LOS­ING RACE

India Today - - LEISURE - —Shougat Das­gupta

Priv­i­lege is a pe­cu­liar pos­ses­sion,” writes Sharmila Sen in her mi­gra­tion mem­oir Not Quite Not White. “To those who pos­sess it, priv­i­lege is weight­less, taste­less, odour­less, sound­less and colour­less. Those who have least ac­cess to it are painfully aware of its mass, den­sity, taste odour, tex­ture, sound and colour.” Sen’s premise is that her fam­ily’s mi­gra­tion thrust race and mi­nor­ity sta­tus upon her, that in or­der to suc­ceed in her new home, she has had to put on white­face. “I have been wear­ing white­face for so long,” she writes. “Be­cause my Hal­loween never ends... Black­face is jolly, makes fun of oth­ers, is en­ter­tain­ment, is a game you get to play when you are al­ready the win­ner. White­face is sad, de­means me, is deadly se­ri­ous, is a game we play when we know we are on the los­ing team.”

In the open­ing pages of her book, Sen de­scribes a scene at a grad­u­ate school party at Yale, where she jok­ingly asks her friend, “one of the few black doc­toral can­di­dates in

the uni­ver­sity at the time”, why they ap­pear to be so pop­u­lar at such gath­er­ings. “Be­cause we are fun,” her friend says, be­cause “we smile and laugh so much... If we stop smil­ing, they will see how an­gry we are. And no one likes an an­gry black man.” Or, Sen notes to her­self silently, “an an­gry brown woman.”

But there is some­thing pro­foundly disin­gen­u­ous, al­most ob­scene, about the way in which she at­tempts to draw an equiv­a­lence be­tween the ‘losers’ of In­dian so­ci­ety, the poor who live in the bastis near the well-ap­pointed homes of those upon whom they wait, and a well-con­nected mid­dle-class mi­grant like her­self. “I never took full mea­sure of my own priv­i­leges,” Sen writes, “un­til one day, in an­other coun­try, I be­came the one who looked on en­vi­ously as oth­ers rushed past me to seize a daz­zling prize, im­mersed in the sweat­soaked thrill of their own game, barely tak­ing no­tice of my pres­ence.” It’s un­clear what prizes were out of her reach. Sen’s main peeve ap­pears to be that, in Amer­ica at least, she is not to the manor born but has to ac­quire new codes to ‘pass’ as what she is, es­sen­tially a prod­uct of priv­i­lege.

In Ants Among Ele­phants, Su­jatha Gidla writes about her own very dif­fer­ent mi­gra­tion to Amer­ica: “When peo­ple in this coun­try ask me what it means to be an un­touch­able, I ex­plain that caste is like racism against Blacks here.” Gidla, a Dalit in In­dia, feels an in­stinc­tive em­pa­thy with Black peo­ple in Amer­ica, has an in­tu­itive un­der­stand­ing of dis­crim­i­na­tion. Sen, on the other hand, writes about the mid­dle-class In­dian im­mi­grant’s dis­dain for Black peo­ple. Vi­jay Prashad ad­dresses this in The Karma of Brown Folk, the ways in which ed­u­cated In­dian im­mi­grants have al­lowed them­selves to be used in White Amer­ica’s war against its Black coun­ter­part.

Sen pays her­self the com­pli­ment of be­lat­edly com­ing to terms with her ‘not white­ness’ and writ­ing her book to “con­tain” and “do­mes­ti­cate” white­ness, to force it “down from its high perch of nor­ma­tiv­ity”.

But Sen doesn’t de­fine white­ness be­yond the ma­te­rial trap­pings of the cul­tural elite, as if ‘white­ness’ were syn­ony­mous with the man­ners and af­fec­ta­tions of the ed­u­cated, ur­ban mid­dle classes.

Sen protests too much when she claims that the “smil­ing mem­ber of the model mi­nor­ity can seem up­pity in a heart­beat”. Is her place in Amer­ica so in­se­cure? She might want to re­flect on the cul­tural cap­i­tal and class priv­i­lege that per­mits her to pub­lish her an­o­dyne maun­der­ings be­tween hard cov­ers and ask what is so dif­fer­ent about her ‘not white­ness’.

Il­lus­tra­tion by SIDDHANT JUMDE

SHARMILA SEN

NOT QUITE NOT WHITE By Sharmila Sen Pen­guin Vik­ing224 pages; `599

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