Yesterday I had a conversation with someone I had never met before while I was in between meetings and presentations. Given that I live in London, and much of its population doesn’t encourage such random conversations on public transport, I was pleasantly taken aback by what we spoke about because it made me think about a lot of things.
One of the topics that we spoke about was the chameleon-like constructs of identity in the Diaspora and within ethnic groups (pretty deep for a random conversation). I often blog about topics such as assimilation, the challenges that ethnic minorities face in the Diaspora and experiences in the West, but it’s a first for me to be writing about this particular issue.
I often discuss my feelings of angst with regards to individuals choosing to bleach their skin, lie about their ethnic origins, lighten their hair, Anglicise their names or undergo procedures in an attempt to acquire approval in a society which rejects those without a Eurocentric-like appearance. The questions surrounding this topic are infinite: Is it because they sub-consciously hate themselves and their heritages? Have they made such decisions because they feel forced to ‘fit in’?
“No group in our population is less responsible for its existence. But every group is responsible for its continuance….” ~ Isabel Wilkerson
This post is difficult to write, because there are so many angles that I want to address. It’s a complicated subject that I want to grapple with, feel strongly about and discuss in a nuanced manner, but it feels like I’m trying to collect running water in my hands- an appropriate metaphor considering how subjective and fluid the nature of identity formation is.
I first came across terms such as Stockholm Syndrome and Uncle Tom Syndrome, while I was studying Black Fiction at university. Initially (I admit that I always feel dumb when I don’t understand what academic terms mean) I didn’t know how these psychological concepts worked or if I had even seen them happen in real life. But the more I observe, read and educate myself about aspects of history, the more I realise that we are surrounded by it.
A recent example has been the media frenzy surrounding two Indian-American politicians, Governors Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley, who hold very esteemed positions but have chosen to distance themselves from their Indian heritage. Firstly, it’s great to see individuals of South Asian descent become so accomplished in their fields, but at what cost does it come at? Both Jindal and Haley send out mixed messages to South Asians born and raised in the West, with regards to how they can smash glass ceilings, achieve success and garner influence. It is brilliantly explained in this open letter to Governor Jindal. Their actions tell South Asians that it is only possible to attain a certain level of success if you discard your ethnicity in the way that they both have. Is this true?
“Have you ever seen a demonstrable example of equality in your entire life?” ~ Boyd Rice
On one hand, I can understand why they have chosen to Anglicise their names and can’t really berate them for that. Jindal and Haley are prime examples of individuals who show how dangerous it is to believe those who say that they are ‘blind to race’ and/or ‘race doesn’t matter’ because it does. It matters to millions of people around the world, because it directly shapes their lives, their self esteem, their experiences and the way that they interact with the world. In addition, Jindal and Haley also embody pockets of a generation who have grown up in a society, with an exceptionally influential voice, that constantly reminded them that being an outsider is borderline unacceptable. Growing up with such a strong voice stating this probably ingrained a complex in them from a young age. Is it better to adopt chameleon-like mannerisms in order to escape the pain and danger of being attacked, discriminated or denied opportunities because of your ethnicity?
“You’re in a horse race but you’re thinking like a sheep. Sheep don’t win horse races.” ~ Jeanette Walls
The phrase: “When did you learn to hate yourself?” is one that springs to mind whenever I come across individuals who feel like this – especially South Asians who try to pass off for another race. From my observations, I have seen the half mad glint of happiness in a South Asian person’s eyes when they are mistaken for being mixed race or of southern European heritage. I don’t see the point in mocking them or slating them, because they are from a heritage which has prized such features given the fact that it was steeped in colonialism for centuries. They are living proof of people who are unable to face the pain which has been inflicted upon their community – in the past and present. They genuinely believe that if you change your name, alter your physical appearance or lie about your roots, that the possibility of escaping racism and discrimination becomes a reality and opens doors. But how long will that last?
Yet on the other hand, these individuals will never get to experience how liberating, soothing and powerful it is when a person claims their identity. The most powerful thing about claiming one’s identity is that it even has the possibility to significantly reduce power/control from a dominant group. It can transform them; it can heal, create unity, and motor them into empowerment – why would you want to take that away from dis-empowered groups who are in dire need of it today?