If you told them that they looked Indian, they actually get annoyed. I’m not kidding to you one bit. I know of many Indian girls – they were from India or America – and they had a lot of pride if you told them that they had Greek or Slavic features.

    Desi brothers – do you feel me?

  19. I’m going to be blunt. It is SO FRUSTRATING to see comments on blog posts such as this. Why do so many of us feel so compelled to make EXCUSES for this white woman’s blatantly racist behavior?

    “Where is the origin of skin like that?” Are you kidding me? That makes me so angry. Why isn’t it making more people angry?

    In a blog where the the experiences of South Asian people are highlighted and shared… I am constantly disappointed by the lack of support for these personal stories!!!

    Comments so often look like this…….?!?!??!?!?! “She was trying to be complimentary” or “I’m sure white people get a lot of stares in India…”

    What is next? Should I say “thank you” to every white person who says “Oh you are Indian… I love Monsoon Wedding!” We should be highlighting what is problematic about that behavior!! In the United States, white people have the immense privilege to take up space, ask ignorant questions, and make references to the very limited entertainment visibility that South Asians have! Our bodies & skin color should NOT be up for discussion at their convenience!! and without our consent!!

    This behavior is only perpetuated when we do not make a stand against it. At the very least we should be (in my opinion) fostering a community where we can support each other in these moments…. Even if its in an online community!!!

    My response to this blog is- I am so sorry you were marginalized yet again because of the color of your skin. I am sorry that even elevators can’t be safe spaces. Thank you for your words and keep being the bad ass activist you are by sharing your experience.

    :( Where the radical desis at?

  20. I’m going to be blunt. It is SO FRUSTRATING to see comments on blog posts such as this. Why do so many of us feel so compelled to make EXCUSES for this white woman’s blatantly racist behavior?

    “Where is the origin of skin like that?” Are you kidding me? That makes me so angry. Why isn’t it making more people angry?

    In a blog where the the experiences of South Asian people are highlighted and shared… I am constantly disappointed by the lack of support for these personal stories!!!

    Comments so often look like this…….?!?!??!?!?! “She was trying to be complimentary” or “I’m sure white people get a lot of stares in India…”

    What is next? Should I say “thank you” to every white person who says “Oh you are Indian… I love Monsoon Wedding!” We should be highlighting what is problematic about that behavior!! In the United States, white people have the immense privilege to take up space, ask ignorant questions, and make references to the very limited entertainment visibility that South Asians have! Our bodies & skin color should NOT be up for discussion at their convenience!! and without our consent!!

    This behavior is only perpetuated when we do not make a stand against it. At the very least we should be (in my opinion) fostering a community where we can support each other in these moments…. Even if its in an online community!!!

    My response to this blog is- I am so sorry you were marginalized yet again because of the color of your skin. I am sorry that even elevators can’t be safe spaces. Thank you for your words and keep being the bad ass activist you are by sharing your experience.

    :( Where the radical desis at?

    (reposted cause I also posted anonymously)

    • Tina, who here is making excuses for this lady? I am one of the few who in fact makes sure someone knows how to pronounce my name properly. Yeah, I was the one who made the wihte people in India get stares comment. But I am also the one that would have come up with an incredibly rude response if I felt like the lady was just an annoying moron as you can see from my other comment. But sometimes, just as our own relatives who mean well can make weird comments about someone without thinking, you wonder if these are just the white counterparts of them. Just laying out ideas here as part of a discussion. But our benefit of the doubt certainly goes to Anna.

      You are not the first radical one here.

  21. Yeah I agree with Tina. This kind of behavior by the woman in the elevator is really stupid and insulting. I’m sorry you had to deal with it, just like I’m sorry for anyone fed up being asked about their skin color, nationality, ethnicity by complete strangers on the street. Maybe some of you have internalized your Otherness to the degree you don’t mind being asked to perform as the exotic outsider for anyone at any time. I’m with Tina and Anna, f – that.

  22. :( Where the radical desis at?

    Thanks, Tina. I’ve wondered that myself. Join us more often, would you?

  23. I think you handled it well. My father, who came over in 1964, was better at this. He was a short, dark-skinned Indian, but there were so few of us back then that he might as well have been from Mars.

