Our political situation reminds me of my marriage. I am an Indian-American married to a Brazilian-German-Mexican-Norwegian-American. Our daughter is a mix of all of that.
When I got married 12 years ago, some in my broader extended family thought a marriage like this (“a love marriage” as opposed to an arranged marriage, but also a “mixed” marriage) was a bad idea. That Indians like me should marry other Indians, for otherwise our culture would disintegrate. What would happen to the values of my parents and grandparents’ generations if I thought just of myself and chose a mixed marriage? Wasn’t this a kind of selfishness? Don’t I owe my family, my culture, my parents the gratitude of continuing their way of life – and how can I do that if I married a non-Indian? Our family was under threat from the modern way of life and I owed it to them and to myself to resist it. This was the “Make the family great again” or the “Keep the family great” view.
I felt the force of this view. I had a nostalgic sense for the india I left behind at age 11, of the neighborhood park in which I played cricket with friends, and a life in which my friends’ parents knew my parents and we all had the same way of life and the whole street seemed like one community. For a long time in America, well into my twenties, I couldn’t imagine dating because it seemed to shatter this nostalgic vision I was holding onto. I didn’t want to date not because of my parents but really because of myself – because of my own need to hold onto that nostalgic sense of a world which seemed to be slipping away, and which felt like if I asked a girl out would disappear in a flash. I would have crossed the line and the park with the cricket playing and the Indian family life I knew and loved would all evaporate in an instant – I would have become one of “them”, the moderners who valued their personal growth over their community’s survival.
When I finally started dating the woman who would become my wife, I had huge bouts of guilt. Anxiety. The first time I went home to New York with her so she and my parents could meet, on the drive back to school I pulled over the car so I could cry. I had crossed the line into being a moderner, and I thought I lost the Bharath I used to be and that I was contributing to the dissolution of my family’s way of life.
But I was also relieved after the crying. For having the crossed the line, something unexpected had happened: I didn’t lose my Indian identity. Indian culture hadn’t disappeared in a puff of smoke the moment my girlfriend and I entered my parents’ apartment. The Indian culture that I was carrying within me was carried along with me across the line, into the new terrain. Indianness wasn’t a sealed, airtight ballon which would lose all its air if a single hole of a love marriage was made in it. Indian culture could move through the air, take in different shapes and adapt as the circumstances needed. Indeed the Indianness I saw through the prism of nostalgia had itself for hundreds of years been moving, evolving and transforming. It was not one static thing, but many fluid things which can absorb change into itself.
Thinking today that 60 million people voted for Trump, even after all that has happened in the last four years, fills me with a kind of dread. “Oh my God, how will we ever reach out to them and make common cause?” They feel way over there, away from where I am over here.
But when I remember the anxiety I felt before accepting my mixed relationship, I instantly feel a connection to them. They are no longer an incomprehensible other. They are like my old self, wary and anxious and paranoid of what lies on the other side of the line, and who feel the need to resist crossing it. Who feel that if they cross it, life as they knew it will be over – their own identity will disappear in a cloud of smoke. And so with existential anxiety, anger and passion they don’t want the mixing and the change and the perceived lose of control. Yes, racism is rooted there. But not just racism, which can be a dehumanizing way of looking at it. What is moving them to ignore their own complicity with racism is their all too human and understandable feeling of guilt and fear – of not knowing how they can relate to their parents and grandparents and where they “came from” if they cross that line. They are me when I refused in college to date or go to parties or to let down my guard at departmental events – things which I felt would pull me down into the rabbit’s hole of a mixed America which was shapeless and confused.
This is one reason I am not surprised some Indian-Americans and other non-whites are Trump supporters. The fear of the rabbit hole of modernity – that one would lose one’s identity and all that matters if one crossed the line into the murky terrain of mixedness – is an anxiety anyone, irrespective of color, can feel. It need not be, “white vs non-white”. It can be “all of us who value our distinctive and separate cultures vs those who want mixedness.” I imagine there are many who are moved by this opposition. Many immigrants even who support Trumpism because they fear mixed relationships more than a revival of the KKK. Who see themselves not so much supporting white supremacy as resisting the possibility that all their children will enter into mixed relationships. As if the moment they vote Democrat, they are accepting that their white son might bring home a brown girlfriend, or their daughter might bring home her girlfriend, or that their Hindu daughter might bring home a Muslim boyfriend.
Of course, I crossed the line. I got married. And I entered married life with a kind of liberal fantasy. I thought “I am Indian, she is white” and we will make our marriage work by bringing the “two” cultures together. When I got married in August of 2008, Obama’s Hope and Change message was in the air. I felt that as with a new America which was embracing the future of a mixed country with a half black and half white president, so too my marriage would be one of bridging my culture with her culture.
For several years I doggedly kept to this mixing approach. I would think, “I will give up this part of my Indian background if she gives up that part of her American background.” I will recognize her difficulties as a white woman if she recognizes my difficulties as a brown man. Simple, straightforward. If we just recognized our identities and their historical trappings (she was woman, but white, and I was a man but brown), then we can do the calculations of who had what advantage in which situation, talk honestly about it and resolve any argument we were having.
It took about eight years and too many fights to count before I realized this way of thinking of the marriage wasn’t working. The bottom fell out of this framework one day, in the middle of a heated argument, when in response to some point I was making about how she was taking her white privilege for granted, she suddenly said, “I am not white!” It was something she had felt for a long time, but couldn’t get herself to say, as we both had embraced the “He is brown and she is white” narrative of our marriage. The statement unnerved me. My first thought was, “If she isn’t white, then what is she? And what is this marriage?”
