Indian Community

The Monolith Myth

light

Light in the night. Source: Leonie

I’m going to tell you all a little story. So I work in a tutoring center in a library at a community college. I work on a relatively tightly knit staff. All ten of the writing tutors know each other, and the younger ones frequently socialize outside of work. I remember this was a conversation I overheard one day, between two of the tutors, one a multiracial Asian man (MM) and the other a middle-aged white woman (WW). It should be noted, the story being told is, if I remember correctly, the story of how the multiracial man’s parents met.

MM: …at that point, my mother was thrown out of the house by my grandmother. This wasn’t an unusual occurrence because my grandmother was a pretty abusive person.

WW: Oh…how horrible.

MM: She used to do things like beat my mother with a broom. So she [his mother] needed a place to stay after being kicked out of her house.

WW: I used to know a Korean girl whose mother would beat her, too.

This was the point at which I removed myself from hearing distance of the conversation because I knew exactly what was happening. It’s something that happens a lot to people who belong to racial minorities. I suspect that, as a person who is multiracial and who has been raised by and befriended a lot of white people, the Asian man telling this story is a little naive to the intrusive and often dangerous assumptions white people make about marginalized people. Thus, he did not edit out the details that people of color usually do around white people to protect the collective that is their community.

As for the white woman, it was as though I could see the little gears turning in her head. I could see her trying to connect dots which are not meant to be connected. She hears one story about an abusive Asian mother. Her memory is jogged to another time when she encountered an abusive Asian mother. Just like that, a stereotype is born! Now she believes all Asian woman are abusive to their children.

And this is not some new occurrence in my life. I went to a graduate degree program that was dominated by (bless their hearts) white queers. Because I am obliged to (and only because I liked my program adviser), I will say here that there are a small handful of white people in my program who genuinely try and are doing the work to recognize their role in a racist society. And then, there are all the rest.

Their judgment came every day like the morning news. Black men? Too aloof, militant, very sexist, not worthy of attention. Asian women? Scary, too opinionated, emotional, incapable of restraint. Black women? Think too highly of themselves, standoffish, stingy, secretive. Latinos? Clannish, always hungry, annoying, not prepared for the academy. The only way you won approval as a person of color was if you were queer and you outwardly showed more commitment to the queer community than to any other marginalized community.

In front of that group, where we were so frequently asked to talk about our social identities and our upbringing as part of classroom participation, I found myself hiding the truth about my family. I was not about to give these Northern white people any other reasons to look down upon me, my family, or the community of brown people that raised me in a Southern city. So I did not tell them about how hard it actually is for me to go home, to live with a mother who constantly comments on my weight and how I dress, who thinks that using a vibrator leads to becoming a prostitute (like a gateway drug), who always has to know where I am going and who I am with, even though she never gives my brother the same constraints. I did not tell them because I could not. How could I express the truth without throwing my family under the bus? How could I tell the truth without allowing white people to think my mother is an uneducated, backwards, primitive person who suffers greatly from internalized sexism? How could I give voice to my individual experience without having white people conjure the image of the Starving Brown Child in India, just waiting for their help? How could I say those truths without sounding as though I was inviting white people to save poor little brown me from the clutches of my medieval South Asian parents?  These are things I only ever talk about with woke people of color.

Instead, I only acknowledged the good things about my community in front of my colleagues–the parts about how, as children, we were basically raised gender-neutral until we reached puberty, and how radical that was. Or how arranged marriage was actually a financially and socially radical thing to do because it gave us kids the social capital we needed to survive in America. Or how the sex-negativity of Asians is also a radical concept because it precluded queer people from being ostracized from society. They only got to know the radical stuff. They were only allowed to see my community in a good light. I would not expose my community and my heart to the degrading nonsense of a bunch of people who think meals can be made out of oats and kale. Or worse, a bunch of people who think that because they understand Foucault’s theorizing, they are somehow the designated saviors of the Previously Colonized World.

You’ll notice, of course, this left (and perhaps, still leaves) me rather isolated. I present one truth to the world, and that is the only way I allow them to perceive me, and I know another, very different truth. This is not a strange or even rare practice. For people of color completing graduate degrees, compartmentalizing in this manner is a commonplace tactic.

If I’m being honest, I do not know that I have yet come across anything that feels like a solution to this problem, the problem of white people lumping people of color into monoliths, in which no one person of color is discernible from another. I also do not think I am obliged to find one. I think, before I even jump to solutions, it is worth proposing, to all communities, actually thinking about what this implies for our realities. What does it mean for people of color to constantly be protecting their communities? What kind of toll does it take on us to never tell anyone the whole truth? What are the implications when communities of color frequently don’t have access to things like mental health counselors because these are not critically conscious institutions and/or because counselors are too expensive? What does it say about the still-predominantly-white country we live in that we have to protect our communities when we are in the academy?