    He could spot anyone in a crowd who even gave him the slightest odd look. He’d run up to them with a huge smile on his face, shake their hands, and point at random objects while speaking gibberish. He elicited the whole range of emotions: fear, revulsion, and anger. As a little kid, I thought it was wonderful.

  24. Could she have been asking about the author’s complexion instead — expecting to be told about some skin cream or something similar — and then got thrown for a loop by the “My parents are from India” answer? Just throwing out a thought because “Where is the origin of skin like that?” is really a weirdly worded way to ask about Nationality

    I agree it’s weird, but what else could she have meant by her question? She said “Where is the origin of skin like that?, implying a location. I think it’s clear she was referring to nationality, because if it was about cosmetics as you suggested, she could have simply asked that more directly. Now I certainly don’t think there’s anything wrong with inquiring about someone’s heritage if it’s polite and friendly, but the manner in which she asked just seems so off-putting. I wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s “racist” because I know nothing about this woman, but it’s undoubtedly rude.

    I do wish Americans felt more at ease about asking about each others’ heritage. We live in a multicultural society and that’s nothing to shy away from. What I hate is when folks ask where I’m from, and I respond “New York”, and the reply is “No but where are you from…” as if I’m trying to hide something. In my experience people abroad are less awkward about it.

  25. Cannot imagine such a stupid comment, and a similiarly inquring response directed at her might have been in order. Effusive commenting, even favorably, on other peoples skin color, when related to “race”, makes me cringe, though it’s better than insulting. You get attractive complexions in all colors, and unattractive in all colors. In any case, I’ve been around many Iranians, and many Indians, and that woman is damn goofy. I am old enough to remember virtually never seeing any race other than white (like me) or black, in person. Yet when I did see people who were in neither of those categories, I usually knew where they descended from. I even knew a lot of the different ethnicities within the countries they or their parents came from. I have never in my life had any trouble identifying ethnic types and just letting them get on with their lives if they let me get on with mine, as I “take up space” in my own country. I recognized the “types” because I have eyes, and some information, not because of any desire to “otherize” anybody. That’s difficult these days anyway. In most major metropolises, there are more people of various brown, black and yellow shades, than white. You aren’t the “other” any more in large parts of this country, if you are defining that by color.

    If it makes you feel any better (it doesn’t seem to though) white people do get rude comments about their looks all the time from “others.” I remember a very fat black woman, with extremely thin children getting off the elevator at the National Zoo in D.C., looking at the white kids standing in front of them and loudly instructing her children that they were going to see a lot of “funny looking” people. That’s some of the milder stuff. I just laughed. We’re all looking in mirrors. If you want to fight back verbally at such comments, go right ahead; but the elevator blonde probably suffers from Aspergers, or maybe she comes from Iowa, and genuinely did not mean to offend. Most whites I know of are too tremulous with social/racial angst to do anything other than offer groveling, awkward, and unneccesary compliments to anyone not white, which then get (correctly I think) interepreted as offensive. They really are pretty embarrassing to all concerned.

    btw, prior to bobbed hair coming into style in the 1920s, it was common for women (white) to sell their hair in Europe and America. Long hair was extremely popular and being able to sit on your braids was the height of beauty, or so my grandmother said. There’s an O. Henry story about it. 2,000 years ago, Roman ladies had red or blond hair imported from Germanic tribes who must have had their resentful moments at seeing those high & mighty Romans going about with barbarian hair glued to their scalps. Hair selling and buying has gone on a long time in Europe. I used to recognize Italian hair (blonde, brunett or auburn) when I saw it, and I may even be up to a stupid compliment about it, since Italians are, after all, fellow European descendants and would not take offense of me. Genes or olive oil, they have great hair, Maybe Indian hair is better, but I’m not into noticing that sort of thing any more. Of course I would never compliment an Indian on their hair, or any other racial trait. Next time it happens, say something back. You have nothing to fear. The kind of people who would ask “where does that color come from” and seem to mean it as a compliment, are the kind who will cower if you respond angrily. And they will learn a lesson that will be beneficial .. for all concerned.