My wife looks “white”. Her mother is Brazilian-German (her German ancestors moved to Brazil) and her father is Mexican-Norwegian (his Mexican-American father married to his Norwegian-American mother in the 1940s). My wife in America is thought white. In Brazil she would be seen as just a whiter-skinned Brazilian. But also her Norwegian side is dominant in her looks. As important as all these are to her, so too is her Mexican background, and also the African roots she has from Brazil.
When she said she wasn’t white, she didn’t mean that she was actually black or brown. I don’t know exactly what she meant. But what I have come to think is that she was correct. For at the very least what she was resisting was my forcing her into a identity category as a way of mapping out the matrix of her possible actions, privilages and possibilities.
Over time I realized I was thinking about the marriage all wrong. I was thinking that I had a certain identity (brown) and so had she (white), and that it was the marriage that was mixed. It’s like there is water and there is oil, and the marriage is the mixture of the two. That’s how I was thinking of it. An obviously bad analogy given that oil and water don’t mix!
But in that one comment my wife disrupted this whole picture. For what “I am not white!” brought home to me was that in a deep way she is mixed. When I thought of her as white, I imagined she was more like Barbara Bush than like Michelle Obama. But she was like neither. She was a third-generation atleast mixed person. Her father’s parents went against their societal norms in getting married in mid century America: a brown man marrying a white woman. Then her father and mother were also a mixed marriage: a Mexican-Norwegian-American man with a Brazilian-German-American woman.
When I thought of my wife as white, I was treating “her culture” as analogous to “my Indian culture”. If I was going to compromise on my Indian cultural habits, I felt she had to compromise on her cultural habits – which I named “white” mainly to have something to point to. But what is “the” culture of someone whose family background isn’t one of just continuing the nostalgia of a homogeneous cultural bloc, but consists of continual crossing of the lines and blurring of the boundaries? The line I was afraid to cross, her grandparents already crossed it sixty years before we met. Then her parents went further down that line, and that was her background.
When it sunk in that she was mixed and not just white, I didn’t know how to argue with her anymore in the way I used to. She suddenly seemed amorphous, un-pin-downable. If I wanted to say, “ok, we will have Indian food on Monday, and your family food on Tuesday,” what does that mean? Which part of her family? Are we having Mexican or Brazilian or German or Norwegian food? Or just burgers and pizza since she is American? Or was it kale salad and tofu since she grew up in Berkeley? And what happens to my calculation if she likes Indian food more than I do? How do we find a “balanced” approach to meal making? To finances? To keeping the house? To raising a child?
Initially it felt like my worst fears of crossing the line were realized. Gone was the nostalgic sense of holding onto my Indianness. I was plunged into a relationship which was not just white and brown, but which spanned cultures from many parts of the world, mixed together in ways too subtle and complicated for them to be neatly delineated. I yelled back at her “I can’t argue with you!” and slunk away to gather my bearings.
Only slowly did the liberating realization dawn on me. Could it be that she isn’t the only mixed one in the marriage, but that I am also mixed? That I am not a clunky conjunction of Indian and American, but that I am my own particular form of mixedness of the two and so much more?
The model I had imposed on my marriage was actually the model I had imposed on my own self since I immigrated to America. I assumed that there was on the one hand my Indian self and then on the other hand my American self, and being at peace with myself meant constantly weighing my commitment to one side with my commitment to the other side. As if the two sides were fighting countries and I, the unifying self, is like the United Nations. It is a completely exhausting conception of the self. And it led to a completely exhausting conception of marriage.
Once I saw myself as mixed, as through and through mixed, I felt I didn’t have to constantly do the internal balance sheet of the Indian and the American sides of me; of when I could feel Western without feeling like colonizers and when I could feel Indian without worrying about my Brahmin privilages or my minority status in America. I was suddenly free to just be myself, without calculation, without anxiety and without guilt.
And from that space of accepting all of myself, including the myriad complexities and unresolved tensions within myself, I could see my wife not as white or non-white but mainly as a person I am with. Now the categories were secondary to the primacy of our interaction as two individuals, both complex, both mixed, both evolving, both unfinished and unfinishable. This approach doesn’t solve all the questions and differences about habits and home decor and finances. But it made them less central to our interaction as people. Those issues, though of continual importance and necessity, didn’t have to be resolved for us to live our lives. They might remain unresolved, as they are the background of our lives. But they are not what give meaning to our interactions, which is more about how we give each other space to be ourselves in our individual complexity and to grow and evolve as each of us is moved to.
There is a peace to be found in accepting the intrinsic mixedness of each person. A peace on the other side of crossing the line but which doesn’t seek to navigate diversity through essentializing ourselves as white, black and brown, or man and woman, or the oppressed and the oppressor.
If Trump Republicans are like myself when I refused to cross the line into a mixed relationship, some Democrats are like me in the early years of my marriage when I thought of a mixed relationship too much through the filter of identity categories. Both involve a kind of reifying of identities – one for the sake of keeping the identities pure and distinct, and the other in the name of mixing the identities in “the right way”. But as with human relationships, so too with national bonds: they cannot be forged through isolating ourselves nor through applying metrics for integration, no matter how enlightened.