Mixed Bag

14 Feb

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.”

Yeah: o.O

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I was all ready for outdated concerns about the mixing of sacred bloodlines and horrified questions about what kind of unnatural beast would spring from their zebra loins.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.


Posted by on February 14, 2010 in Celebrity, Life, Personal, Video


11 responses to “Mixed Bag

  1. pitu

    February 14, 2010 at 3:56 pm

    Double shock for your relative: All my cousins went to schools in Panchgani. And I, a desi, intend to send any kids I have to boarding school. Also, I had a long line of nannies my entire childhood, which is why I spoke fantastic Yoruba, accented English and undecipherable Marathi 😀 If you ask me, that’s the way to go! But then again, the women in my family and I would be considered ‘dusht daayans with no maternal chromosomes’. So much for stereotype 😉

  2. Amey

    February 14, 2010 at 8:54 pm

    Umm, are there any polite ways to say “her race has nothing to do with how she holds a baby”?

  3. Gradwolf

    February 14, 2010 at 11:02 pm

    You want to rest your Zombie at the Family Party. I am going to learn to practice such self restraint. My “Oh he is a kid, don’t take him seriously” license has expired. And it has dangerously transformed to “Oh he is ex-NRI, he’ll be like that only”.

  4. ajnabi

    February 15, 2010 at 12:43 pm

    I always think many people would be surprised at how a very conservative Christian upbringing in the States (i.e. mine) leaves people with very similar attitudes re: elders and other things. Not that my parents have made racist comments in front of me, and that certainly wasn’t part of my upbringing, but other older people in my family have said things and because of my being taught SO MUCH respect it’s been hard to learn how to address such things–if I must. I always try to deal with it with big eyes and an innocent “But why on earth would she not?” And if they say, “Because she’s ______,” I just keep on playing dumb with a very ingenuous, “I don’t understand.” Eventually they usually realize that their reasons for thinking that way are a) not very well thought-out and b) sounding progressively more terrible as they continue to fumble an explanation. It’s a lot more effective, in general, than a straight-out statement calling their wrong thinking out. Just IME.

  5. sachita

    February 16, 2010 at 2:48 am

    I have said it in the past, not exactly like race has got nothing to do with it.
    Rather, ” you will be surprised how they really are.. with some eg..” – which instantly became part of their gossip ring. So the same aunty would go and say in the next social meeting, ” Apparently they really arent like that, my friend’s daughter.. ” you know how it goes.

    But yes pushing it too much will get you the nri tag.

  6. Jawahara

    February 16, 2010 at 8:32 am

    It’s amazing isn’t it the totally oblivious way in which some aunties make these statements? A long time ago, when I was a student, I went to one (and that was it) desi family party. It was one of those mid-western homes with no fences, so that even the backyard had no fences as such, just trees or something to demarcate boundaries.

    Some desi mums I’ve found seem to be struck blind and deaf as soon as they take their kids to a party. I mean really, I was no angel as a kid growing up in India but we were taught to respect people and proprety and our bad behavior was not rewarded…or tolerated. There’s naughty and then there is rude and bratty.

    Anyhow, so this bunch of kids (7-10 years old) started playing in (destroying?) the neighbor’s yard. Apart from running through their freshly sodded lawn, diving into flower-beds, they were also shrieking, running up their deck, playing hide n’ seek, flinging dirt around, etc. They were loud enough to be heard from the home we were in but there was no reaction from the mums. They just spoke louder. Simple!

    Eventually the lady next door came over and *politely* asked that this band of kids not be allowed in her yard, especially because they had just laid down new sod the day before, etc. etc. She left.

    The mums started talking then, “Yeh safed logon ko na, kuch baccho se pyar hee nahin hota. Pata nahin kaisey dil hain, inke.”

    I was like, wtf? Of course, the mum protesting the loudest had just the week before bought a new fridge. When the delivery men arrived she peeped through the hole and did not open the door. Why? The deliverymen were black and she got totally terrified..”Ye kaaley logon ko dekh kar dil bilkul dar jaata hain ha?”