  26. I grew up in Maine. No one that I encountered on a regular basis was anything but white. In elementary school I had a few friends who may not have been white, but actually I have no idea where their families were from, and I didn’t label them by race at that age. I grew up never once discussing anything related to appearance with someone who wasn’t white. I moved to the city to go to college. At some point I started dating a guy. His family was from India. He grew up in the U.S. When we first started dating, we were holding hands, our hands laced together, and he mentioned the cover for the film Jungle Fever. I didn’t know what he was talking about, so he said “The cover shows a White woman’s hand and Black guy’s hand, with fingered interlaced– just like us.” My response? Relaxed and comfortable I said “But you’re not black, you’re brown!”

    At that moment, my cheeks began to burn. I wondered in my head “Did I just say something terrible? Something stupid? Something ignorant? Did I insult him terribly?” It was the first time I mentioned skin tone when talking to a non-white person. Growing up, we would discuss our skin tone among friends– who was darker, who tanned easily, who burned, who had freckles, my many “Croatian” moles. Among my white friends, I had the darkest skin. I liked my skin. I was proud of it’s olive tone. Growing up, we could discuss these things. It was not awkward, or worrisome about insult. It was just discussions– like about how to perk up my very straight hair, or calm down my friends curly hair.

    I don’t remember how my boyfriend at the time responded to my comment- except that he didn’t get upset or offended. I remembered thinking “Oh my God. I must sound so stupid and awkward.” I remember being relieved that I hadn’t made him upset in my observation on his skin tone (which was what it was meant to be– but also sounded like a pronouncement of which “category” he should identify himself as). I also remember this as a symbol of how awkward I was at 21. How much my world has changed since then.

    When “Possibly” says that people don’t need to mention race or skin color at all– that we should be blinded by equality, I absolutely disagree. Why? Because it’s not how we normally act. I know I grew up comparing skin tones, talking about hair types and our appearances with my friends– not in a who’s better way– just chatting, comparing, etc. I have no doubt that other children, regardless of race, also grew up doing this.

    Saying “I don’t see race” doesn’t make us more equal. Saying “I don’t see race.” makes us ignore that racism and discrimination still exist. It also makes people like my 21 year old self afraid to make innocent (and yes, awkward) comments with someone she feels close to– I still remember the feeling of panic: “Did I say something terrible?”. I think that as humans we all naturally want to look and compare– not to decide who is better, but to become comfortable in ourselves, to learn how our body is unique, maybe to complain a bit– or come to terms with some part of our self that used to bother us. And let’s face it– friends of mixed backgrounds shouldn’t have to live in fear of saying something related to skin tone might be The End of friendship– because mentioning these things is equated with being a racist.

    On the other hand– I agree with Anna that this woman was inappropriate. This woman was not her friend. Not even an acquaintance. Anyone randomly and awkwardly calling your skin “interesting” on an elevator is awkward and bizarre– but even more so if, as a minority, you have being “othered” based on your appearance growing up. It reminds you that people might see you as different, strange– rather than how they see some other (white?) stranger in the same elevator.

    I experienced this feeling for a tiny period of time when I was in high school. I grew up in Maine (as I said before) and while basically everyone was white, there were variations in hair color, skin tone, eye color, etc. People had different backgrounds and religions. As someone with very dark brown hair, brown eyes, and olive skin, I didn’t feel too weird (though I always got the impression that I was seen as “ethnic” in my majority irish/french catholic high school). But during one summer I was a counselor in training (CIT) at a summer camp in Virginia. I went with a friend who had gone there before.

    I remember feeling awkward upon arrival. Practically everyone I met was blonde with blue eyes. People would stare at me. I felt othered– I felt like a strange zoo specimen rather than just another CIT. To add to this– random people I did not know would come up to me asking:

    “Where are you from?” “Maine” “No, what country?” “uhhhh, the U.S.?”

    “Are you French?” “No?” “Where is your accent from? Are you from Europe?” “I’m from Maine. The State.” “Oh. You sound French. And you look French too. You’re not French?” (confused look).

    “Are you Filipino?” “No.” “Oh, I just thought you were– because Filipino people have dark dark hair and light skin– like you.” “Really? No I’m not. I’m from Maine.” (I was under the impression that Filipino people were generally Asian looking). “But like, what country?” “Um, part of my family is from Croatia. My great-grandparents?”

