DMV Masala

Flickr: Josep Tomas

Black and brown.

I walked outside yesterday and felt abnormally grateful for the traffic clogging Irving Street at lunch time. I needed a cab and there were several, stranded in front of me.

The middle one had a female driver, so I chose her. Once I slammed the door, I was surprised; the interior smelled like auto parts, dust and WD-40– a combination which immediately transported me three decades in to the past, to my father’s garage, a place where I learned the difference between a flat and Phillips screwdriver before I figured out the alphabet. I checked my sexism immediately and felt bad for the dissonance I was experiencing at the shock of such a scent combined with a female driver. I knew better than that.

“Thanks for picking me.” She smiled wryly. She was middle-aged and African American, with thick, bouncy curls. Some of her facial expressions reminded me of Loretta Devine, which secretly delighted me. Devine was the best part of one of my favorite seasonal guilty pleasures: “This Christmas“. Stop judging me. I liked it before Chris Brown did that. Oh, you’re judging me because it’s a mediocre film which over-relies on holiday cliches to make its point…sure, I deserve that. Carry on!

“I’m not going to lie,” I began. “I thought it was cool that you were a female cab driver. I don’t usually get those.”

“Yeah, we’re rare.” She studied me in her rear view mirror.

“Are you Indian?”, she asked.

“My parents are–”

“And so are you!”, she declared, emphatically.

I laughed. My pat answer had been challenged; that usually doesn’t happen.

“Of course I am. I’m of Indian descent, I just meant that I was born and raised here. I try to lower expectations before I get asked about Bollywood or what ‘that one curry is called‘, because chances are, I don’t know. I don’t watch those movies, I don’t eat most of those curries and I haven’t been back there in 20 years, which is sad. I speak Malayalam and eat our food, both of which are mad different from Hindi and Butter Chicken.”

“I just mean…I mean, you look Indian.” We were at another stop light.

“I do, but I’m American. And I know that’s probably just my irritation at forever being treated like something foreign or exotic coming through–”

“My niece is Indian.”, she interrupted. Then she looked down at her lap. “Well…her Father is.”

“Oh…I…um…” I shut my mouth. What do you say to that? “Awesome”? “Congratulations”? No, you say nothing. You listen.

“You look like her. You look just like her.” She was beaming at me.

Small talk. Make inoffensive small talk. “Aw, that’s sweet. Does she live in D.C.?”

“Sure. Right here in Northwest. But you do look like her. Mmm-hmmm.”

“Thank you. People sometimes think I’m half-Black but usually they just think I’m Ethiopian.”

Her brow went from flat to wrinkled, instantly.

“You? Ethiopian?? I don’t see it.”

“Believe it. On a daily basis, especially when I lived in Kalorama, people assumed I was. And I mean other Ethiopian people assumed it. They’d walk up and say things to me in Amharic. It was wild. Some of them thought I was lying when I told them I was Indian, like I was a self-hating Ethiopian or something.”

“No. You look very Indian, to me. So does my niece. My sister…she had dated an Indian man and it didn’t work out. She found out she was pregnant, after.”

“Oh, my. Does your niece have any contact with that side of her family then?”

“No. I don’t know if they want to see her. And my sister…she made it sound like…well, she said that she didn’t think she’d get along with them, either. Their culture…you know…”

“Sure. But to be fair, there are Indian women who don’t get alone with their Indian in-laws, too.”, I joked.

She was lost in her thoughts, so I withdrew in to mine, suddenly remembering how shocking it was to see Denzel Washington and Sarita Choudhury fall in love and touch each other in “Mississippi Masala“, which I saw during my senior year of high school, back home in California. I had cut school to watch it with my best friend, one of the only other brown girls at my overwhelmingly-white school. We stared at the screen, wide-eyed and in shock as the credits rolled, 18 years ago. “Could you?” she slowly asked.

“My parents would kill me if I married someone who was from a different part of India, or a different Christian denomination…I mean, I can’t marry an Indian Catholic or Pentecostal person, forget someone Black or white!”

She shook her head. “My parents aren’t that strict. My cousins in Sweden married white people…”

Seven years later, when I moved to D.C., I heard rumors about second-generation kids like me marrying black people and their families temporarily imploding because of it. Gossip, scandals, shame. In cities like Philadelphia, young brown people had gone to school with young black people far more frequently than I had in the lily-white, far-flung suburbs of the Golden state. Why was it so surprising that some of them would fall for each other? Granted, even if they did, there was almost always an awareness that such a dynamic was not sustainable, that it probably did not have a future. Some of my peers would date and “regulate every shade of that”, but when it came time to settle down, they acceded to tradition and other powerful factors, and married someone brown. Sometimes white. Almost never black.

Had this happened to her sister? I reminded myself it was none of my business even though she seemed to want to talk about it.

“So does she have any Indian friends in school? Any Indian neighbors?”

