Privilege Brown Girl in White Spaces
I got to Milano Centrale yesterday eager to shake off the American tourists who’d latched onto me for the train ride in. I walked through the big archways of the main entrance, trying to overtake the Americans with a swagger that would let them know that I was not like them, that I pronounced ‘Centrale’ with a ‘ch’, a soft ‘t’ and a rolled ‘r’, that I was well-versed with this place, I was not like them. I kept my face blank and busy, trying to hide the buzz of newness and new-city energy that was filling me, trying to seem local, like I fit in. I think this game of belonging that I play comes from often forgetting that I am brown skinned, from forgetting that I look nothing like the people I am trying to pass as, getting stuck in the fact that I may not be like them, but I am not like you either. I keep walking faster. I see the bus stop — a simple, if ugly, orange structure — the same bus stop that we spent two hours sitting at, the bus stop I didn’t know I still remembered, dredging up memories of you I didn’t know I still had, your voice mocking me at an ugly orange bus stop, me grinning. I steel myself, turn the corner and take the metro to the Duomo. The escalator rises to the street and I think I’m safe but my memories of you are strewn all over, shards for me to pick up and hopelessly piece together. I sit on the steps of the Duomo, backpack at my feet at 9:38pm, defeated by nostalgia and a lack of closure that always seems just around the corner and I cry. Because we sat here, and lit candles, and chuckled at how we would never believe in a high power, how envious we were of those who could define themselves by their belief, how much we wanted that. I cry because you wore your Americanness on your sleeve, and as much as you wrestled with your identity, you never hid from yourself, you were definite. I cry because I’d snubbed those tourists for their Americanness, because I wrestle with my identity constantly, because I hide from myself constantly, because I don’t think you would understand. I am not like them, in the same way that I am not like you, no matter how much I wanted to be. You are not here anymore and it hurts to consider what you might not have understood.
This morning, on the bus to Fondazione Prada, I watch the city change from metropolitan to suburban, I watch as the demographic on the bus changes with it. The further from the center we get, the browner the people that clamber on. More like me as much as I am not like them. A Sri Lankan woman and her mother, dressed in long white cotton shirts and loose black pants with braided hair get on holding bright plastic flowers in bright plastic bags. I self consciously raise my backpack to my chest and trying to hide y backless bra-less sundress. She catches my eye and tilts her head curiously “Sri Lankan?” I shake my head, “No, mi dispiace.” I could continue the conversation, and I can tell that she’d like to but instead, I break eye contact and stare out the window. I think about the difference between an expatriate and an immigrant- the politics of who has the right to claim that term, I try to define what separates her from me. There are layers of class, and stature, and race embedded in words that make the rules of their usage so difficult to define, so slippery to segregate. A Bangladeshi woman sits down next to me and asks hopefully, “Bangla?”, I shake my head, and partly out of politeness and partly out of guilt from my previous interaction I say generously, “Sono Indiana, tu?” This time it’s she who smiles distantly and leaves it at that. We may share a subcontinent, but I am a tourist with a big camera and bare shoulders headed to a private art collection and she is likely a mother of three who has lived here 38 years, but speaks no Italian and is yet to visit home. We could make small talk, about shared nostalgia and that one relative we have in each others motherlands, but our true worlds will never collide. I try anyway, explaining by pointing to my camera and smiling, there is no recognition in her eyes. She is clear in letting me know, like I let the Americans know, she is not like me.
The Fondazione Prada is incredibly beautiful. I feel guilty for how easily I love it. There is a gay couple from New York, three stylish Milanese women and an older Swiss couple on vacation in line ahead of me. I know from the looks at the ticket booth that I am hard to place, that my camera and my sundress let me off the hook, render me harmless, not like them. I’ve been lucky to spend so much of my life in art museums, collections and beautifully designed spaces all over the world. I am instinctively comfortable in these spaces- brown girl in white space. I have spent so many hours as a little girl trailing behind my parents as they discussed concrete flooring and track lighting and urban planning, whilst I followed, bribed with the promise of a falafel or ice cream, half listening, half day-dreaming. I am completely numb to modern art. It is rare, and only increasingly difficult for a work of art to incite any kind of reaction in me, and yet, I am drawn to the spaces they live in, their grand, white-washed light filled abodes. There is something about the quiet; the single mindedness of exploring a space in exactly the way it was made to be explored that calms me. The lady behind the counter gestures from behind the counter, she is warm and friendly, if a little confused by my Italian accent. She says “I expected you to be American.” Once again I feel the need to differentiate myself, show how I am not like them, the people whose country I love and resent, the people who I have come to love so much it surprises me. I am Indian born and raised, and yet even my Indian identity has been constructed more out of nostalgia than a true sense of belonging, if it were any stronger I’d need to prove to her that I’m not like them either.
I think what’s tripping me up is my desire to define myself, to prove myself to people who aren’t really asking for proof/don’t have any right to it. I am not like them, or them either, but I am willing to try.
Most of the men I’ve ever loved (another slippery word) have been American. I hate to admit that I have a type, but it’s hard to miss when they’re all strong jawed straight white men with buzzed hair, piercing eyes and tend to partake in outdoorsy hobbies typical of straight white men. These days, I frequently express my fears of loving my boyfriend as a way to fulfill a colonial/racialized fantasy. That loving a white man is a superior currency of love (and therefore race and class) that I can trade in for superior social capital. It is a doubt that plagues me frequently, that makes me questions the authenticity of my feelings. But here’s the thing- I am as much the American tourist as I am the Bangladeshi immigrant as I am the post-colonial brown woman buying and spending my social capital as I am the college student in love. I am compromises and sacrifices and globalized and exoticized and racialized and privileged and colored and classist and elitist and so I am not like them, and I’m not like you either, and the key to it all is that I’m willing to try to be.