Ayesha Ramachandran on Sharmila Sen
What do Nikki Haley and Kamala Harris have in common—apart from unrealized Presidential ambitions? This could be the start of a bad political joke, but the joke in fact may be on the current state of racial politics in America. Both Haley, former governor of South Carolina and most recently US Ambassador to the United Nations, and Harris, senator from California and a one-time front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, are both of South Asian descent. Yet, to a casual reader of the news, this commonality is almost invisible: Haley identifies as white while Harris, who is biracial, has publicly embraced her black identity. But they are both, in Sharmila Sen’s slyly catchy formulation, not quite not white.
As children of immigrants from ethnic backgrounds (Punjabi, Tamil, Jamaican) that do not fit easily into the American racial binary of black/white, Haley and Harris have been forced to choose distinct racial identities and alignments that elide their in-betweenness as brown people of mixed heritage. Not white, not black, not (East) Asian, not Hispanic, they inhabit a racial no-man’s-land at the borders of seemingly fixed racial communities. This presents a terrible choice—to assimilate and pass as white while never quite being or becoming white, or to accept the non-dominant position of non-whiteness. Sen’s book, part immigrant coming-of-age tale, part polemical analysis of racial awakening, explores this murky in-between space occupied by South Asians in America with barely contained anger and ruthless candor. Her struggle to make sense of the social workings of race illuminates the difficulty of racial self-positioning—the fraught choices behind what is all too glibly dismissed as mere “identity politics”—in our contemporary world.
On 11 August 1982 a twelve-year-old, convent-educated Bengali girl from India crossed the Atlantic for the first time on her way to the United States. She was emigrating there with her parents, clutching a suitcase filled with (among other things) a red plastic viewfinder, four Bengali books, a set of miniature plastic animals and a Misha commemorative pin from the 1980 Olympics. Her own head full of immigrant dreams and the bitter-sweet loss of familiar pleasures, she finds herself in Cambridge, MA, where the smell of the new country becomes inseparable from the smell of bacon frying: “a complex animal smell, making my mouth water and my stomach churn in revulsion at the same time.”
Attraction and repulsion—and the charged zone of curiosity, fear, nostalgia, and forgetting that lies between those twin poles of the immigrant experience—are ostensibly the themes of Not Quite Not White. But this is no ordinary immigrant story, even if it draws on some of the classic tropes of the genre. Sharmila Sen is after a thornier matter: the dynamics of “losing and finding race in America.” She provides an intimate and often discomfiting look at her dawning racial self-consciousness and her struggle to make sense of it. Her book is thus both about immigration and racialization—and more specifically, the parallels between these two processes, which are often spoken of in the same breath but are rarely analyzed together in non-academic contexts. Part memoir and part manifesto, shot through with both postcolonial and critical race theory, Not Quite Not White is a difficult and necessary book. It certainly has been both these things for me.
As an immigrant, who came to the United States from India fifteen years after Sen, reading Not Quite Not White was like looking at myself in a cracked funhouse mirror. Was I asked to write a review of her book because of the parallels between our respective experiences? Can only an immigrant interpret or respond to a book about the immigrant experience? The challenge of the immigrant memoir is to shape a double audience: it aims to reach both insiders and outsiders to the diaspora and new country, as it charts the shifting space between affirmation and critique. As a consequence, in a book about authenticity and assimilation, essentialism and race-making, the reader and reviewer become inescapably implicated in the dizzying maze of reflections.
Not Quite Not White begins by tracing a familiar trajectory—departure from a beloved home country, arrival and the anxieties of assimilation in the new one—and then changes course. As the immigrant’s desperate quest to belong and blend into the new landscape (what Sen describes as a project of “Total Americanization”) bumps up against the painful reality of racialized difference, she awakens to a critical political consciousness. Assimilation, that inescapable temptation and trap for the new immigrant, is the act of putting on a mask—of delivering increasingly virtuosic whiteface performances. It is no accident that the book begins with a clear reference to Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, the seminal work on the effects of racism and colonial domination on the individual psyche.
The immigrant memoir thus rapidly shades into postcolonial and anti-racist critique. Sen reaches back to a classic tradition of colonial and racial resistance writing through a network of allusions to Mary Rowlandson, Frantz Fanon, James Weldon Johnson, Joseph Conrad and V. S. Naipaul; but she also positions herself amidst recent books by American writers of color such as Viet Thanh Nguyen and Ta Nehisi Coates, who seek not merely to chronicle the experience of non-white people but to call out its everyday injustices.
