Passing Movie

Passing. It’s the name of a new movie. One that refers to an age old way of moving in society if one is something other than white in America. If one is light skinned enough, one can ‘pass” as white. Why would anyone want to do that? Of course, to hold privilege and power in society.

In the Passing movie, two young African-American girls grow up and join society. They have lost contact with one another and then reconnect as adults. Clare is now passing as a white woman and married to an overtly racist man while her friend, Irene, is living her life as a Black woman. Who is being authentic in her racial identity? We find Irene longing to know what it feels like to hold the power of a white person in society and we have Clare curious about moving through life as a Black woman.

In this movie, the women are African-American. Rebecca Hall, the film’s director, adapted the story from the 1929 novella Passing by Nella Larsen. It was written in a particular time with a particular story about passing as white when one is Black. However, if we were to take it beyond the Black/white paradigm passing is a concept that many bi and multiracial people are familiar with in modern day.

White people still hold tremendous privilege in society and so if you can pass as white, why not some may say. Even today. As a biracial child, half East-Indian and half Caucasian, I was always treated as a white kid with a funny last name. I didn’t even realize I was carrying that privilege. All I knew was I fit in with the white kids and was accepted. And not just any kids, but the popular ones. Not being rejected, but being “in” is something all kids crave. I had no idea in small town America much of this acceptance came from passing as white.

However, being seen as white and only having the Caucasian part of my racial identity seen and supported in society when I also am half East-Indian eventually lead me into a very confused identity state. What part of me was brown and Indian? It was out of this longing to have my color seen that I sojourned to India to be with my family and take a journey to self to reconcile both parts of myself. Given the color of my skin, I am never seen or treated as anything other than as a white woman and there is a particular kind of pain that is sharp and poignant when one’s passing is their full reality.

These two characters are wholly African-American and one has chosen to pass. I never chose this path — my skin color dictated that I could pass. I have experienced privilege and power as a result. I have sought to have my color side seen, but can never quite fit in. I must be married to an Indian man (which I am) — there is no way our collective East-Indian birthright is yours.

It hurts. The characters in Passing are also hurting — trying to fit in, to be their own person, to connect, to hold power and privilege, to be seen as “in,” to be seen as other in their own community. This movie is worth a viewing and a thought as to one’s racial identity and what would any person do to hold power and privilege in a society where it is far from egalitarian.

Interracial Families and Racism

Interracial Families Discuss Racism
Interracial Families Dealing with Racism

Interracial families and racism would seem to go hand-in-hand. Yet, with many children in these families passing as white, it can often be a topic, i.e. race, that is never addressed or discussed. Often when the children “pass” as white, it is easier to not talk about white privilege given there is a black member of the family too.

This can be quite a confusing set-up for children, and so that is why I was interested in this article I read in The Washington Post regarding interracial couples finding it to be a challenge to discuss the killing of George Floyd and how this affects them being half white and half black.

Being a biracial person myself, it is difficult to look at both parts of my racial identity that make me up and claim them equally. For me, since I pass as white, my family, peers, friends, professional colleagues, and society in general see me as a white person who married an Indian man — given my last name.

No matter how I seek to be seen as equally white and East Indian, it is of no use as I have been named as white given my skin color. My guess is parents who are black and white and have children together, skin color can often dictate how the idea of race is framed for their children — if it is spoken to at all. Now a horrific incident like the George Floyd video shows, and interracial couples are being challenged to discuss the idea of racism in the open with their kids — and face it themselves, i.e. the costs the adults may have endured for choosing to marry outside of their racial identity.

I hear at once in the article the idea of talking about the incident and seeking to name racism in society and how it can be felt — from police brutality to micro aggressions that people endure on a daily basis. I also hear the parents seeking to protect their kids from all of these hard topics and not burden them with the race card, especially what it means to be half white and half black in America, if those are the two racial identities that make the children up.

What is positive in my opinion? People are speaking out in their families, to their friends, and in society regarding what it means to be black in society. What it means to be white in society. And now – as this article points out – what it means to be both black and white. Often, you are met with indifference as you are seen and named by all as what your skin tone offers. That’s the very first hurt biracial people face.

Being biracial or multiracial is not an easy path, particularly in these times that we are facing. Owning all parts of our selves that make up our racial identity is more important than ever. I am grateful to see major news outlets bringing this story out to the frontlines.

I Am Human

I am Human
I Am Human

As a woman who is biracial, half East Indian and half Caucasian, and embraces both as my total racial identity, I have found it difficult to find acceptance of myself either from the Caucasian or East-Indian community. People in white society see me as wholly white. Sometimes when someone finds out I am a person of color (POC), she lumps me in as a POC without considering that I am also white. In the East-Indian community, most believe I am a white woman married to an Indian man. My last name, Kothari, is assumed to be my husband’s rather than my father’s.

Many in America think of biracial identity as one where someone is half black and half white. There is not a sense in the greater society that many people lay outside or beyond that norm who identify as biracial or multiracial. In American society, it’s hard to see how someone fits outside of black and white. And yet there are so many of us who dwell in multiple racial identities outside of this construct.

Yet, people want to fit you in somewhere in how they understand the construct of race. This is why this video, “I Identify As Human” feels important to me and captures the spirit of being a biracial and multiracial person in this world. I love how it ends with the people saying boldly, “I am different,” and “I am a human.”

It is difficult to walk in this world meeting people ready to box you into a racial identity. Another poignant part of this video is the question we receive all of the time, “What are you?” People are seeking to put you in a place in their minds that they can understand. “Oh, you’re Asian.” all of a sudden that title of race gives someone a whole lot of information about you for the other to decide how to treat you, what ways to think about you, and more. You are now in the box.

