Internalized racism

I always wanted to be white. It all may have begun with the show WKRP in Cincinatti. This was one of the few shows that was broadcast on the very limited TV channels we had in Mozambique, a communist state at the time with programming that was mostly state-sponsored. I remember in addition to WKRP in Cincinatti, there was a low-budget animation show with hand puppets who spoke Portuguese. In comparison, WKRP Cincinatti had incredibly high production value and was slick and obviously was a show made by people with money and about people with money. They spoke in the sophisticated and mysterious language of English, which I didn’t understand but which I really wanted to partake in. WKRP was a show about white people, who were very beautiful with their different color hair and their blue eyes. White people were obviously more advanced than us Indians or any other darker race.

In the very segregated Mozambique, in real life I never saw white people, which only added to their mystery and appeal. As a child, I was confined to my apartment building and our apartment building was populated by other Indians. My friends and I would watch the bustling city of black and brown people below our apartment building from the balcony, but we never saw white people.

I only interacted with white people once I started going to the International School at the age of 6. My smart father had enrolled me in the International School in Mozambique, which was a British primary school so I could learn English because by that time he was planning on taking us all to live in America.  My teacher was a white British woman with straight shiny long brown hair and a kind face with thick eyebrows.

When we came to America, it was like I came to the paradise where the mysterious white people live. Walking into the grocery store in Indianapolis I literally thought I was in heaven as I had never seen so much food in my life, shiny perfect red apples piled high, plump purple and green grapes glistening on the table, and loaves upon loaves of sliced bread in plastic bags relaxing on the shelves. I was overwhelmed with happiness. It felt like my family had won the lottery.

Then came TV. I instantly fell in love with American TV as it was clearly superior to Mozambique TV. First of all, we had loads of channels. I remember seeing the animated introduction to Bewitched for the first time and being enthralled by the quality of the drawings, the catchy music and the animation. I was sorely disappointed when it turned out the show was not a cartoon at all, but had real life grown-ups in it. But soon enough me and my little brother discovered Saturday morning cartoons, which mesmerized my 8-year-old brain and I thought, once again, that I had died and gone to heaven.

My 50 year old African-born Indian father had a penchant for music, any kind of music, American, Indian, African, you name it. We had MTV and VH-1 playing in the house on most weekends while we ate our leftover curries and roti for breakfast. We watched Casey Kasem’s Top 40 and I remember feeling good that there was a man with an Arabic name on TV. TV, which was mostly populated by the privileged superiors – white people.

I learned about a lot of grown up themes watching MTV and VH-1 in a house with a strict father and mother who did not want me talking to boys, ever. I learned about sex and dissatisfaction with the establishment that showed up on a lot of music videos. I didn’t know one could be dissatisfied with the establishment and openly express it on TV. And so I associated freedom with being white too.

I attended elementary and middle school with mostly white people and I always knew deep inside that I could never be friends with them, or black people or anyone else besides Indian people. Everyone sticks to their own kind after all.

But it was the white kids I really wanted to be friends with. They were the cool kids, hands down. They were the wealthiest and also the best looking, with their fair skin, smooth and straight hair, and blue eyes. They could also have boyfriends and make out with boys, unlike me. They were an ideal I could never be.

That was my attitude as a new immigrant to the US and the foundation of my internalized racism and white supremacy. In case you’re wondering what “internalized racism” means, it’s when a person is racist against their own race.

In my 40s, after a series of ways I’ve tried being more white, I have come to question this pursuit and am grappling with what’s authentic to me. Certainly, after spending more than three quarters of my life in the United States, I have a very strong American streak in me. But I also have very bright and powerful strands of my African-born Indian heritage too, strands that refuse to fade into the background and strands that I have come to nurture and cherish, finally.

This blog is about the search for the immigrant’s authentic self and of finding her place in the country she call home. It’s also about being a woman, a minority and a person of color in today’s increasingly nationalistic and white-supremacist world.