This is a guest post by Mandy of Feminist Review
There is an interesting push and pull to being a White American woman living in Calcutta, India that turns everything that I thought I knew about power and hierarchy and resistance on its head. I knew before I came that my life would be different, though I wasn’t expecting that difference to take the form of my being constantly confused about the space I occupy in the place where the theoretical meets the actual. I thought that I knew enough about how oppression functions, how my whiteness provides me with a protective shield of privilege that I can call upon at any time (even if I don’t… or try not to) and expect it to work in my favour. I thought I understood how my white skin combines with my gender to keep me one rung down on the ladder, but still in reaching distance to the top—how being a White American means that I represent the world’s biggest superpower, and a history of imperialism and colonialism that I must be careful not to wield in ways that perpetuate the cultural destruction of Others. Then I stepped foot on Indian soil, felt the dampness of sweat start to sting my back as the heat and humidity engulfed my body, and struggled to breathe the acrid, polluted air. I realized that this white girl didn’t know nothin’ about nothin’ in this new place, or maybe in the old place either, and every day since is one where I struggle to learn, and re-learn, what I need to know to be a self-aware agent of social change.
From the jump, let me explain that this isn’t a piece about self-pity, nor is it a plea for sympathy. I admit that sometimes I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking, and I see this piece as having potential to work through some of my own confusion and maybe complicate the, no pun intended, black and white worldview that so many progressives have. I promise to try to be transparent and honest, even if it makes me look bad. I don’t want to hide my fear or my imperfections; we learn from our mistakes, and our fallibility is what makes us human.
Some important things you might should know about me are that I grew up in the South in a working class family consisting of my mother and two sisters. Racism is thick in the air down there, and I breathed it in daily in that well-meaning White person kind of way. I did not, however, live a segregated life. So far as my mom was concerned there were the “good” people of color and there were the “bad” people of color, the latter category being the ones it was okay to call the n-word. I went to a state university that has nearly no name recognition on a full tuition scholarship courtesy of the state government’s use of lottery funds to facilitate poor kids’ access to higher education. I worked full-time while I was in college because, although tuition was paid for, books, housing, food, and other necessities were not. In my women’s studies classes I started to get angry about injustice and make connections between the -isms and conclude that solidarity was a necessity, or as saying goes: “No one is free while others are oppressed.” I fell into that dogmatic space of so many trying to figure out their political identity as “real” feminists, anti-racists, queers, vegans, anti-capitalists, and a whole host of other identifying terms. Authenticity was most important, and the dichotomies of right/wrong and good/bad were so clear cut. After college, I moved to Brooklyn to work as a community organizer in low-income communities of color advocating for women and girls to live self-determined lives. For the past five years my clarity has slowly been eroded, and now I mostly see the world in shades of grey.
Just when I thought the grey couldn’t get any more undefined, I moved to India. Now, I’m not ignorant about Indian culture. I know why people don’t eat with their left hand. I know that it’s inappropriate for men and women, even married couples, to touch each other in public, that speaking to strangers of the opposite sex can be scandalous. (Though let me clarify that so much is rapidly changing here, especially in the big cities.) I know about India’s history of colonialism; the challenges the country faced before, during, and after the British occupation; and the way it currently both loves and hates the West. And coming here, I was nervous about all of what I both knew and didn’t know.
Being a White American woman, I was worried that I wouldn’t be modest enough. I t makes the feminist in me cringe to say that, but when in Rome… And I’m not arrogant enough (anymore) to think that I have the right to impose my cultural standards on a place that is not my culture. (But that’s a slippery slope, right? And what exactly is my culture or their culture since neither is homogenous? But those are questions for other essays.) So task number one was to buy new clothes and jewelry and make-up (markers of both class and modesty) in order to attempt to assimilate and indicate that I was “in the know”. Next step was behavior modification: eyes to the ground, don’t smile too much or speak to loudly, get rid of that sailor’s tongue, call my partner “husband”, and for goodness sake, don’t speak to or touch men! I told myself/tell myself that this is for my own good. It keeps me safer, doesn’t it? I congratulate myself on not being an arrogant American and talk some shit about the one White American woman who refuses to wear a salwaar suit, knowing that I’m being a “better guest” than she is because what I’m doing is respectful of Indian norms. And I really do think these things, but I also think it could be bullshit rationalizations, too—a way for me to eschew my own lack of comfort in salwaar and my own anger at having to hide who I “really” am from so many people. I liken it in my mind to how people of color must feel in White America, and am surprised to feel the same way, and then feel embarrassed that I think it’s an equal comparison, but indignant because I do think it’s an equal comparison. Global imperial power or not, I am still a minority in this place. Right? Confusion.