Biracial and multiracial people make the status quo uncomfortable. What? Someone is half white and half Indian? How does that work? It makes people in society uncomfortable. This video allows for people to proclaim, “I am human!” With that, everyone knows the feeling of being a human. It is universal. Perhaps in people feeling reassured that we are more alike to you than we are different, a genuine curiosity about our unique selves will emerge with space for both parts to be integrated, seen, and understood.

A Suitable Girl

A Suitable Girl Movie Poster
Looking at Marriage from an Eastern Perspective

A Suitable Girl is a documentary on Amazon Prime video that follows three women and their journeys into married life. It is a great film to think about love and marriage from a completely different perspective than we have in the west. I am always amazed at how vastly different the approach to love and marriage is between the two cultures.

This documentary drops you into the East Indian values with immediacy as you meet the three women and learn their family situations and what is going on regarding getting married. It is true that in India parents prepare from the moment a daughter is born to lose her to her future husband and his family. This is a given from the start of any girl’s life in India.

From that fundamental tenet, we meet the three women who are all living with their family of origin and in vastly different situations. One is preparing to marry a man she chose herself – they were high school mates – and move away to a different state. A second one is an intellectual and highly educated, with a Mother who is a matchmaker, except she cannot play this role for her daughter. And, last, is a woman who is turning 30 and has been in the marriage matchmaking game for several years with no results.

Unlike in America, in India the family is heavily involved with this decision of whom their daughters will marry. From taking pictures for the marital ads to attending marriage meet-ups, to meeting a prospective suitor and his family over tea, this is a family affair. The whole family is invested in making the very best match it can for the daughter. For families with daughters, they are looking for money and status. For the families with sons, often beauty and light skin are named as desirable qualities. Very traditional — even in 2017.

In America. it is on the individual man and woman to meet, determine if the person is a potential mate, date/live together for a time, and then marry one another. This process can take years and is often founded on the idea that “being in love” and “physically attracted” to the other as the paramount qualities to deciding if two will marry one another.

In India, as you will see if you watch this documentary, love hardly factors in to this decision at all. Rather, the couples’ horoscope should match, the man should be from a “good” family and have high earnings, and the woman can be educated, but also beautiful and fair-skinned, as well as one who appreciates the traditional wifely duties of cooking and caring for elders. After all, she will leave her parents and join him, often in his parent’s home to take care of them. Matches are set within minutes of meeting.

Which way is right? Which way is wrong? Being a bi-racial woman made up equally of Caucasian and East-Indian identities, I believe both ways have merit and each view is a way to meet and marry. The latter is far more communal and practical, but I think more of this in the western way we choose our spouses, would be a good thing. Simultaneously, infusing a little more time to get to know the other with some space away from one’s birth family would also be a good thing for the way toward an Indian marriage.

Imagine my surprise when I saw this review of A Suitable Girl in Variety that slams the Indian way toward marriage. Being half Indian, I am offended by this review and complete criticism of the film and these three women’s lives as they journey toward marriage. Yes, it is constricted by tradition, but it is also tradition that guides their lives as well. It’s hard to keep any type of open mind with these types of reviews.

I suppose the women each have their own “happy” ending. Whether in the East or the West, I think this is a Disney promise that often proves to be elusive. Nothing can prepare a person for marriage and all that comes with it no matter how societies try to approach the landmark decision in one’s life.

I believe there is merit in watching such a documentary to expand our minds as to the different ways people approach marriage around the globe. Feeling stuck in the western way? Get out of yourself and see a new perspective.

Little Women Viewed from a Multicultural Lens

I was perusing the New York Times the other Sunday and came across an interesting article regarding another Oscar contender, Little Women. The author’s point of view on the film was written from an African-American perspective. The article is titled The Bearable Whiteness of Little Women.

The author’s take is that Louisa May Alcott has written a book about the March sisters that transcends their whiteness and simply inhabits their times and offers one filter on how to move in the world as women navigating difficult waters in the 19th century. When the author talks about being black and watching the film and says,”empathy looks less like identifying with the other and more like emotional hegemony” I can understand her perspective.

Little Women is certainly a book of Alcott’s time and her characters and their struggles do offer only one lens through which to view it and is not the only defining way to have interacted during those times. However, reading the book today, seeing this movie on screen during the times we live in today, it is hard to suspend one’s feelings regarding race, particularly if one is made up of more than one race.

I look at the March sisters and I identify with them, not only on an emotional level, but in looking like them, i.e. white. I am not wholly white, but the March sisters invite me into their world and into myself that is racially made-up of two parts, I find it easier to embody my whiteness and abandon my color so I too can be like them.

It is one thing to say clearly, I am wholly another race and I can appreciate this film not by identifying with the white characters, but by being emotionally present with them and their experiences. It is another to be half white and half color and be seduced by these characters to the point that biracial and multiracial people end up forgetting a part of their racial identity – even if only for a time.

In watching films like this, I notice how I am apt to completely identify with one part of my racial make-up and sort of feel grateful that I look like these courageous characters. Simultaneously, I can see myself abandoning my East-Indian identity, grateful that I don’t appear Indian as then I would not be like them, i.e. the other. The cascade of shame descends upon me.

When one is half white and half color, the line one walks is one that challenges us to remain whole in our identity — neither putting down the side that the media glorifies nor feeling shame for taking distance from our color.

I loved Little Women. However, after the film, as I thought about the March sisters and their trials and turbulations, I found myself completely identified with them. Where did my Indian side go? I didn’t see her there nor did I want to.