In this personal narrative, Kavitha Rajagopalan reflects on her family history and the choices she has made to build community with Black people in the US, in contrast with those of her father. The writer considers how her experiences and relationships have brought her to a deeper understanding of anti-Blackness in US society.
By Kavitha Rajagopalan
5 June 2020
My father arrived in the US in 1971, to the same western North Carolina mountains where, in the 1960s, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee had been born in student-led sit-ins to desegregate Greensboro lunch counters. The same year, the Supreme Court upheld a decision to desegregate North Carolina schools with busing, in spite of great local resistance.
He arrived in a country, a state, that was still segregated, still straining against the change that had to come. Tamil Nadu, the homeland he left behind, was also going through upheaval in 1971. Reborn just three years earlier as the Land of the Tamils, casting off the name thrust upon it by its colonial rulers, Tamil Nadu was in the throes of an unfolding liberation movement as Dravidian nationalists fought against longstanding oppressive caste hierarchies. A Brahmin man with brown skin and tight curls leaving a state seeking to free itself from Brahmin oppression and arriving in a state seeking to keep the people he most resembled down.As a Dean’s List honoree, he was invited to an awards dinner at a Winston-Salem country club, only to find on his arrival that the club was closed to “Colored People.” He was not permitted entry to his own awards dinner.Two years after he arrived, my father graduated from his Master’s program at Wake Forrest University’s Babcock School of Business. As a Dean’s List honoree, he was invited to an awards dinner at a Winston-Salem country club, only to find on his arrival that the club was closed to “Colored People.” He was not permitted entry to his own awards dinner.
He laughed and laughed recounting this story over the years. Didn’t these ridiculous whites know who he was? The grandson of Sir S. Vardachariar, an interim first chief justice of the first Supreme Court of free India, knighted by his colonizers and appointed by the country’s very first Prime Minister; and also the grandson of K.S. Krishnaswami Iyengar, a justice on the bench of the state’s Supreme Court.
After graduating, he went on to work for a Southern, family-owned company, and eventually became the only nonwhite person in management. At pool parties, my mom tells me, all the white managers would gather and tell racist jokes: “What do you call a n***er…” He was the only brown man in the pool. He could barely swim, so he stood there, listening, a strange grin on his face. Just a decade earlier, when he was living in Bombay and working as an engineer for a British company, he had stood in a similar pool trying to teach himself to swim while, in the deep end, his favorite cousin and best friend had silently drowned. I wonder if he recognized this as another kind of silent drowning, or if he just told himself it wasn’t about him.
The British company sent him on a management training program to Britain, where his host mother inappropriately flirted with him and drove him around the chilly damp countryside with the top down on her Mini Cooper. He ultimately decided to come home to India, but India was in turmoil and there was no work, and his father had anger issues and he was the only son, so he left his homeland forever and sought his fortune in the US.
He died here and was burned here, his ashes scattered in the frigid late-autumn Hudson River. The morning he died, my mother wanted to have him carried into the house and washed in the Hindu tradition, but US public health laws wouldn’t allow us to do that. We cremated him in the basement of a funeral home in New Jersey, bound on both sides by multilane highways. My brother pressed a red button on a crematorium, reciting his last rites, instead of laying a torch of fire to his head, his Hindu ways compromised in death as in life in this country.
My father’s experiences of racism did not bond him to the Black folk in his new homeland. He’d pay lip service to his lack of ties with Black people, saying he’d come here in the 70s, when “the soul brothers” didn’t want outsiders around, didn’t want him making a play for the sisters. His real friends were Indians, and not just any Indians: they were Tamil-speaking, educated professionals, and mostly from upper-caste backgrounds. On weekends we’d drive hours through the Carolina hills to gather with our people, the women stirring yogurt rice and lemon rice and sambar in the kitchen, the men sitting around the television with their arms flung in triangles over their heads, loudly arguing over politics in a country where none of them could vote. The “north Indians,” anyone from Maharastra up to the tip of Punjab, were different and suspect, not really “like us,” people without true classical Hindu culture, their rituals diluted with “foreign” influence, their arts “folk arts,” not like our ancient Carnatic and Bharatanatyam traditions.
His “American” friends were white. They’d bond over how they’d disown their daughters if they tried to date Black men.
When I fell in love with a Black man in 2002, when I was 25, my father told me that I wasn’t Indian. Not that I was misbehaving or a disappointment – but that in loving outside – and below – our own social sphere, I was negating my very self. For two years he tried to disown me, finally conceding when I reminded him that I was his favorite person and his best friend in this strange land, and who else would he talk to but me? His face grew pink and his eyes grew moist and he told me he was proud of me for not letting him disown me. But did I understand who he was? He was the grandson of Sir S. Vardachariar! And the circle closed – the identity that had shielded from the pain of white racism somehow turned into a spear to wound him over the realization that he’d raised his kids in a foreign land. He had superimposed the caste system – that he accepted as fact – onto the map of oppressions here, and his daughter was choosing a spot on what he saw as the lowest rung of the American social ladder.
