Insert other insulting culture/race/class denomination as appropriate.
If you’re not white/Western/European, chances are you’ve heard this at least once. If you’re ‘ethnic’, this is possibly the story of your life.
If you’ve ever asked anyone this question, please read this post. Never ever ask it again.
Funnily enough, I’ve been asked this by as many brown people as white, which would be shocking if it weren’t so tragically believable. The amount of racism within our own ethnicities is pathetic, and a topic for many future blog posts, but I want to address this one specifically.
I have not dated a single south Asian in my life. It’s not a deliberate choice, or a conscious decision on either side. Pickings are slim in Central Europe for other ethnicities, and why would I actively seek out someone with the same skin tone, rather than finding someone I want to hang out with, who may or may not be from the same ethnic background?
I’ve been asked this question so many times that I have perfected the responses, and they’re instinctive now.
“No they don’t. My parents are human beings, and they’re not racist. Even if they did mind, I’m allowed to disagree with them. Don’t believe everything you see in the movies; not all Indians are stereotypes.”
From there, depending on the response I get, I can either go full-on ‘stop being a racist’ or have a more measured discussion about ethnicity, if the person seems open-minded enough to have it.
It’s obviously better to meet stupid questions with something constructive, because otherwise I risk people walking away thinking of Indians in exactly the way they did before they spoke to me, or the stereotype could get worse – and they’re obviously never bringing up my ethnicity again.
This is my loss, because I’ve missed out on the chance to engage in a constructive discussion, possibly change someone’s perspective of my family and me, and in a wider sense, other ethnicities too. I will admit to resorting to this when I’m in a short-tempered mood, or when I can’t be bothered, honestly, which is a real shame.
If I’m in a generous mood, or the person seems kind but moronic (owing to the asking of the moronic question), I engage them in a conversation that begins something like:
“Why do you say that? Where are you getting the image that Indians are so close-minded from?”
It often turns out that they’ve only ever seen Indians on TV or in the movies, or at best, in their local Indian restaurant.
I don’t know why, but someone somewhere decided not to portray Indians in the mainstream media in a representative way.
Digression no. 1:
First of all, nearly all the Indians you see come from northern India – either Delhi or Bombay. Besides Mindy Kaling and Aziz Ansari, there isn’t a single mainstream media personality from southern India – and in any case, they’re both second-generation so their acceptability and visibility is different than mine would be if someone put me on TV – bad idea.
I dream of the day an actor from Bangalore, Madras, Cochin, Pondicherry, even a village, is as known as other Indian actors. This is true within India too, by the way. All the most famous actors are northern, so Indians themselves have a skewed image of the south.
South Indian culture is vastly different to north Indian, and there are huge variations by state – linguistic, cultural and social nuances. These aren’t represented properly in Indian media, so they won’t be elsewhere.
If people know that Bangalore is in the south, they may also know that it’s the call centre hub of the universe. Besides that, they don’t know anything. I was born in Bangalore and also lived in Madras. No one knows the cuisine of southern India, unless they’re enough of a foodie to try niche restaurants and food stalls, where the dosa is becoming more and more common. Indian food in most restaurants outside India is still based on the Brit-Asian model of curry houses, filled with oil and unbalanced spices.
The second imbalance is that there is never a measured, real-life Indian shown in the mainstream media. A flawed, complex, funny, intense, *human* set of people interacting as all of us humans interact.
Oh no. All Indians in mainstream media have a strained relationship with their family, who all expect too much. Everyone resents or hates their parents, or doesn’t get along with them, or worships them. No one talks back, disagrees or argues. You play the hand you’re dealt, grumble about it but heaven forbid you disagree.
There’s a wonderful scene in Monsoon Wedding of a family spending time together before the wedding, singing, drinking, making jokes and having a great time; the movie is an accurate representation of a Punjabi wedding in Delhi, by the way.
Note that Ria’s mother disagrees with her decision. And note the number of people in her generation who disagree with her. This is a proper depiction of a human family, not strictly an Indian one.
But it was directed by an Indian, so of course it would be measured in the way the culture’s represented. Instead of an everyday family talking about school, homework, friends and life in the way we did, and our family members did, we have the Kumars at No. 42 and Goodness Gracious Me. All north Indians, of course. I can’t think of many other Indian/Bollywood movies that show a normal image of an Indian family, so if this is all we have to work with it’s no wonder.