In this grafting, Sen seeks to bridge two genres whose affective energies are sometimes at odds: the uplifting arc of the immigrant success story and the darker, critical cry for resistance that demands a head-on confrontation with structural inequities and personal complicities. While the first is frequently celebrated as evidence of the American Dream—for instance, in reading lists compiled by the New York Public Library for Immigrant Heritage Week—the second frequently precipitates social discomfort and political crisis, as for instance, with the aftermath of the New York Times’ 1619 Project. Stories of individual success against all odds rarely sit easily with structural critiques of social norms and institutions. On a first reading, I found these rhetorical and emotional registers to be in tension with each other. Sen’s moves between these registers marked disjunctive shifts of intellectual scale and critical perspective that never quite enabled me to settle into a place of readerly comfort. But this may be the point: Sen relishes both her own discomfort and ours. The loss of footing, the slight disorientation, the uncertainty of response—these are the nervous conditions produced by alterity and are endemic for those who exist outside the norm of whiteness. At the same time, however, I could not help but ask myself as I read: so what are we to do? What if we want both the success story and the space for critique? Is assimilation vs resistance always the only choice we have as immigrants and non-white people? Must we bring our often complex brown(ish) identities into alignment only with white and black?
The history of how Haley became white while Harris became black, each on opposing sides of an acute political divide, is part of a frequently overlooked history of race and immigration in the United States. Much has been written—in more scholarly contexts—of the tensions between black and brown communities, between critical race theory with its origins in African-American studies, and postcolonial theory with its connections to South Asian history. More recently, in the wake of Black Lives Matter and the Trump administration’s hostility to immigrants, there have been public, activist calls for closer political alignments between various non-white minority groups. South Asians in particular have needed to be roused and reminded that despite being lauded as a “model minority” they are not exempt from the structures of oppression and inequality that plague other minority groups. Despite their deepest desires, they are in fact Not White, a fact that is often elided because—for better and for worse—their everyday experience is that of passing, of being Not Quite Not White. (I should note that “South Asian” itself is a racial/geographic category that Sen does not like, preferring to use the more precise “Indian” and “Bengali” to identify national and ethnic formations.)
Sen narrates, early on, the peculiar racialized history of South Asian immigration to the US in the twentieth century that created these fraught alignments with whiteness. Though they were racially identified as Caucasian (and thus ostensibly white), courts repeatedly ruled that “some Caucasians” were not truly “white enough” to qualify for naturalization. Whiteness soon became the legal standard for citizenship; that norm has since changed in legal practice and has given way to the self-reporting of race on demographic forms. Sen ironically observes of Haley that “the racial category she chooses for herself tells a complex story of the state [South Carolina, of which Haley was governor] where the first shots of the Civil War were fired, and where even today West African-influenced Gullah culture (brought by black slaves) does not easily mix with white French Huguenot culture (brought by white slave owners).” Though unsaid, it is clear that Haley was elected because she was considered white. Her racial self-identification as white is enabled by an ambiguous legal history as well as persistent social segregation between white and black—a starkness against which her brownness is simply erased.
In some of the more acute parts of Not Quite Not White, Sen describes her own experiments with “going native” in whiteface with unflinching honesty: pride (or relief?) in her fair skin; allowing herself to pass as white; strategic but unthreatening use of her “exotic” background; a manual for acquiring white preferences in food, drink and social behavior. But for all her success in donning the white mask, she insists on a persistent discomfort that is no mere effect of a clash between familiar and unfamiliar worlds, but rather the product of forced racialization. South Asians, particularly light-skinned South Asians such as Haley and Sen, inhabit a liminal space of being able to pass as white while acutely conscious of not being white—they are, pace Haley, Not Quite Not White—and must choose how to present themselves. If Haley chooses to embrace whiteness, Sen instead recognizes that she has eventually “commodified my own past and offered it up for the delectation of others … I was a brown woman mimicking a white man pretending to be a brown man.” This moment of self-estrangement and self-loathing—the source of the anger which permeates the book and frames it at the beginning and end—is explored at length in the final, best chapter, and allows to Sen to construct a hybrid intellectual genealogy of not-whiteness.
