I am Indian American, and it’s 2017. But I still get asked ‘What are you?’
The more brown America gets, the more mutable ethnicity — mine, others — is becoming.
By Lavanya Ramanathan
Mar 9 2017
As I walked past them in a restaurant, a couple, on what must have been a first or second date, flagged me down from their table. From their broad, eager smiles, I already knew what they wanted.
“We have a bet,” the woman explained. “He thinks you’re from South America,” she said, gesturing to her date. Her money was on Pakistan.
I am a dulce de leche-colored woman, browner still in the summer. Tallish, with large eyes the color of Coca-Cola. My hair winds into curls at the hint of rain clouds. My lips are brown. “Like the president’s,” someone noted once, trying somehow to square Barack Obama’s multiculti look with my own.
My ancestors hail from the southern part of India, on the Bay of Bengal, which I mention only because the sea once had a way of washing up all varieties of conquerors and marauders on our shores. Lineage is messy.
But in 2017 America, my particular jambalaya of “features” frequently has me mistaken for Ethiopian. Trinidadian. Colombian. African American. It depends on which city I’m in, what I am wearing and, more often than not, who is doing the asking.
Now here was this couple, both white, asking the question I increasingly stumble over.
What am I?
Just another dark-featured, dark-haired woman in a vast sea of immigrants’ kids, I want to tell them.
Or more simply, I am brown. Because the more brown America gets, the more mutable ethnicity — mine, others — is becoming.
In “Between the World and Me,” Ta-Nehisi Coates describes defining oneself as black as like joining “a tribe — on one hand, invented, and on the other, no less real.”
As the number of brown-skinned Americans grows, will we forge our own tribe?
That would be just as much an invention, an embrace among disparate people whose common ground is mostly being a generation or two removed from an immigration story. But in finding bits of shared experience, there could be a feeling of unsiloing oneself, of belonging to something larger.
I’m not, of course, the only one aware of a change in the winds, away from the notion of a post-racial America, toward understanding that Americans are acutely aware of race and also content defying its cold categorizations. Asked at his last news conference whether there would be another black president, Obama joked, “I suspect we’ll have a whole bunch of mixed-up presidents at some point that nobody really knows what to call them.”
That future may not be far off. Whatever forces are working to erect walls and negate travel documents may be too late to change what is underway: Immigration and birthrate trends suggest that by 2046, the United States will be made up of more non-whites than whites. And the change will be fueled in part by immigrants from Latin and South America, from Asia and Mideast nations, but also by their American-born children and grandchildren.
Together, recent immigrants and their children will account for a third of the U.S. population by 2050, according to projections from the Pew Research Center. Already more babies of color are being born in America each year than white babies.
What am I? When my parents filled out my birth certificate more than 35 years ago, the county didn’t bother asking. My mother recently dusted off my paperwork and gave it a once-over to be sure. “There’s no blank for race,” she marveled. If there had been a box to check, we joked, the choices probably would have been just black or white.
No box, no easy categorization even then.
Instead, I’ve spent much of my life awkwardly knocking around the middle, dancing to Bell Biv DeVoe’s “Poison” with the black girls in middle school, banging my body into white boys in the mosh pit at Lollapalooza, reading books by biracial British author Zadie Smith and Dominican American writer Junot Díaz, and holding hands with a Vietnamese man who I was sure understood me.