And for white people, what does it mean that communities of color go to this length to make sure you don’t interfere with their affairs? What does it mean when people of color are not comfortable telling you the truth about their upbringing? What does it mean that people of color try to protect their communities from you? What does it mean when people of color do not trust white people whose gender analysis is stronger than their racial analysis? What does it mean that in Massachusetts, a place that claims to be pretty liberal, a person of color can feel unimaginably lonely?

 

I don’t really have answers. I’ll end on this note. A few days ago, I went to the wedding reception of an old friend. All the people there were brown, and they acted like it, with moms feeding kids with their bare hands and people shoving people out of the way with absolutely no manners. I was going to post a funny status on Facebook about how you know you’re at a brown party when you feel like you’re surrounded by barnyard animals. It was just people having a good time. If it was a wedding reception full of white people, I probably could’ve gotten away with it. But I thought about how a post like that might come off to people who only know one brown person, or none. I thought about the mile-long list of stereotypes that already exists for my community. Did I want to add “barnyard animal” to that list? No, I didn’t. So I decided not to.

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On Mental Health

CW: Suicide

Okay, there’s something I’ve been quiet about for a while. I thought maybe I was quiet out of respect for people’s mourning, but I think now I realize that the person these people are mourning for is more important than the mourning.

In October, there was a boy in our community who committed suicide. I won’t use his name for the sake of privacy. He was 18 years old. He had just started his first semester at a university. His family was part of the Indian community that I was familiar with growing up. We used to see him and his parents around at friends’ houses sometimes when there were parties and other gatherings.

He committed suicide. I can’t imagine how painful that must be for his parents and his brother. I can’t imagine what it is like to lose someone into whom you have poured so much love and hope for 18 years.

I think the reaction I have seen from a lot of community members is a marker of how little our community is allowed to celebrate the humanity of people. So much of what I’ve seen are comments about mental health, as in, “mental health is so important! Reach out to me if you ever need help! Oh, and RIP friend!” and the like.

I cannot express the kind of fury this ignites in me. I cannot express how sad it is to me that this boy, who was so talented and so full of life when he was alive, is being reduced to his mental illness after death. I cannot believe people are allowing him to be remembered in this way, as some kind of victim of mental illness. In my opinion, that is an insult to his memory, and an insult to every person who is still alive and fighting for their lives. As a person who is living with depression, I refuse to allow this to be the narrative you tell. He is no longer alive to tell his story, but this is not the story you will tell about him.

Why didn’t it matter enough to you to check in on him while he was still living? Why didn’t it matter to you to tell him you love him while he was alive? Why didn’t you tell him how smart he is, how amazing he is, that you like his company, that he means something to you, while he was alive? Do not dare say another word about how sad it is when someone commits suicide if you are not brave enough to tell people you love them while they are alive.

I have seen people go to all kinds of lengths to avoid responsibility for what has happened. Saying things like, oh, it was the residence hall that was the problem. Oh, he picked such a hard major. Oh, he should have stayed closer to home. Oh, it was this, that, and the other thing, continuously blaming him. As time goes on, the list of accusations gets longer. This tells me that people know exactly what could have been done and just didn’t do it. It is our responsibility at the end of the day. Yes, ours. We are responsible for his death. We, his community, the people who were close to him and did nothing to stop this from happening. It is our fault.

And I have seen people have the nerve to call him selfish for leaving in that way. For writing a note to his parents that he is finally making a decision on his own. This tells me how little people actually know about mental illness. Of course it is selfish. To consider suicide, a person has to feel as though there is no other escape. Taking their lives comes to be a logical option. Unless you have felt that kind of entrapment, you cannot possibly know the pain he was living with in the last few days of his life.

Be a better community for him. You keep complaining about the stigma in this community around mental health. Are you doing anything to help stop the stigma? Are you educating yourself on mental illness? Do you let people know you are present for them when they need help?

Furthermore, are you honest about your own mental health status? This community is known for pushing young people to their limits, making us compete ruthlessly with the people we should be able to go to for support. It is common for young people to feel anxiety and depression without knowing it because they think this is a “normal” way to live life. I certainly did. Take stock of how well you are taking care of yourself. Go further than just the physical necessities of eating and sleeping regularly. Do you surround yourself with upbeat people who care for your well-being? Do you have people in your life who listen to you deeply, who know how to validate your feelings and recognize your pain? Do you have people in your life who take accountability for their actions and admit when they are at fault?

Notice how a lot of these questions have to do with people.

Do better for him. Do not make his story some melodramatic tragedy about depression. Remember his accomplishments, and appreciate how much he achieved in spite of his mental illness. Who knows how long he was affected by it? But he was still brave enough to get out of bed and go to class every day. He was still brave enough to move away from home. Remember his courage. And remember that about all the people who come out to you with their mental illness. Remember that while you suspect they are just lazy, while you accuse them of not trying hard enough, while you say ignorant things like “mind over matter”. I didn’t choose to live this way. No one wants to live with a mental illness. I live in spite of my mental illness.