    I remember being miserable that summer. I felt very lonely. I didn’t make any friends at camp. If one person had made a comment like that, it probably wouldn’t have bothered me. In fact, the words they were saying themselves were not really insulting or upsetting. Sometimes I thought it was amusing. It was more the FEELING it created. The feeling of “other”ness– the message “You don’t belong here.” Those comments were part of it– but also with that was the way I was treated (or ignored). It was part of larger behavior– behavior in which people didn’t want to get to know me– but were marginally interested in my differences.

    The difference between my short stint at summer camp in Virginia and Anna’s story is that I “escaped” after camp was over. I returned to Maine, were my origin was not subject to constant scrutiny. I had a place where I felt “regular”– where I felt like a normal person doing normal stuff. I can’t imagine the frustration and angst one must feel– having this feeling of other thrust upon them for most (all?) of their life. My two weeks of being an “other” are an unpleasant memory– but I feel like I can avoid being in such a situation again. I can imagine how frustrating it could be to have to face this every day.

  27. I’ve noticed that one of the nicest compliments to Indian girls – whether DBD or ABD – is to tell them that they don’t look Indian, but in fact, Mediterranean. If you told them that they looked Indian, they actually get annoyed. I’m not kidding to you one bit. I know of many Indian girls – they were from India or America – and they had a lot of pride if you told them that they had Greek or Slavic features.

    Interesting, I have not encountered this yet. But I can see how this is quite plausible.

  28. Maybe Indian hair is better, but I’m not into noticing that sort of thing any more.

    Hmm I don’t know if Indian hair is “better”. I know growing up I envied my E.Asian friends whose hair just seems so naturally silky. But I know the reason Indian hair is picked is because it’s thicker than European hair but not quite as thick as E.Asian hair, and more elastic. I bet bleaching it reduces the quality though. What does bother me is that 100% Remy Indian hair is quite expensive but I’m fairly sure none of the women donating it see so much as a rupee, or even know where their hair is going. I recommend anyone here with long luscious locks getting it chopped (10″ or more) to donate to Locks of Love – much more satisfying than the weave industry.

    @Boston – I can see you pissing off a lot of ABD women with that line. People who things like “You don’t look X” typically have a very narrow view of what X is supposed to look like. The Indian subcontinent reflects a lot of diversity; it’s ok if you honestly mistake someone for being a different ethnicity, but to say “Oh you don’t look Sri Lankan – you look African American” or “You’re not Balochi, you look Greek!” if they’ve said otherwise is presumptuous, is not a compliment. If you’re using this line to hit on Desi chicks I advise you simply tell the lady she’s pretty and shut up ; )

  29. “Should I say “thank you” to every white person who says “Oh you are Indian… I love Monsoon Wedding!”"

    No. You should say, “Oh, and you’re white? I love the GAP and miracle whip!”

    • realdealholyfield: “Should I say “thank you” to every white person who says “Oh you are Indian… I love Monsoon Wedding!”" No. You should say, “Oh, and you’re white? I love the GAP and miracle whip!”

      What do you say to a white – or even an Indian – who tries to “compliment” you by saying “You don’t look Indian. I thought that you were Greek.” ??

      I noticed that to find light-skinned desis or Arabs, you must visit our Little Italy on Hanover Street here in Boston. You can spot the Arabs/Indians/Pakistanis because they’re the ones wearing “Roma” shirts or “Italia” jerseys. Oh, and their names are typically “Tony”.

  30. Hey Anna, Thanks for posting this story. I encounter these types of situations ALL the time. It saddens me that people buy into this “single story” of sorts – on how Indian people should look like, be like or talk like. There is danger in buying into the single story is that the person stereotypes. I feel like a lot people want to put their preconceived notions about others in a BOX, and store them and basically determine that this is how things should be with “others”. One is being ignorant by doing that. And does not acknowledge enormous diversity that exists within ones culture – be it in skin tone, hair type, hair colour, language, dialect, religion, religious sects, etc. etc..and it goes ON.

    There are MANY INDIA’s in one India..the diversity is HUGE. And sometimes I feel like it is too much for people to consume, so they just stick to their stereotype. I dunno..I think everyone needs to open their mind and READ for once. It’s imp to understand the world at large. Increase your exposure..broaden your mind..and lessen your ignorance.

