I remember this old Eddie Murphy sketch from Saturday Night Live. He puts on white make-up (talk about the whitening of America, huh?), calls himself Mister White and sets out to compare these experiences with when he was just Mr. Black.
As soon as the last Black passenger gets off the bus he is on, a spontaneous party erupts on the bus. Champagne and streamers and all. When he applies for a loan at the bank he sees a Black couple being denied. The loan officer winks at him, however, asks him how much money he wants and hands it to him. In fact he even tears up the application and tells him not to worry about returning the cash.
As funny as it was I remember it because I also found it poignant and strangely quite relatable. This is the outsider's...the other's view. It is an exaggeration of how a minority might fantasize, if just for one day, they stepped into the shoes of power. How would it be, for instance, if I became Ms. White or Ms. Hindu? It's a powerfully seductive thought.
Here is my reality: I've never been part of the majority. I am an Indian Muslim and a brown person living in the West. I don't how it is and what it is like not to be a minority. I don't know how the majority would feel, does feel.
As I read article after article on DesiCritics about minority this and minority that, I find myself thinking about Mr. White and Mr. Black.
I know that my worldview, my reactions, even the way I see myself perhaps--consciously and unconsciously--is born out of my place in the world. This was not always so. I remember the first time I became aware of it. It was at school.
I was eight and some friends and I were talking the way eight year olds do. Until then I just knew that I was a Muslim and for some reason we did not eat pork and we had some festival named Eid that I hated because I can't stand siwai. That day I found out that I came from an evil, bloodthirsty lineage. That even though I had clearly missed seeing this at home, apparently we slaughtered cows on a regular basis and then boiled them whole (where we got a pot that large and how a kicking cow did not drag us in with it I don't know). I also know that we did not bathe everyday (except Friday because they're a holy day ya know), that we always smel bad and my little friend's grandmother had told her not to eat anything from our tainted lunchboxes. She told me this as we shared some cookies from my lunchbox.
I remember two feelings that day: 1. I was thankful that no one had figured out that I was Muslim. 2. I was very glad not to have an instantly identifiable Muslim name. I had found the magical conduit between our words. I had learned to pass.
From that awakening to many overheard conversations later, years later I finally piped in, "Uhmm...you know I am Muslim right?" And I heard the stammered responses, "Well, we weren't talking about people like you," or "Muslims? No, we were talking about Pakistanis."
And I realized that I had opened up something for these girls. They were traversing the reverse route of the the journey I had started at eight. The sudden and irrevocable awareness of one part of our identity. Did they feel betrayed that I had sat among them, listening to their innermost fantasies about the destruction of my kind? Did they feel threatened by my very presence? These were not my best friends....just some girls I hung out with sometimes, but still, perhaps they held their thoughts to themselves around me from that day?
I had learned to pass years ago. But in my fantasies, when I am not a minority I weave spells of what it will be like. And in my wildest fantasy there is just one word that comes to mind. Unaware. What bliss! The gift of not having to be aware.
If I really want to I can just be unaware. I can skate through life without really having to think about these elemental parts of my identity. I can slip like a fish through the nets of my identitities, the traps of my labels, and melt into the great waters of sameness from which I will be indistinguishable. It is such a delicious thought I almost melt with anticipation.
In India I would never cringe when asked for my last name. I could read the news and have an opinion or a feeling, express a thought without the weight of my identity pressing down on me. It hangs like an albatross sometimes. Despite my many lapses as a Muslim, including apostasy, I cannot escape the fact that when it comes to riots and analyses about the Hindu-Muslim equation, I always land on the right-hand side. I may be an agnostic or an atheist but during a riot the only thing that will matter to my interrogators will be my name. I will never need to justify my identity, never be asked to prove anything to anyone. I am who I am.
That day, years ago, when the kar sevaks came to town--on their way to Ayodhya-- and swarmed all over Civil Lines, in saffron, brandishing their trishuls I might not have felt that knee-buckling terror. I might have dismissed them as a nuisance, even had a strong political and secular stance against them but I would not have wondered if they could smell me where I hid in a shop? I felt like Jack hiding from the giant, even as his scent betrayed him.
In the U.S., and in Europe, as I step outside my house, I would never be aware of the color of my skin. I would just not have to think about skin at all, except to slather on some sun screen or put on my makeup. I wouldn't have to try harder, be friendlier, to take on this persona that I wear when I go out.
In this terrorism-obsessed world I would not have the tiny frission of fear handing over the my passport at international checkpoints. I would not wonder what someone else wonders when they see my brown skin and see my name.
I could walk outside, interact with strangers and never wonder these things. It's not that I don't think there are other identity issues that Hindus in India or white folks the world over don't deal with. It's just these two: the one that that is immediately apparent, the color I am; and the one that jumps out when I say out aloud who I am: my name, cannot be hidden away.
Skin color and identity that can be established by your name are the front-runners. They are the heralds that reach people before I do and announce who I am. After that, establishing myself is up to me...or perhaps it is de-establishing myself. But these two things have already established my differentness.
What is it like to be unaware? In my wildest fantasies it feels like a magic cloak that wraps me lightly and lets me slip invisibly through the world. It tastes like strawberries in summer. It smells of nothing at all. Pure, unperfumed and untainted. It feels like freedom, weightless. Soaring like a bird and see the world from a truly 1000 foot perspective, untouched and beautiful. All sounds muffled and indistinct, just the sun shining, the wind whistling around me. I am unaware of the wind currents that lift me up and let me dance in the air. They are invisible but powerful. But most importantly I don't even know...I don't know that I am flying. I don't even have to think about my freedom. It just is. It is a permanent state of being
Then like all fantasies, it ends, and I land back on earth in the middle of it all, acutely aware of it all, of myself. Perhaps that's the way it should be. Still...