For this conundrum is not new. It has been famously explored in James Weldon Johnson’s now-classic novel, Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, which Sen invokes by styling her own work as (partly) “An Autobiography of an Ex-Indian Woman.” She thus grafts the South Asian immigrant experience onto the post-Reconstruction African-American experience—a daring move that is one source of the book’s power and its unsettling effect. While it is true that there are analogies between both cases—that of the post-Reconstruction African Americans and of post-war South Asian immigrants—where both communities faced legal questions of emancipation and citizenship on the one hand and social structures of oppression and discrimination on the other, there are key historical differences that must not be elided. Sen is careful to notice this and thus links black, brown and Asian histories indirectly through juxtaposition. She sets up resonant parallels between enslavement, indentured labor, and the plight of contemporary economic migrants; between the figures of the Anglo-Indian and the tragic mulatto; between different forms of captivity and parallel modes of exclusion; and on intersections of race and class across and within communities. Her own racial awakening occurs against the backdrop of the bussing and school desegregation controversies; her closest friend is an Italian immigrant, and though she is not explicit, the parallel history of not-quite-not-whiteness that marks the Italian-American experience lurks as a counterpoint.
Though she voices the distinctly South Asian immigrant experience, Sen also demands and activates the racial consciousness of the South Asian diaspora which has too-often been conspicuously absent. By voicing her own discovery of race, she asks other South Asian Americans to own their own racialization which has and is taking place despite their own desire to remain somehow un-raced. South Asians reap the benefits of being white-like. They distance themselves strategically from their less privileged kin while never quite acknowledging that this success is a mirage, a reflection. It will always fall short of the white privilege that they intuit and crave; the grinning mask of conciliatory assimilation cannot replace the true self. Sen owns her own “anti-black bias,” commenting wryly that “When I tried to pass as white, or silently accepted the badge of honorary whiteness, I was trying to proclaim to our neighbors that I was Not Black, that I was Not Hispanic … Many first-generation Indian immigrants in America boast of their low divorce rates and high household incomes; their old gods and their new-construction homes. Beneath these claims is a singular, fearful drumbeat refrain: We are Not Black, we are Not Black, we are Not Black.”
I felt these words as a slap, as a curtain sharply ripped back to disclose a small scandal. Like many younger immigrants, I have sat at dinner tables with relatives who, like Sen, emigrated to the United States in the 1970s and early 1980s and freely voice their xenophobic attitudes towards African-Americans and other minorities in the safety of their neat suburban homes. As an international student at Smith College in the late 1990s, I learned early on to question and resist these prejudices; I was reading Fanon and Baldwin and thought I knew better. Little did I realize then that I too was replicating them in the more silent, insidious ways that Sen calls out so acutely—by cultivating forms of social success marked as white, by smiling continuously in acquiescence.
Though Sen is never explicit about it, these attitudes are an extension of caste, class and religious politics in South Asia, where forms of inclusion and exclusion are readily learned. In the United States, these categories are fused into a distinctly racial hierarchy. Sen details the careful distinctions of caste, skin tone, linguistic and ethnic divisions of her Calcutta childhood that ground her intuitive understanding of social distinctions when she gets to Cambridge. Her depictions of the social effects of class hierarchy are among the most searing pages in the book: it is hard not to want to look away when she speaks of the bastibashi (slum dwellers) and unflinchingly describes herself lying indolently on a bed watching the sweeper’s son clean her room—or, when working as an interpreter in college, she must tell Bangladeshi refugees that they are being deported.
Despite these implied parallels, Sen is careful not to draw direct structural links between South Asian and American forms of exclusion. They linger as implicit analogies, allowing the reader to fill in the blanks—but their deep connections deserve greater attention. Like many South Asian immigrants, I was unable to see the similarities of casteism and racism for much of my early years in the United States. I was protected by a web of privilege—caste, class and language-based—that enabled me to take refuge in the initially-comfortable liminal space of being not quite not white. Sen makes this zone visible, though she does not quite acknowledge that it is shaped not only by race (that is, attempts to take on forms of white privilege), but also by the privileged attitudes conferred by caste and class affiliations in the South Asian diaspora. The mutual relationship of caste/class and race as strategies for social ordering is currently the subject of intense academic and political debate (and has been in more and less visible ways since the early modern period). Sen’s narrative of their entwining in her own life offers a glimpse into why such larger intellectual and historical debates about the intersecting structures of caste, class and race need to take place more strongly if we are to confront their ongoing effects across the world.
