A former Harvard professor ruminates on race in America from her perspective as a Southeast Asian woman.
Before Sen, the executive editor at large at Harvard University Press, immigrated to the United States in 1982, she had never used race-based labels to identify herself. In her native Calcutta, people identified each other by the languages they spoke or the gods they worshipped. Through a series of four intertwined personal essays, the author traces her evolution from Indian immigrant to resisting “Not White” American. Sen begins in 1970s India, which she recalls as a place where a child’s future success depended on getting into schools that taught English. By knowing a few words of this colonial language, Sen was able to matriculate at a Catholic school where the main divide was between Hindu and Christian Indians. After relocating with her parents to Boston, Sen realized that she and her family—who were neither “chic expats [nor] political dissidents with lofty ideologies”—were in America for the most mundane of reasons: to improve their economic status. Desperate to fit in, the author immediately set about “acquir[ing] a new American accent” by watching shows like General Hospital and Happy Days. During high school, college, and graduate school, Sen became increasingly aware of the American minefield of race. As she “silently accepted the badge of honorary whiteness,” she also learned to expose small parts of her culture in ways that made her seem less like an exotic “other” willing to play into pre-existing Indian stereotypes and more like “a brown woman mimicking a white man pretending to be a brown man.” She eventually channeled her rage at being forced into whiteface performance by calling herself “Not White.” In naming whiteness, she realized that she could challenge both the dominant culture’s “powerful invisibility” and its monopoly on the title “American.” Timely and eloquent, Sen’s book is a welcome addition to the growing body of literature that engages with the topic of race from outside the white/black binary.
Insightful, relevant reading for these times.