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