Saira Rao
Saira Rao
Jan 25, 2017 · 4 min read


True confession: I am a brown woman trapped in a white feminist’s identity. As if that’s not enough to make you want to overdose on the Indigo Girls and Lena Dunham, I didn’t realize it until November 9, 2016, at the ripe middle age of 42. Before then, I fancied myself a radical feminist, one who just happened to (a) attend private school K-12, (b) join a sorority at the University of Virginia, © work at a white shoe law firm on Wall Street, (d) move to Greenwich, CT before (e) moving to even whiter Denver, Colorado and (f) the kicker — to a neighborhood called Country Club.

I’ve lived the glorious life of a white woman — a liberal, feminist white woman — my whole life, having casually discarded of unsavory reminders along the way.

The time Peyton L. called me a nigger in high school. I straightened my Laura Ashley dress and proceeded onto my student government meeting, one of many I chaired as President.

The time I got nixed from Kappa Kappa Gamma after round one, being told with a wink and a nod that I wasn’t “Kappa material.” I straightened my Laura Ashley dress and continued to pound Rugby Road at the University of Virginia until I landed myself a role at another sorority.

The time, after my first novel was published, that a Philadelphia blogger drew a caricature of me as a Hindu god. There was no reference to Hinduism in my book, btw. I made a joke about it and moved on.

But then Donald Trump stole the election. In the days after November 8, 2016, it became impossible for me to move on from the raw facts. I was a woman. I was brown. I was a brown woman. As my group of white female friends made casual “grab them by the pussy jokes” over lattes at Starbucks, I hid under the covers, shivering, sweating, unable to even take my children to school. They’d voted for Clinton too. They thought I was overreacting, some calling my reaction to the election “catastrophizing.” For me, it was the opposite. It was the first time I’d looked myself in the mirror. Brown warts, and all. It required close attention to the facts.

They are as follows:

Two days after November 8, my deceased Indian mother, the woman who gave veterans rectal exams for 34 years at the Veteran’s Administration, became the subject of racist jokes on Facebook. It wasn’t something I was able to joke about and move on.

Three days after November 8, my husband, brown and Ivy League educated, was chased down a street in New Orleans by a homeless man screaming “Arab.” It wasn’t a compliment. It wasn’t something I was able to joke about and move on.

Four days after November 8, a close family friend’s nephew in DC, all of 12-years-old, was accosted by a drunk white frat guy for being brown. It was caught on video. My husband couldn’t even watch. It wasn’t something I was able to joke about and move on.

The following day, my eight-year-old daughter, having overheard our discussions about the above asked: “Will Daddy be killed for being black”? There was nothing to joke about there.

My friends, just about all of them white, had largely muted responses. “That sucks” from one regarding the Arab slur and “Can’t you just relax and not be so serious one night here Saira” from another regarding the racial slur against my dead mother.

Their apathy stung more than the underlying assault, but then I got it.

They’d never seen me as brown because I had never seen myself as such. They’d lumped me in with their own whiteness. Who could blame them? I’d never minded being the only brown person at a party, on a panel, in an office, at a school event — really ANYWHERE. Maybe I even relished the tokenism, which was weirdly flattering. Hey look, the world hates brown people and women but here I am, drinking Sauvignon Blanc with a bunch of successful white people who think my jokes are funny and dig my moonwalk (which btw, is pretty rad).

So here’s the honest truth, I’m now seeing and accepting myself for who I am, while trying to diminish the self-loathing I have for having denied it all these years.

Where to go from here? I’ve brought this up with various circles of white friends and colleagues and the reaction has been mixed. It makes a lot of white women uncomfortable, but there are just as many who want to listen and understand. I firmly believe that women of color and white women have to come together for feminism, however you define it, to succeed.

We have to start somewhere, right? I’m embracing myself. That’s a start.

Athena Talks

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