Bi-Racial in America
What does it mean to be half-white?
An essay on my struggle with race and identity
1996 was the year I moved to America. It was also the year I told my white mother that I didn’t like white people much.
My father is Indian, and I was born and brought up in Chennai, a city on the South Eastern coast of India. My mother, born Deborah Deal, is white. Her ancestors were German and English.
Grandpa Deal, was from Pennsylvania, and his ancestors crossed the Atlantic in the 1800s from Prussia. Grandma Deal was born Frances Schoeffel to Carl Shoeffel from Freeport, Illinois and Helen King from Omaha, Nebraska. Having lost both her parents to influenza when she was still a young girl, Gram was fascinated with her family history. The Kings fought in the Revolutionary War, she told me once, pride in her voice.
At ten years old, the only history I had studied was Indian history. I could tell you about Mangal Pandey and the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, but my knowledge of American history was limited to the Boston Tea Party. And this only because Indian history books drew parallels between India’s boycott of British salt and cloth and Boston’s defiance of the Tea Act.
My white family history was the American dream. The sons and daughters of carpenters, grocers and dairy farmers, they believed in hard work and education, and these early immigrants eventually attended schools like Cornell, University of Pennsylvania, Dartmouth, Michigan, and Oberlin. My great grandmother, Helen, graduated from the University of Michigan in 1915, one of the few women in her class.
I arrived in America to follow in the footsteps of strong ambitious women that came before me. They were all white.
I wasn’t quite fresh off the boat. I had spent my summers as a child playing in the woods behind my grandparent’s home in the suburb of Gladwyne, Pennsylvania on the historic Main Line. I never thought much about race. No one ever talked about it.
One year I attended Gladwyne Elementary School for a semester because my mother was doing course work for her Phd at the University of Pennsylvania. We often played Farmer in the Dell at school. All the kids would stand in a circle and sing:
“The cheese stands alone. The cheese stands alone. Heigh-ho, the derry-o . . the cheese stands alone.”
More often than not, I was the cheese.
I was also the only non-white kid in the class.
I don’t remember being overly concerned about being the cheese. Summers with my grandparents were wonderful. Growing up in socialist India in the 1980s, it was thrilling to be able to watch the Smurfs and eat Rice Krispies every day. And most importantly my grandparents loved my sisters and me dearly.
When Gram and Grandpa retired to North Carolina in the 1990s my mother suggested attending college closer to them. I looked at Southern college catalogues featuring glossy pictures of rolling green lawns, red brick buildings and laughing students. It would be warmer than Middlebury in Vermont where my sister went.
Race had never been a topic of conversation in my family. Even though my white mother married my Indian father at a time when interracial marriages were still illegal in many states, her perspective on race relations were rosy. In her mind, race was a non-issue. She’d also never set foot in the South. It never occurred to me, or my parents to consider statistics on diversity before enrolling in a Southern college, and as my grandmother drove me to Virginia for freshman orientation, I could barely contain my excitement.
By the end of my first semester, I was miserable. My parents, perplexed by my lack of friends, suggested I wasn’t trying hard enough to assimilate into America. I was half-American, they told me. Gram wondered why I hadn’t joined a sorority. My great grandmother had been a Kappa Kappa Gamma after all.
This made me laugh. I had barely realized when rush was happening at a school that was 98% Greek. I was so fringe that I didn’t even know where the center was.
Growing up, I had taken my social life for granted. At my school in Chennai, the color of my skin had no effect on my ability to make friends. When I left home at 16 to attend an international boarding school, I was nervous about being the new kid in school, but my class was filled with mixed kids who were the products of races and cultures like Dutch and Indian, Argentine and Nepali, Indian and Japanese. I fit right in, and made friends easily.
In college, I went from being an 18 year old who had grown up by the ocean, loved to paint, and dreamed of travel to being just a brown girl. I balked when the Admissions Office called to ask if I would pose for the college catalogue because they needed a “person of color” in it. But in America, that’s what I had become: a color. And one which came with assumptions and preconceptions of who I was.
I had few friends in college, and my confidence plummeted. At 18, the only explanation I found for myself when I was faced with another Saturday night alone was that I wasn’t pretty enough, smart enough, funny enough, or cool enough. At the time, brown didn’t seem like much of an explanation. I had been brown all my life.
Years after I graduated I met a boy from Kansas who had gone to the same southern school. Blond and blue-eyed, he nodded as I told him I felt isolated in college. He too had experienced discrimination, he told me. Kansas was, after all, North of the Mason-Dixon and on the wrong side of the “War of Northern Aggression.” Southern frat boys didn’t apparently want Northerners as brothers. He hadn’t, however, spent Saturday nights alone.
I didn’t spend every Saturday night alone either. I sought out other people on the fringes, the few -very few- non-white kids, international students and liberal white kids from San Francisco and NYC who hadn’t read the fine print, and had been lured to this Confederate flag- flying campus by the quality of its professors, ivy covered red brick or financial aid packages. I was also friends with GDIs or God Damn Independents including a couple of guys I worked with at the cafeteria who had pledged fraternities and then de-activated. We were social outcasts and misfits.
Having grown up on stories from my mother on the Deal family work ethic and the jobs she’d had growing up like shoveling snow and babysitting, one of the first things I did was get a job at the cafeteria my freshman year where I served Alabama frat boys scrambled eggs. They would make their way through the food line in khaki shorts and salmon-colored button downs, sunglasses on the back of their heads, barely acknowledging me. Being brown, I suspect they assumed I didn’t speak English.
I graduated from college acutely aware of the color of my skin, and always conscious of when I was the only non-white person in a sea of white faces. I had arrived in America, bi-racial and oblivious to what it meant to be a minority, but by the time I graduated, the one-drop rule was ingrained in me. There was no such thing as “half-white.” I was and could only be what people perceived me to be. And that was brown.
I soon stopped mentioning that any part of me was white or American. I felt uncomfortable acknowledging that I had a white side to me. Even mentioning that I was “half-white” made me feel like I was trying to be something that I was not.
It mattered not at all that the America I had spent every summer visiting and that the Americans who loved and shaped me like my mother, Gram and Grandpa were white.
While my experience at a Southern college had a big influence on how I viewed race and my own identity, rejecting my white side, and embracing my Indian side was not a difficult choice. India was the land of my birth, the country that raised me, and I was proud to be Indian.
I remember reading Dreams from My Father, and Barack Obama’s struggle with race and identity, and thinking how difficult it must be to grow up half-white in America. Obama was raised by his white mother and white grandparents, but identified with his black side. Would I have been able to claim India as my identity if I had grown up in my mother’s America? Would I have had a choice? Or would I have had to identify with India, because that’s what white America expected me to identify with?
Eighteen years after my first encounter with race in America, I live in San Francisco, and my friends are liberal and diverse. No one asks me where I learned English like they did in college, but I do get asked what I am. To casual acquaintances and strangers on the street, I answer I am Indian.
After all, when I date a white guy, my relationship is labeled interracial, but when I date an Indian guy, it is not. Obama is, and will always be America’s first black president, not its first bi-racial president, or first half-white president. There is, even in San Francisco, and the most liberal enclaves of this country, no such thing as half-white.
In my apartment hangs a picture of my great grandmother, Helen, that pioneering woman who valued education and independence. My grandmother and mother have her smile and her spirit, and I am grateful for the path they paved for me, but as white as they are, I am brown.