I’m saying this because we can’t blame people for these racist questions if they’re only shown northern stereotypes, not real Indians. Which is why I choose to go for Option 2 if I feel like the audience could properly talk about race portrayal, and we as minorities should try and normalise the narrative as much as possible, show people how we live and that it’s as varied as the way every other group of people lives.
Now that’s out of the way.
The annoyance and irritation with this question go back to my point earlier about meeting stereotypes and everyday racism with constructive thought and responses.
Make no mistake either – these are racist statements; they’re not misinformed, uneducated, uncultured mistakes, or any other word people use to dismiss this less harmful racist talk.
Among other faults, contained within this statement are so many assumptions.
- I’m Indian.
- I have a dependent relationship with my parents.
- They are controlling.
- They are close-minded.
- They have a say in my life choices.
- They would disapprove of any of my life choices.
- They would make any of these opinions known to me.
- They make them known to me often.
- This is a source of tension in our relationship.
- The person I am dating is defined by their race, rather than any other personal traits.
- I am, and my parents are, are defined by our race rather than our personal traits.
It’s also important to point out that not everyone is as lucky as my brother and me, and our friends. There are people within my family who have had to keep relationships, details like co-habitation and the depth of their commitment to a person a secret to their parents, or risk an argument. In the countries we live in, an argument – or a regular series of arguments – is as far as it could ever go. I know family members in India who are facing more serious consequences like losing out on or damaging relationships with other family members or long-time family friends just because of a perspective their parents hold. It’s all incredibly sad, and I can’t imagine having to live that kind of life.
Let’s not forget, these situations exist in non-Indian households too. I have Hungarian colleagues who have to hide the number of Romanian friends and partners they have from their very conservative family. However, knowing that and taking the next step to ask every single Hungarian what their interactions with Romanians are and whether their parents hate them too, is horrendously racist, right?
So you may know that Indian families, like all others, contain conservative and liberal members, and there’s a chance the person you’re talking to may have a conservative parent, who may be conservative enough to disagree with their choices, and have an active problem with the people in their life. Taking the next step to talk about it and infer character traits on people you haven’t met – and you may not even know the person you’re asking the question of well – is racist.
However, because this inaccurate portrayal of Indians exists, I know that the racist comments don’t come from nowhere. However, assuming they apply to everyone, and starting off a conversation about my relationship in this way, is unacceptable.
I can hear you ask, what is the right way to ask if your parents mind, then?
My question is – do you have to ask it at all? How about you talk to a minority in the way you would speak to any other human? Find out about their life, their work, hobbies, travel, taste in movies, get a book recommendation. Treat other minorities the way you would treat someone who looked like you, and stop adding your assumptions about their life to your conversations with them.
I have never once asked anyone what their parents’ opinion is on any of their life choices, unless it directly impacts their folks – such as when a close friend from university moved out of the family home after many years of living there. “Your parents must be so excited for you but I know they’re going to miss you.” This is a close friend whom I’ve lived with.
That doesn’t make me an angel. It makes me sensitive to what is and isn’t acceptable to ask and comment on when it comes to someone’s race, country, culture, etc.
I’ve been asked the above question by everyone from total strangers I’m splitting a cab with to colleagues I’ve worked with for years. This incredibly personal, highly insulting question.
Here’s another fun little fact for you – I know more white people who have had problems with their parents because of life choices they’ve made. Partners, professions, friendship circles, sexual orientation, you name it. We would never dream of asking an LGBT person at a cocktail party about how hard it was to come out to their parents, would we? Because we know that’s a horrendous statement based on far too many assumptions. Why does this not apply to race?
So what I’m coming to is this – don’t just stop asking this specific question. When you meet someone of a different race, country, culture, ethnicity etc, ask yourself if the way you’re speaking to them would change if they looked like you. If it would, think honestly about how, and why that is, and whether you would be insulted by the question you’re thinking of asking if someone asked it of you. If you would, why are you asking this person?
I’m stepping down from my soapbox now. Only temporarily, though.
I’ve been inspired to start writing about these instances of what I call ‘everyday racism’ (because it’s catchy and at 11pm I can’t think of a better way to put it), my experiences of it and what I would say to those who have experienced it and perpetuate these ideas. I’ll be borrowing stories from my life as well as that of my family, comparing it to those not in my culture/race/ethnicity/background/minority box of choice and will try to talk about it in as open a way as I can. Sometimes I’ll rant, like I have here; sometimes I’ll share a photo or a video; and sometimes I’ll make a few jokes because what’s the point of being a minority if you can’t push the boundaries every now and again? Keep telling me what you think, share your experiences and your feedback!