Five years later, as I planned my wedding to that man, my father came to my apartment one afternoon for a visit. In my mind, I picture it as a summer day, the heat trapped and still in my poorly ventilated and always dark Brooklyn apartment. He cleared some space on the magenta folding futon that served as my sofa, and sat, a serious, earnest look on his round pink face. I have something for you, he said. He handed me a book: Intercultural Marriage: Promises and Pitfalls. The thought of him driving to the mall in New Jersey, and walking to the self-help section of a Barnes and Noble, maybe asking a clerk for help finding the right book for his Indian daughter as she contemplated marriage to a Black American, standing in line to pay and maybe also treating himself to a package of mints or gum from the checkout line, and then driving, earnestly, hopefully, concernedly into Brooklyn – just slayed me. The idea that, if I was embarking on this unimaginable path, he wanted to help me.
Also, the idea that he thought M and I were “intercultural.” Like me, M had grown up in predominantly white suburbs, had come to his identity and connection to his heritage through books; while I read My Experiments with Truth or The Discovery of India, he read Autobiography of Malcolm X or Up from Slavery. While I looked up from browsing in a bookstore in one of the Chennai’s first malls in the early 90s only to experience to pleasant dissonance of seeing that every other person in the store was brown like me, he visited a Black barbershop in his father’s native Baltimore and experienced the unpleasant syncope of realizing he didn’t understand most of what the men there were saying to each other, and to his father. We went to the same college, we had the same friends, we liked the same music, we ate at the same Mongolian barbecue spot near campus. We were so similar, I told my father. We were more alike than different. Ours was the same culture.
And yet, from time to time, the curtain pulled back between us, and I saw how the legacy of colonization and the legacy of slavery imprinted and scarred and wounded and formed us in very different and sometimes incompatible ways. Where my experience in this country has been as the other, at best exotic, at worst invisible, his experience has been as the reviled and unvalued. Where, as Indians, we show love by criticizing and holding those closest to us to impossible standards, Black people must create in their homes spaces for safety and joy and healing from the daily onslaught of criticism outside the home. All our ways – of connecting, of hurting, of love — had mapped themselves as pain points of our different pasts.
We fumbled along through the strange country of marriage, breathing on the embers of promise, sometimes climbing out of the pitfalls. They weren’t the ones my father had envisioned, they were deeper, harder to see, braided into our DNA and rooted at the cellular level, embedded in our secret shames and unacknowledged fears.
Soon after we married, we traveled to India to meet my extended family. We were welcomed. They threw parties for us, hosted us in their homes throughout Kerala and Tamil Nadu, hosted an “intimate” reception for us with just the closest 400 of our relatives and family friends. My cousin held M by the hand and led him into the reception hall, preceded by dancing girls scattering flower petals, and gave me a floor-length flower garland to drape around his neck before seating him on a throne. My elderly aunt perched on the arm of his throne and pinched his cheek and teased him affectionately.
The welcomed him, they showered their love and affection on him. But inside their acceptance hid erasure. He’s so Indian, they’d say. Look at how comfortable he is in a waishti, eating our food. He understands Tamil, they’d insist, while he smiled and nodded blankly, not understanding. He must have been Indian in his past life. He could easily be one of those Malayali Christians from Kottayam, they might allow, so tall and fair and with that thick curly hair. He generously accepted their limited, limiting acceptance, because he saw me also subject to the same grid of Indian-not-Indian. Love between people can coexist with the oppression and even hate that binds a family together, and that connects it to the society it inhabits, and to the wider world all around.
It wasn’t until we had our children, that I began to gather an inkling of what my husband had experienced as a child. It wasn’t until them that I began to see all the ways that my love, that my family’s love, had diminished and compromised him. All the ways I had to grow to meet him where he was and be his life partner wholly. No doubt, his has been a similar journey of discovery about what Indian-ness is, what it means to love an Indian woman. But this letter is about my journey, not his.
What I see in my children – my daughter, especially (because of his serious health issues, my son does not attend a school or interact with others, and so is free from the web of hate and pain that makes up our own society) – is that Black people must connect to their Blackness through their shared pain. On the other hand, I connected to my Indian-ness through my parents’ sense of history, of their sense of greatness – the mythology, perhaps the delusion, of an ancient and glorious past. As I grow older, I realize that this mythology, which was a shield protecting me from my loneliness in a childhood where I didn’t fit in, was also a wall between me and my own inheritance of pain.