  31. In the spirit of making lemonade from lemons, I often use the colour of the skin to start a conversation with PYTs, surprising how well they respond to “correct me if i’m wrong but are you middle eastern”

  32. Lindsey,

    Interesting story. While I have had my own stories of people trying to place my background (mostly in a harm-less manner), I would not have thought about your experiences. While it is not the same, I know of a number of people from the South, who can turn their accent on or off, depending on their social circle. They would sometimes be viewed with curiosity when attending college in Chicago, New York, or Philadelphia. Growing up in a mostly Italian neighborhood, some of the worst teasing I saw was directed at kids who were dark-complexioned, while the kids of Italian-Irish marriages would often seem to be complimented on their fair skin. Not as explicitly as in an Indian family, but more along the lines of “Don’t stay out in the sun too long. You don’t want to burn that lovely skin.”.

  33. What brown person hasn’t had a conversation like this – either based on their name or looks ? Sucks to have to deal with that type of social sickness when you’re already feeling horrible.

    Reminds me of the term ‘colourblind’ – usually people who say they’re colourblind are white, because people of colour don’t exactly have the same privilege of growing up and never, ever dealing with situations or discussions like these where their skin colour wasn’t a factor. We don’t really get to be colourblind.

    Hell, when I visited Georgia years ago I was told that I didn’t ‘look Canadian’. Funny thing was, most of the people with me on the trip were minorities.

  34. What surprises me is the element of surprise at what are, basically tactless and intrusive comments. Racism is way too easily invoked, this case is hardly thate. Thinking you may be Iranian is enough to make you ‘sick?’. There’s no evidence that the woman was looking down at the poster or even stereotyping her

    And having visited India many times with my (white) girlfriend and (white) wife, the level of comments about hair, skin, marital and childless status beggars imagination. Were either of them surprised and a little uncomfortable at times?…yes. Were they offended and “other-ed”? Sickened? Hardly.

    Look, there are intrusive and inappropriate people everywhere. Depending on the circumstances and exact behavior, it’s easy to slough it off most of the time (drunks in bars excepted.)

  35. Anna, it can hurt to be othered the way you were. Right there in your own office building, in the nation’s capital. Still, there’s something in the old saw that nobody can make you feel inferior without your permission. But there’s also genuine curiosity. Just the other day, I was in a bank, where one of the teller’s names was ‘Ama’. It looked like it said ‘Anna’, and she looked a lot like someone who could be ‘Anna’, and I just had to ask her, as nicely and by-the-way as I could muster, ‘Ama. So where’s that from?’ And she said ‘Kenya’. And I’d never have thought that at all. But lots of Kenyans, Ethiopians, Somalis look like Malayalees, and vice-versa. Now I know.

    And similarly, many, many Iranians, Baluchis, Sindhis, and even Armenians, to say nothing of Greeks, look like Malayalees too. I mean in terms of features, and in terms of skin color. The Arabian Sea littoral is quite mixed up that way.

    On that subject, I wanted to ask in the other, now closed, thread – I know several South Asian young women in America (both 1G and 2G) who use a certain kind of make-up that they apply all over their body. I don’t think it is F&L – it doesn’t make your skin ‘fair’, it’s just make-up, except they apply it all over their body, and every so often they have to shower, or it wears off eventually, and suddenly you can see them in their true colors, er ahem. Does anyone know what I’m talking about?

  36. Reminds me of someone yelling “COOL TAN, DUDE” while i’m waiting in line to use the diving board at local pool…

  37. “Where is the origin of skin of like that?” WTF?? “I would never have guessed.” WTF…AGAIN!! It’s not a compliment and it’s no business of hers. I wish you had been you lethal self. Sorry you encountered this while you were sick.

  38. I’ll bet this was woman was a liberal or some left leaning individual. Those are some of the most racialists minded people you can find. They are always trying to categorize non-white groups based on vain and superficial nonsense.

  39. Ah,Anna,I feel your pain. Just a few days ago I was buying jewellery and trying it on,and the lovely lady says – “Oh, you have such beautiful skin. All that jewellery looks so beautiful on you. I wish I had dark skin, everything looks so beautiful on it..” Um.Thanks.I think.