From Portside Culture <[email protected]>
Subject White Enough? Race in America
Date March 26, 2020 12:00 AM
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[This book on modern immigration explores the complex relationship
South Asian migrants to the U.S. have with the always contested notion
of "whiteness."] [[link removed]]


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Ayesha Ramachandran
March 13, 2020
Los Angeles Review of Books
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_ This book on modern immigration explores the complex relationship
South Asian migrants to the U.S. have with the always contested notion
of "whiteness." _

, Penguin Random House


_Not Quite Not White: Losing and Finding Race in America_
Sharmila Sen
Penguin Books
ISBN 9780143131380

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

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


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

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