I get followed by men on the street, and strangers who tell me they’ve seen me around; they know where I stay. And I get stared at a lot every time I leave my flat to go to the food market, to my Bengali class, to meet a friend for coffee. At first I shrugged it off as curiosity. I am a six foot tall white girl, after all. How many of us are there in India? But men are always trying to come up with excuses to talk to me or touch me. They start conversations with my partner (where from? which country?) and then look me up and down multiple times as I try to will myself to disappear. My partner says nothing about it; he notices the overtly sexual stares, but he is uncomfortable too. He doesn’t want to treat me as his property, and he is conflict avoidant. We argue about this again and again. I tell him I’d rather be his property than sexual fodder for some strange man.
When I’m absent, men ask my partner if what they’ve heard about American women is true: that they’re sexually permissive, promiscuous, and available. He tells them it isn’t, that what they see in the handful of Hollywood action movies or Adam Sandler films that play in the big cities isn’t an accurate depiction of most American females. But they don’t believe him. They’ve seen the tourists in their tank tops with bra straps exposed and short shorts sweating in the sweltering summer heat. They’ve watched them take home Indian men from the discos and kick back Kingfisher after Kingfisher until dawn. They form their opinions about what that means in relation to their own cultural standpoint of what it means to be a “good girl”, a marriageable girl, and what it means to be a whore. White women, then, are whores. So I do what I can to mask my Whiteness because I don’t want to be a whore.
Every year there is a film festival in Calcutta that bills itself as showing “art films” in order to bypass the censor board. I was looking forward to attending, and on the first night, I went with some other Americans to see an Israeli film about FGM. The theater was filled, as is the case in most public spaces here, with about 80% men. Well, it quickly became clear to me that the intention of this festival, and no doubt a reason it’s so popular, is to permit films to be widely shown that could easily be described as soft-core porn. The film I saw that night—which I wish weren't representative of the other films in the festival, but sadly is—opened with a scene of about ten naked white women scampering across the beach and into the ocean, but only knee-deep, otherwise you wouldn't have been able to see their naked bodies, right? Then the next thirty minutes was of one particular white woman who was screwing (which was, of course, graphically shown) a bunch of the men in a hippie-style camp in Israel. She then seduces a brown-skinned Arab man, who is exiled from his family because of their relationship, but since her has lots of sex with the white girl, he doesn't mind the excommunication. Eventually, she is violently circumcised (FGM being a part of his family/community customs), which comes across as a punishment for her sexual promiscuity and a warning to the audience that not only are whores punished, but that cultures shouldn't mix. So sitting in this theater of primarily men during all of this was extremely uncomfortable. And as we were leaving (with two other white, American men and an Indian-American woman), this 40-something Indian man literally chases me down the street and keeps trying to talk to me (did you like the film? are you coming to more of the festival what is your name? where are you from? how do you like Calcutta? how long will you stay here? where do you live?), while standing so close that he was almost touching me, and even though I was mildly rude in answering his questions (any sign of annoyance is supposed to be taken as a cue to leave the person you're talking to alone) he continued to walk right next to me for over five blocks until I finally demanded to my friends that we needed to get into a taxi so that I could get away from this man. He never tried to talk to any of the other four people I was with, so I just don’t believe this incident was about cultural curiosity. And the fact that we'd just come out of that movie, and he's all up on me like that made me want to cut him. Or at least scream at him that just because I'm a white girl doesn't mean I'm going to fuck him like that woman in the film or on American TV shows. The reality is that my skin color makes me feel really unsafe here, which is so fucked up because this city is sooooo much safer than NYC in terms of violent crime. But constantly being treated as sexually available makes me feel like I have to be on my guard all the time... or like I need a male chaperone to leave the house, and both of those things just kill me. How do I get used to my white skin contributing to my female vulnerability in ways that it did not do in the States? And, as Renee pointed out when I asked her about writing this piece, am I a tool for Indian men to work out their own residual anger and resentment regarding colonialism? And what do I do about that? Or can I do anything? And how do I maintain my sanity in the process without resorting to ethnocentrism? How do I resist and know that my resistance is appropriate and understood?
So I’ve taken to asking Indian women what I else can do. Don’t yell at them in English because it just provokes them. Ask them what they’re looking at (in Bengali) or what they need. Attract attention (in Bengali) and ask older women for help if you need it. Stay in the “Ladies” sections of the trains and buses. Don’t respond with violence because that only makes you look bad, as violence isn’t viewed favorably and people won’t help you if you’re violent. And all I hear internally is “remain a victim because you don’t have any other choice. You don’t understand how things work here and you don’t want to make them worse. Do what you need to do to get by and try to forget about this other stuff. You’ll be back in America in a couple of years where things will make sense to you again.” For me, that’s not good enough.
So, this is where I’m at with this: perpetually confused, but trying to work it out. Roj ami shikhte cheshta korle shob kichu thik hobe.