By Jasleena Grewal
“I bet your parents would be so proud!” Sounds like a genuine compliment, right?
I’ve never taken it as one.
It can be a racist micro-aggression that litters the speech of people outside the Indian-American diaspora. To be fair, many of us internalize racism and are not aware of it. But, let’s take this backhanded compliment for what it is, a patronizing put-down that robs the receiver of autonomy and self-respect. A comment like this groups the individual into a stereotype that frames Indian familial structure as hostile, unhealthy, and dictatorial.
It’s a comment that frames Indian-Americans as lacking an identity of their own, undercutting any self-driven actions or achievements.
This kind of statement is akin to, “Don’t your parents want you to be with an Indian guy?” (Nope, they want me to be with agood guy.)
And my favorite one, “You still live with your folks? You gotta grow wings and fly, girl!”
My wings are resting right now in my living room while I cuddle up next to my mom and watch Zee TV. After all, I spent the day flying: through my errands, through the park with my non-desi boyfriend (gasp!), through the bar with my friends. As a lady in my twenties, I do not feel a need to answer to my parents, nor do I feel pressure to. My parents don’t force me to do much besides respect them.
There are four adults living in my home: me, my younger brother, my mom, and dad. This number might grow to six or seven once we throw a future hubby and kids into the mix!
Some may find the nuclear family structure to be degenerative and bizarre. I find it to be beautiful and successful. Too often, joint and nuclear family systems are devalued and unwelcome by white Americans.
Do we have to explain ourselves every time someone throws a racist comment at us? Do we have to explain our comfort and security at home? Do we have to explain that an overwhelming number of successful, creative Indian-American professionals choose to live in nuclear families?
Do we have to explain how we grow empowered and independent from our strong familial structures?
My answer is no. I don’t know about you, but some days I don’t feel like lecturing every white person who hurts my feelings. We can set boundaries, though. We can decide how we choose to perceive and respond to aggressive comments.
Take Aishwarya Rai when she was questioned in a 2005 Letterman interview, for still living with her parents:
Rai’s cutting response garnered audience applause, revealing a social awareness of Letterman’s instigating remarks. For this reason, it seems dismissive to say that people who make a mockery of someone’s cultural values are simply unaware of their words. The interaction between Rai and Letterman reveals that both parties are well aware of the power dynamics at play in the exchange.
Letterman’s insecurity around Aishwarya’s unique background is demonstrated by words designed to strip her of power and identity. This is also called oppression—minimizing threat by taking power. Historically, public shaming candied in micro-aggressions is just one-way people of color have been oppressed. This is how stereotypes are born.
Patronizing someone’s cultural situation prevents a safe social climate where people of color feel free to express themselves. Why do we hear comments like Letterman’s so often, sometimes from our own white friends? One reason may be privilege.
White people have the privilege of being perceived to live a lifestyle that is normative and correct simply because of their skin color. But, when people of color express realities that diverge from the expectations of white culture, they are vulnerable to humiliation and indignation. A similar offense is “gaslighting” behavior expressed by men: a form of verbal oppression from the privileged patriarchy. It is easy to tell a woman she is acting crazy when she is challenging the views of a man in power, or expressing a truth that is not accepted in patriarchy.
By setting boundaries, victims of oppressive, racial insults can start to take their power back and teach others how to treat them. It can be simpler than you think. Here are some strategies that have worked for me:
1. Know your worth.
Power plays in the form of racist, patronizing comments are designed to bring you down. Most of the time, we are patronized for something positive: a decision to become a healthcare professional, making dean’s list, falling in love with someone of our own race. These are examples of empowering, identity-building developments in our personal lives. If the person you are speaking to isn’t happy for you, or happy for themselves, it will show.
Realize that the offender’s comments reveal more about their insecurities than they reveal about your reality. Avoid internalizing their remarks. Your self-respect is your power. Remind yourself of the happiness that is rooted from your Indian-American identity. Remind yourself that you are not alone– that this happiness is felt by other Indian Americans who share parts of your lifestyle and story.
2. Respond, knowing that reacting is also okay.
Think about how you can start to form words when faced with triggering remarks. You can simply reiterate your truth. For example,
Offender: You’ve decided to become a doctor? I bet your parents would LOVE that!
You: It was a personal decision. My parents had little to do with it.
Or, you can challenge the offender by saying that their assumption has not been your experience, and is not the experience of many.
If you’re willing to start a discussion, you can ask them why they make sweeping judgments about your family situation.
You can also just say their comments are hurtful.
Do not be ashamed if you react. Rai burned Letterman with finesse. Firing back can be effective because it can jolt the offender into perspective. Next time someone shames you for choosing to live with your folks past the age of 25, you might think about constructing a wisecrack about the abandonment and cold-heartedness that many Indian people associate with setting a child free at age 18.
The bottom line is that your family situation is deeply personal. It is not your job to explain personal details in defense from racial slurs. It is your job to safeguard your identity and maintain your confidence.
This story was originally published on Brown Girl Magazine.