Just as my father made a series of conscious choices to not seek connections with Black Americans, many of the Indian immigrants who came here afterward had no such option to make similar choices. At 17.5 million, Indians are the world’s largest global diaspora, and the second-largest foreign-born population in the US. We are no longer just the skilled migrants who came in 1965; many of us are here without the visas or education or social connections or languages that would grant access to white spaces.
And many of us are women. Where my father found himself able to laugh at being barred from a country club or shake his head irritably when a man came out and aimed a shotgun at his head when he used his driveway to make a U-turn, my mother could not laugh or shrug off the ways in which white racism excluded her. Her obstetrician invited his white patients but not her into his office to talk after examinations. He missed her rising blood pressure and swelling ankles, he missed even that she was carrying twins. By excluding her from a white space, he failed to diagnose her preeclampsia, and so after she delivered my brother and me she went into toxemic shock, slipped, alone in a sterile birthing room, thousands of miles away from the small room in the side of her family house where her sisters had borne their children, into a coma and nearly died.I didn’t learn to love Black people because I loved my husband; in many ways, I am able to love my husband because I know and love Black people.I didn’t learn to love Black people because I loved my husband; in many ways, I am able to love my husband because I know and love Black people. Long before we met, I came to Black spaces not through books and Google searches but through friendship, through meals and music and dancing and joints and road trips and concerts and art openings, through my women friends and the stories we told each other about our mothers and our aunts and ourselves, and about surviving and caring and cooking. My education in anti-Blackness was in these relationships, in the anecdotes I overheard, in the arguments I witnessed, in the grief I supported, in the jokes I learned to understand; it wasn’t abstract and removed, it was the reality of the people I loved. And in these spaces, I could freely give and receive love, and there was never any question that I was accepted – and Indian and seen.
What I have learned in these intimate relationships is that love is seeing and grieving the other person’s pain. Which also requires acknowledging and sharing your own.
*When she was three years old, my daughter told me that she didn’t like brown people.When she was three years old, my daughter told me that she didn’t like brown people. Brown people, I asked? Brown like her, like me? No, she said, pointing out the car window at some woman on the sidewalk, like THAT woman, DARK BROWN people. And I choked a little on my horror and calmly reminded her of the dark-complected beloved people on both sides of her family tree, and reminded her that we had a Black president and that she too was Black and that was her community and her family. And she felt ashamed and put her face in her arms and didn’t talk to me for the rest of the evening.
When she was four, I picked her up from school the day her class celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life, and walked with her, some classmates, and another (white) mom to a playdate. The white mom said: “Do you know what Martin Luther King taught us? He wanted everybody to love each other and get along together.” And I laughed out loud, and she looked at me confused, and I held my tongue and said nothing because she was a nice lady and a liberal and not the “real” problem.
When she was five, my daughter came home one day and told me that she’d gone to the nurse’s office because she missed me and wanted to call me and that the school nurse, an Indian woman, had threatened to call the police on some Black fourth-graders. “What?” I said, “you can’t call the police on fourth graders, what were they doing?” And she told me they were singing Old MacDonald. And I had to explain to her that you couldn’t go to jail for singing Old MacDonald.
She’s the only Black kid in her G&T [Gifted and Talented] classroom in a school that’s predominantly Black. And one of my white friends said the playground near our apartment building looked like a prison yard. And one of my white friends said my five-week-old son looked like a “thug” in one of his pictures. And one of the teachers at my daughter’s school screamed across the schoolyard to the adult who was picking up a Black child: “She was very BAD today, BAD,” in front of the whole school, while she stood there, shoulders bowed. Later that year at the school’s Autumn Festival, the white kids in my daughter’s class raced around, weaving in and out of the crowd, knocking over smaller kids to smack each other on the butt or pull down each other’s pants, and that same teacher smiled on indulgently, and later still that year, when I tried to explain how acting up in white kids was called a “red flag” and responded to with support and concern while in Black kids it was called “bullying” and punished, my daughter told me that all the kids who’d been designated as “bullies” in the school, by “concerned” parents mostly, were Black. A white boy in her class had recently punched one of his friends in the stomach, and when the friend cried and said: “you’re hurting me,” the punching kid screamed at kid he’d punched, that he was hurting him more because he was trying to make him feel bad for punching him. I asked my daughter if that was bullying and she said: “…No?” with a question in her voice, like: Is that the wrong answer? Every day in her life is an education in antiBlackness. Every day we must counter-educate so that she can love herself.
After the murder of George Floyd, and the first wave of protests, my husband and I wandered through the apartment, sleepless, reeling with anger and fear and hope and love and stunned horror at the brutality of the response to the massive outcry against police violence. We were talking about the protests and the police response and I was crying and M was tense and our daughter asked: “Why are they protesting?” And I blurted so much out, all at once – Mike Brown, and the birth of Black Lives Matter, and Eric Garner, and I can’t breathe, and that it took five years for the New York Police Department to fire the man who murdered him, and state-sanctioned murder and Stop n Frisk and cash bail and Kalief Browder and mass incarceration and the persistent racial injustice in the justice system. And her face grew damp and pink and still and she made a mask of her face and pushed me away and went to lay face down on my bed, and didn’t speak for a long time.