    That was the first and last such shindig I went to despite the lure desi khana held for poor starving students. Btw, these were all wives and kids of the local university professors, post-docs or practising physicians.

    I still wish I’d said something though. I felt so sick after this episode, and your post reminded me of it.

    • pitu

      February 17, 2010 at 2:28 pm

      Ugh. Mortifying 😦

  7. memsaab

    February 16, 2010 at 10:46 am

    So THAT’s why Indians treat me like a man in India! I have no child-holding skills!

    At least I can usually have a beer without anyone making much of a fuss. Well, to my face anyway.

    • memsaab

      February 16, 2010 at 11:23 am

      ps I have a button that says “Unattended children will be given espresso and a free kitten” which could come in handy for some of you 😉

  8. Gagan

    February 17, 2010 at 2:59 am

    I always let those things slide, for some of the same reasons that you mentioned but not all. Lecturing from my parents was kind of a constant hence my interest in altered states ever since. I think it’s more fun to just take note of all that casual racism and laugh at it. It goes on in other cultures and it’s funny when talented comedians pick up on it and play it for all it’s worth. I really get bored by people who try to correct the world. But on some level it must have had an effect on me. I live here in Quebec now and we are justifiably suspicious of the slow creep to eradicate French culture, ie always offended. Right now it’s cos the vancouver olympic opening ceremonies shut out the French language as much as they could. Good irony being that the first ever olympic gold medalist for canada on home soil was a frenchie. I digress but what I mean is all that stuff had an effect on me cos I can easily avoid indian aunties and uncles here and I feel comfortable in a place where I can express indignation at prejudice without feeling bound to a set of values where everything my elders say is sacronsanct.
    I liked that John Mayer interview. He was honest and just firing off the cuff, use extreme metaphors to get across your point cos that’s a way to get heard. By the way I read a great analysis of Naipaul recently European writer explained how on the Island there was a way of talking, a lot of it tongue in cheek but a way to say really outrageous stuff just to get a rise. it made sense and sometimes when you play that game you can go too far and let some uncomfortable thoughts out unawares. Nice new blog design here Amrita, by the way.

  9. Amrita

    February 17, 2010 at 4:27 pm

    Pitu – oh hell yes! I’m right there with you!

    Amey – it’s a matter of tone. The trick is to say it in the friendliest possible manner as though it were something that everything knows and she might have just forgotten. As Ajnabi says below, when criticizing the elderly and the conservative, do not do it directly!

    Adithya – ah but you were probably out with the uncles who are far more indulgent in these matters than the aunties. Also, my mother pinches. 😦

    Ajnabi – haaa! Yes! The “who me?” trick. 😀 I’ve used often in the past. But usually for little things. I must try it for bigger fish. That definitely sounds familiar to this Indian girl.

    Sachita – it kills me how they use it simultaneously to talk up “prospects” and talks down opinions. grrr.

    J – if it makes you feel better in any way, we’ve all had those moments. I know I endlessly recycle a couple of them in my head when I really ought to have said something but kept my mouth buttoned because I didn’t want to be rude. In retrospect – they’re being racist and I’m worried about being rude? Such are the iron rules of childhood.
    I have an uncle who’s convinced Obama is a Muslim for example and the kind of ignorant shit he spouts at the drop of a hat is hateful. It’s only since my late epiphany that I realized I could say something about it instead of rolling my eyes at whatever cousin was nearest. Oh, and he’s extremely well educated, well off and well traveled. Sigh.

    Memsaab – like with everything else you have, I would like that button too! :mrgreen:

    Gagan – you’re one of the few to approve of the new design 😦 I’ve heard that before about Naipaul (I think on the BBC) and I think it’s true, but with Mayer i think it’s just intemperate narcisssm. But very entertaining because who gives interviews like that anymore huh? 😀
    I think you’ve hit the nail re: “comfortable in a place where I can express indignation at prejudice without feeling bound to a set of values where everything my elders say is sacronsanct.” That is the best part of life lived elsewhere.

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