I doubted the latter, even as I asked it. While the situation had started to change during the past five years or so, the majority of my South Asian friends lived just outside of D.C., in Arlington, Alexandria, Bethesda, Silver Spring.

“No. Nothing from that culture is in her life. It’s sad.”

“Does she ever have questions about it?”, I tactlessly asked. In my weak defense, I was speaking from experience. Years ago, I helped start a popular blog for the South Asian diaspora; I still get emails from people who are not Desi, who have adopted babies from the subcontinent. They ask me for resources, for advice on how to connect their brown children to a culture they have nothing to do with…

“She must. But she has no one to ask.”

“If you want…you can put her in touch with me…” I trailed off lamely. “I’m sorry. That’s weird.”

“No, it’s very nice.” She looked eager. Hopeful. “I’ll ask my sister–”

“Oh, OF COURSE. Yes. I mean…it’s obviously up to her Mom. But I’m happy to help, if I can…” Again, I thought of all those letters, and how I used to write back and say that if the adoptee were in D.C., I’d gladly be an Auntie.

She was sizing me up in the rearview.

“Do you have any Black friends?”, she asked pointedly. “I mean…what are your friends, the majority of them? Black? White? Or maybe they’re probably Indian?”

I laughed nervously. It’s an odd thing to contemplate– the exact racial breakdown of your people, but it was a fair query, even if it put me on the spot. The backseat suddenly felt like it had been toasted by the summer sun.

“They’re…a mix. I definitely don’t have just Indian friends, though I have a ton, thanks to that site. I don’t know. My sorority friends are white, my friends in my building are black…I guess…hmm. Upon reflection, it’s almost evenly split!” I was suddenly stupidly proud of this newly-realized conclusion.

She nodded approvingly. “That is good. It’s not good to segregate yourself. Too often, we only stay among our own kind…”

I started to tell her about this blog and the beat I cover. About gentrification, community tensions and those who have plenty vs. those who struggle. She put up her hand and interrupted me.

“People just need to treat each other better. Open themselves up. When you close yourself off to others, well…no good comes of that.”

She looked at me through the mirror and asked, “Am I right?”.

“I think so”, I answered.

She smiled. “It’s not an issue of color or money. The issue is loving your neighbor as yourself, just like the Lord said.”

“And put the ‘neighborly’, back in ‘neighborhood’?”, I joked.

Her smile widened. “Exactly.”

  • razib khan

    fascinating anna. tx for sharing! though not sure i’d be as equanimous as you were with that somewhat presumptuous cabbie :-)

  • nandalal rasiah

    in my extended fam i can think of three examples, 2 that have lasted and all of which ‘bore fruit.’ No real estrangement issues. Colorism is hard to pull off when you’re Jaffna-dark.

  • Tito Varghese

    Got here from HERstory, an indian blogging from india.. The diaspora of indian communities alone is enough here to create those awkward silences.. Wishing u and project Argo all the best..

  • American RogueDC

    I remember very well having my heart broken by a co-worker (an Indian woman) whom I thought was a friend. We had worked together for more than ten years. One day, while viewing some photographs she was sharing of her female relatives taken during her baby-shower (I in fact had just given her my gift for the baby), I said, “You should introduce me to some of your nieces.” Her reply was simple, “You are too dark!” Until that moment, my being an African-American man who is only slightly darker in skin tone than her had never “seemed” to be a problem.

  • Cherry Davis

    Indian people are just like African American with a internal self segregation about color. It’s a shame that they feel that way about themselves but I can’t talk since I’ve had other Black people comment on my ‘features’ and ‘hair texture’ as being ‘good’ since people think I’m Dominican or South American.

  • Vic

    Very interesting blog. I think that proximity tends to be the defining factor between Black and Brown peoples…I’m Trinidadian-American and the country is pretty much split between Blacks and Indians as the dominant groups. The physical location of people on a small island has enabled a lot of intermingling between the two-not always positive and conflict-free but show me human beings who dont fight or group themselves and organize resources around those groupings..i see this post as a normal example of what happens when two different people start a conversation..i don’t mean to downplay the importance of such interactions but i think it is important to reaffirm the humanity of everyone involved in interactions when these take place, because its as much a person to person thing as it is a trans-ethno/racial/cultural meeting

  • DCR

    I’ve traveled through many parts of world and the same three things never cease to fascinate me: 1.) watching locals try to reconcile my presence with their preconceived notions of AAs, yes even in Africa; 2.) the fact that technology is making the world a much smaller place, cultures are folding into each other, sometimes for the better, other times not so much; and 3.) that my appreciation for the American melting pot deepens each time I come home. It really is unique in this world and is our greatest asset as a nation. Blendians and Ethiasians included.

  • Singularity2030

    A black woman in Indian dress might be said to be misappropriating our culture in the more politically correct circles. But she does look good.