And I felt so guilty and ashamed for putting all my pain and anger on my eight-year-old daughter.But then, a Black mother friend of mine whose daughter is darker complected and curlier haired than my daughter told me she’s been talking over police brutality with her child since she was four.But then, a Black mother friend of mine whose daughter is darker complected and curlier haired than my daughter told me she’s been talking over police brutality with her child since she was four. In the streets, I see footage of children much younger than my daughter, screaming Hands Up Don’t Shoot and No Justice No Peace. George Floyd’s daughter is younger than my girl.
I’ve met many biracial Indian-Black adults over the years, and almost all have told me that they didn’t feel accepted by either Black people or Indian people and so now mostly have white friends. Now, I too have white friends, but friends that I have actively chosen, not because I have self-selected myself out of my own community. If I have been able to find love and acceptance in Black communities, why wouldn’t my biracial kids? All my life I’ve had Indian people tell me that I’m not really Indian, or I’m so American, or now that I’ve cooked this or said this or made this gesture now I’m Indian again. Their opinion of me has no bearing on my understanding of myself, because I feel deeply connected to my Indian-ness and my heritage. If they see me as less, that’s their problem. If white people treat my lighter-complected, straight-haired children better than darker-complected, curlier haired children, that is their sickness, not my children’s to carry.
My biracial kids need to see from me a full love and acknowledgment of their Blackness. I tell my kids: “Love isn’t a cookie, where if you give half to someone you have less left to give to everyone else.” It’s an akshaya pathra, that always generates more, and the faster you give it away, the more you have to give. I have decided to combat the scarcity mindset in identity as well. The presence of Blackness doesn’t make their Indian-ness less, and the presence of their Indian-ness does not preclude them from belonging to the diverse and vast global Black family.
My children are not immediately, legibly Black, and it is for this reason I want them to know and love their own heritage, to see the roots and branches of the neem and magnolia alike.
I can’t breathe. This phrase has a very personal meaning for me too. When she was a very small girl, maybe five or six my mother’s mother used to perform katha kalakshepam, the traditional art of oral storytelling, in the court of the Travancore maharaja. Her voice would boom and lilt, rising to the rafters, echoing through the palace halls. But when she was eight years old, the only surviving child of her parents, who had lost four children to a childhood illness, she was married off to ensure her safety. She was also then silenced. A married girl could no longer perform alone in front of strangers and men. A married girl could not go to school but must learn the household ways and traditions and recipes of her hew family. First silenced, she was then bound to a wood-burning stove, in the kitchen back behind the great family house of which she was lady, the walls spongy with mold, the damp green air leaning close, looming, suffocating on her untreated asthma.
My own grandmother. I used to lean on her lap, filling my nose with kalpuram and Cuticura powder and Mysore Sandal brand soap and mothballs, while she spun tales about great Hindu sages and blazing eyed damsels. She was just my grandmother to me. Now I see that she was the survivor of great suffering – and the survivor of Brahminic violence. That her daughters too carried this suffering; her daughters married men who forbade them from working, or allowed relatives to abuse them, or humiliated them, or presumed they were stupid, or controlled their finances, or expected their obedience and service. While my father smiled stiffly in the racist pool, my mother learned how to make gelatinous casseroles and “dump” cake from the endless parade of “nice” wives who did not understand her music or her heritage. Where her birth and mothering traditions are collective, shared among women who knew how each other was raised, who shared the same faith in the importance of ghee in regaining postpartum strength, in the utility of garlic (otherwise taboo for Brahmin women) in milk production, she birthed and raised twin children alone, in a small apartment, carrying them down one at a time to the laundromat, learning to cook keerai with frozen Jolly Green Giant spinach.Our wealth, our dowry, and our traditions are our shackles. For so long, Brahmin and high-caste Indian women have not only found protection behind the false mythology of our greatness, we have suffered under it. Our wealth, our dowry, and our traditions are our shackles. We have been told that our burdens are our worth, that our suffering is our greatest achievement. We have seen our mothers and grandmothers silenced and dominated, and silence and dominate other women in turn. The relief for an Indian in Black spaces is the acknowledgment of pain, the refusal to live in denial. I wish to learn from what I have seen in these spaces.
**Following an editorial discussing the piece as been updated on June 7, 2020
Kavitha Rajagopalan is a writer, who lives in Brooklyn, NY with her husband and two children. She is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, specializing in citizenship, undocumentedness, and urban immigrant communities. She is the author of Muslims of Metropolis: The Stories of Three Immigrant Families in the West (Rutgers University Press), which was a finalist for the Asian American Literary Award.