On another damp August day, fourteen years after Sen left Calcutta for Cambridge, I too had left India with my mother, clutching a suitcase filled with ultimately useless treasures from my Bombay childhood to begin a new life in Massachusetts. And then, on 11 August 2018, exactly thirty four years after Sen emigrated, I found myself tracing the reverse journey from the United States back to India. In the interim, like Sen, I too had sought to ease my social discomfort with academic success, to rub off the rough edges of my accented English so that I could fit in and be intelligible to my new American friends; and like Sen, I too did a PhD in the English department at Yale. But I began reading Not Quite Not White not amidst the neo-Gothic architecture of New Haven against the backdrop of Trump’s America, but in the bustling heart of Bangalore, looking at the bursting red gulmohur tree drop its flowers on the terrace and hearing the calls of the raddiwala who collects old newspapers on the street outside my parents’ walled bungalow. An unexpected, not-entirely-intentional emigrant, I found myself back in India for a year-long research leave. My own displacements heightened the juxtapositions of India and America that frame Sen’s book. I was now surrounded once again by the food, music, colors, sounds and multilingual chatter that Sen misses, suppresses and also (sometimes guiltily) consumes across the pages of her book. Reading Not Quite Not White in this context was, for me, like unspooling the immigrant experience in reverse. I thought about the mirages of assimilation from the standpoint not of the newly minted American, but from that of the non-resident Indian who does not quite fit in either here or there. Sen’s memoir coincided with my own self-consciousness about arrivals that might turn out only to be stopovers in the exhausting, long-haul journey to situate ourselves and name our identities.
Thinking with Sen’s book, I could not but forcibly confront my own double privilege and its paradoxes. To be not quite not white in the US—but to be not quite not brown enough (for better and for worse) in India. As I muddled through my year of return, reading Sen’s book also sharpened my frustration about a collective resistance to liminality, to in-betweenness, to hybridity. There is little space in Sen’s richly textured account for the multivalence of identities that might shift and morph and refuse fixity. There is much need for spaces of gradual becoming in which we are always shaping and discovering who we might be and how we might find many different places in which to explore a variety of identities.
Like Sen, it was—ironically—only at the moment of seemingly maximum success that I too began to recognize persistent, deeper forms of exclusion and my own double consciousness. To ask for tolerance for the multiple is also, undeniably, the privilege of someone who has escaped the need to conform to a single norm. Can one comfortably inhabit and benefit from privilege—that current political lightning rod—and still claim to critique it? One of the charges that may be leveled against Sen’s book is that it is written from a place of considerable security—she is, after all, someone who went to Ivy League schools, taught at Harvard and now heads Harvard University Press. That privilege is everywhere evident in Not Quite Not White. But the book is also an emblem of a paradox that often plagues non-white writers and intellectuals: it is precisely by accessing certain forms of privilege that Not White people can speak out against its exclusionary tactics and demand alternatives. Precarity can censor. It is a indeed a luxury to speak in safety.
Thrust back into the old world of India, I was, finally, sharply attuned to the significance of speaking about race not only for the newly American immigrant, but also for those back “home.” As I write now, India is roiled by protests about immigration and citizenship, about secularism and religious discrimination. The early modern connections forged between religion and race have erupted with furious, fierce energy. For many Indians, this is unexpected and inexplicable—as for many Americans, the sharp binaries of Trumpian politics are insupportable. To them, Sen’s book offers a slanted answer: its sharp unfolding of the dynamics of immigration and race holds a lesson not only for America but also for multiethnic states like India today. In the quest to reduce difference to black or white, in our inability to recognize multiple identities, we are producing irreducible lines in the sand.
Ayesha Ramachandran is a literary critic and cultural historian of early modern Europe and an Associate Professor of Comparative Literature at Yale University. Her first book, The Worldmakers (University of Chicago Press, 2015) charts transnational encounters and the early mechanisms of globalization from the late fifteenth to the early eighteenth centuries. It was awarded the MLA’s Scaglione prize in Comparative Literary Studies (2017), the Milton Society of America’s Shawcross Prize for the best book chapter on Milton (2016), and the Sixteenth Century Studies Association’s Founder’s Prize for the best first book manuscript (2015). Her current book project, Lyric Thinking: Humanism, Selfhood, Modernity, argues for the central importance of lyric form and language in shaping new intellectual possibilities for the self in the early modern period and beyond.