Not Quite Not White
by Sharmila Sen
Penguin Books

The first time Sharmila Sen saw an African-American was in 1982, outside the United States consulate in the Indian city of Kolkata, on a street named after Vietnamese revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh.

The man was a US marine guarding the consulate and Sen, aged 12, was there for an interview ahead of emigrating to America. “I saw two men in spotless uniforms,” she writes in her memoir, Not Quite Not White: Losing and Finding Race in America. “One was the whitest, blondest man I had ever seen in real life; the other was the darkest black.”

White, writes Sen, is always the colour against which black people are seen. In this way non-white people are rendered hyper-visible while white folks maintain a “magic cloak of invisibility” that needs “no racial adjective, no additional colour signifier”.

But there is, Sen adds, another category for perceiving people who have dark or relatively lighter skin: “not white”. That’s how Sen, a Harvard University graduate with a PhD in English literature from Yale, identifies herself, although she is fair enough to pass for white.

Focusing on the word “white” forces the idea of whiteness out into the open, depriving it of its neutrality and making it “an other” – just like blacks and other minorities. “Naming the norm,” as Sen puts it, “robs it of its magic.”

America’s attitude to race and racism examined in Ijeoma Olou’s new book

When Sen arrived in the US with her parents, she learned for the first time that she didn’t know her race. Having never identified with one in India, she was now being asked about it – on immigration papers, in school registrations, at the doctor’s office.

Sen grew up in Kolkata (then called Calcutta) “with an entirely different set of extended labels for putting people into boxes”, she writes. “What language do you speak? Which gods do you worship? What caste do you belong to?” Surnames in India, she points out, reveal a great deal, including people’s likely economic class, literacy status and food preferences.

Sen spent her teens trying to assimilate into American culture. Shunned at school as the foreign kid with an odd-sounding name, she tried desperately to acquire an American accent by watching television shows.

“There was no one to guide me through the maze of different eras of American culture, different regions, classes, or even races depicted in these shows,” she writes. “I swallowed the whole lot in one voracious bite.”

I would have to spell my name for everyone. My surname, which once carried a surfeit of information about me, would become empty of meaning

Sen discovered that changing her accent did not lead to immediate acceptance. “Who was I going to be in this society?” she asked herself. She would soon find out: “I would have to spell my name for everyone. My surname, which once carried a surfeit of information about me, would become empty of meaning.”

Not Quite Not White is a frequently poignant read. It is also an angry, polemical and occasionally repetitive book, although it’s a tribute to Sen’s intellect that she can depict her anger as a virtue. This is partly because of her clever, nuanced arguments, which are likely to resonate with readers of diverse educational and cultural backgrounds.

Throughout the book, for example, Sen insists that she “got race” – the way people “get” a disease such as chicken pox. But she also likens the acquisition of race to getting a pair of shoes or a mobile phone – as “something new, to be tried on for size, to be used to communicate with others”.

Finally, she writes that she “got race” in the idiomatic American sense of fully comprehending something. “Getting race” in all these different ways, she writes, “made me fully American.”

Sen’s book is also a concise history of Indian immigration. Writing about the indentured servitude of Indians following the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in the 1830s, she describes how the colonial British brought Indian labourers to the Caribbean to work in sugar-cane plantations where black slaves had toiled for centuries.

Derisively called “coolies”, the labourers had signed agree­ments – indentureship papers – and were not slaves in the eyes of the law. “But can we call them immigrants,” asks Sen, drawing parallels with subsequent waves of immigrants from the subcontinent, including modern-day “coolies” building structures such as the Guggenheim art museum in Abu Dhabi.

“White-collar, graduate-school-educated, Indian STEM [science, technology, engineering, mathematics] profession­als who have immigrated to the United States since the 1990s see themselves as unrelated to these contemporary coolies” or the indentured servants of another era, Sen writes. “But our older diasporas in the Caribbean might have a few pertinent lessons to offer us – lessons in living with people of other races, in politics, in Americanisation.”

Asian-Americans, crazy rich or not, just want acceptance

In her book’s most captivating chapter, somewhat starkly titled, “The Autobiography of an Ex-Indian Woman”, Sen turns to the subject of “going native”. The term is used to describe people, especially during British colonialism, who abandon their own culture or customs and absorb those of their adopted country.

 “Going native” has a rich literary history – and Sen expands on it through her own experiences and insights, exposing some deep-rooted hypocrisies in the process.

“When you go native, where does the native go?” she asks. “If the [colonial] British could speak my language, wear my clothes, eat my food, read my books, and occasionally even disguise themselves as me, then what was left for me to do?”

Indians draw a distinction between light-skinned people like me and actual white people [...] Religion, caste, ethno­linguistic groups still carry significant weight

Indians, she responds, “get a little overexcited when a white foreigner manages to say a few basic sentences in a local language”. Their accents, she adds, may be dreadful but they are still showered with praise.

Non-white foreigners are treated differently. “Nigerians who might have picked up a few words of Kannada, or Chinese who can speak Bengali, do not get the sycophantic compliments reserved for whites in India.”

Indians who go native in the West by acting white and achieving the financial success associated with white professionals are also met with resounding approval in Indian immigrant homes. “One can go only so far, however, and then it is time to apply the brakes,” writes Sen, because “Indians draw a distinction between light-skinned people like me and actual white people.”

The rub for Indian women who go native is that they must “only look like a white foreigner, not actually be one”, explains Sen. “Religion, caste, ethno­linguistic groups still carry significant weight.”

For a long time, Sen acted white. “Perversely, this arrangement suited America’s dominant culture as well,” she writes. “By acting white, I was flattering the dominant culture. And by remaining not quite white I posed no threat to white elites.”

While still in her teens, Sen learned about what she refers humorously to as an “advanced DIY whiteface curriculum”. Beginners who take the “course”, Sen explains, only know how to navigate between two poles – white and non-white.

The trick is to recognise that “there are diversities within each of these categories” and that the key to acting like a privileged white American is to “celebrate, consume, own, and master” those diversities.

Why is ‘international’ Hong Kong still unable to accept black people?

On Ivy League campuses, Sen constantly ran into white liberals who “held steadfastly to the idea that the entire world was waiting to be read, eaten, seen, photographed, tagged, analysed and known by them”. Unlike newly arrived immi­grants, who could only move between “sending country and receiving country”, these liberals could “read the inscriptions found on Shang dynasty oracle bones as easily as they could explain the Brazilian political economy”, Sen writes.

“I shifted my focus from the West to the Rest: I began to learn about Africa, South America, the Caribbean, West and East Asia.” In doing so, Sen “confused the system”, where courses are designed with colour-coded pathways that allow white students to “roam freely all over the world” while non-whites are expected to focus on the West or “inhabit those parts of the world where the natives most resembled them in race, religion, or language”.

The last step in Sen’s DIY whiteface curriculum entailed “opening the kimono” – Western corporate jargon for “subtly revealing something exotic about yourself” to “gain the trust of the other party”. She explains how this works: “A bit of non-whiteness peeks out like the beautiful silk lining of a bespoke suit, and your heretofore hidden past becomes a commodity that can be traded to climb the social ladder.”

To that end, Sen cut long scarves out of her mother’s silk saris and “twisted the soft textile around my neck”. She hung a poster of an old Bollywood film in her living room. She served dhal in teacups as a first course during dinner parties. “I wanted to appear worldly and sophisticated,” Sen writes, “without teetering into Fresh Off the Boat territory.”

Sen’s searing first-hand appraisal of race in the United States promi­ses to become a manifesto for the next not-white generation.