The house was teeming with relatives gathered from far and wide to meet the new American daughter-in-law. One little chubub was especially fascinated by her blonde hair and wanted desperately to touch it. He followed her around for a while with shiny eyes rounded in hope until she simply had to pick him up and let him grab a handful with a crow of delight.
“Hmmm,” said the aged auntie to my right. “So the white girl knows how to hold children.”
I would have understood it if she’d said it to be catty or mean. She didn’t. She sounded sincerely surprised and glad that white girls know how to hold babies. It’s not like I haven’t heard plenty of ignorant shit about how white people just don’t care for their kids or are given to rampant neglect (all the more deliciously hilarious when they land up next to the Park Slope stereotype in my head) – and I’m sure they think even worse stuff about black people and Chinese people and everyone else who is not Indian. But it somehow never struck me before that day that it arose out of a genuine feeling that these people lack this most common of human emotions.
Perhaps it comes out of the colonial experience. The English system of nannies certainly found fruitful soil in India where generations of ayahs appear to have fallen in love with their white-skinned, rosy-cheeked, pleasingly plump baba log. And the sight of watching a couple of centuries worth of English parents pack off their children to vilayat and a boarding school education has apparently left a very deep impression about their familial attachments in Indian minds indeed.
I was all ready for outdated concerns about the mixing of sacred bloodlines and horrified questions about what kind of unnatural beast would spring from their zebra loins. I got neither. Instead, a haze of relief hung in the air: she might be blonde and American but she could eat Indian food and liked children. Huzzah!
My dilemma on that day was twofold: one, the auntie making the comment had no idea that there was anything wrong at all with what she was saying; two, not having been brought up to say boo to an elder, I had no idea how to approach something like this.
There was nothing I could do about the first. When race is discussed in India, it generally stops at “everybody hates us coz we’re teh browniez” because for a lot of people that is still their only real world experience. Of course, it leads to things like this which tries to speak to that demographic and ends up saying things about the copywriter instead:
But when I think of that same ad, if it were repurposed for a white family in suburban Connecticut, and at the mention of the son’s girlfriend’s name, the grandmother were to wrinkle her nose in disgust and say “Black?” (but use a slangier word for it), some folks would be rather perturbed and offended.
As the recent dust up with John Mayer’s exceptionally insane interview proved this past week, in fact! Although I don’t think any auntie out there is going to describe her son’s twigs & berries as Balasaheb Thackeray any time soon.
But when it comes to the second part, I’m sure there was a way I could have expressed my objections. Once I got over my shock, the first things that came to mind were sarcastic rejoinders that might have given me great satisfaction as I repeated them in my head but would never be actually said because the lady is ancient. As well as a relative. And my mother would hear about it and kick my ass.
It occurs to me now, however, that if I can find a way to call my parents on their occasional lapses in judgment in a perfectly respectful and reasonable manner, then there is no reason why I can’t find a polite way to say, “Excuse me, but her race has nothing to do with how she holds a baby.” Don’t ask me why this never struck me before.
The big Three Oh is just a couple of years away now and I think the time has come for me to lay my default Zombie at the Family Party avatar to rest.