Home » Culture & society

No Qualification Necessary?

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on May 15, 2009 1 Comment

A couple of days ago, I chanced upon a very provocative piece entitled “I’m In Ur Base, Imitatin Ur Doodz!” posted by Ta-Nehisi Coates on his blog at The Atlantic Online, where he’s a contributing editor. Here’s what caught my attention:

Often when a white person wants to give his opinion on something racial, he’ll preface it with something like “Now, I’m not black but…” or “Hey, I’m just white but…”[…]
Whenever someone says that to me, I just kinda shake my head and give them that annoyed “Will you just make your [expletive] point, white boy” look.
And then I started writing about gay marriage, and yesterday, about the ethics of outing, and I found myself in my head saying, “Now, I’m not gay but…” or “Hey, I’m just a straight guy but…”[…]It’s the weirdest thing. You keep thinking to yourself, “Maybe I should shut the [expletive] up now.” And yet, you don’t…

The longer I stay in academia, the more I preface my statements this way. I wasn’t always this way: I remember growing up thinking there was nothing wrong about talking about experiences of “other groups” (however that otherization was constituted), regardless of my knowledge of/about “them.” You didn’t need to know about the Other in order to make claims about the Other. You didn’t need to walk in someone else’s shoes in order to make claims about his/her journey. You didn’t need to know that the shoes (s)he wore were different than the ones you wore, and how their paths intersected/diverged from yours. Life was simple, I knew things, I knew things in my gut. That’s how it is, that’s how it was, that’s how it would be. This Other was this way, that Other was that way. We are this way, we are that way. Simple, easy, clear cut. No qualification necessary,

Except it isn’t anymore. I frequently stumble when I discuss issues of race in this country. Growing up in India, race (in its more general usage) was not salient in social organization: caste, socio-economic status, religion were. Physical appearance (to use the term “race” rather reductively) had little or nothing to do with how people were “received,” at least in my experience. When, now, I start discussing “race” here (in the US) with my students, I qualify my own understanding of race by explaining my background. And when I do discuss racism-I feel that I can’t speak as a “person of color,” though I am (in phenotypic terms), because I am received racially in “other” ways because I am Indian, because I am an international student, and because I have not lived here long enough. I don’t “get” race the same way because I wasn’t socialized to see it as a viable means of categorizing, at least not until I hit my 20s and came to North America.

Even if I am seen as a member of a group, I speak as a qualified insider. “I haven’t lived in India for a while, but as an Indian-“; “I didn’t grow up in Bengal, but I’m Bengali and…”; “I am not a practicing Hindu, but was raised in the culture and…”. Yet, if someone were to say that I wasn’t Indian, that I wasn’t Bengali, that I wasn’t Hindu, I would feel tremendously violated.

Can we speak for others? Should we speak for others? Can we even speak for ourselves?

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Digg this!Add to del.icio.us!Stumble this!Add to Techorati!Share on Facebook!Seed Newsvine!Reddit!

One Response to “No Qualification Necessary?”

  1. daveski on: 28 May 2009 at 10:39 pm

    These are great questions for ED140. I feel like I learned how to (start to) see myself as ‘a white guy’ after starting as an undergrad at Berkeley. Coming to learn ways of thinking race, seeing race, talking about race seems to be as much about coming to learn the rules of a new environment as it is learning about whatever we ‘are’. The tricky thing is when people focus only on one at the expense of the other–seems neither can be eliminated,

Leave a Reply:

You must be logged in to post a comment.

  Copyright ©2009 Found in Translation, All rights reserved.| Powered by WordPress| WPElegance2Col theme by Techblissonline.com