My Passport Says I’m American, But My Brain Isn’t So Sure Anymore

Why are my race and citizenship suddenly at war with each other?

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My first experience with American racism happened in India. At the age of eighteen, after coasting through life thus far with dual citizenship, I had to choose. Did I want an Indian passport or a US passport? It felt oddly traitorous, declaring allegiance to one country while living in another, but that’s the choice I made. I remember feeling the pride that often accompanies clueless decisiveness. I ran through my mental list of reasons one more time that day en route to the US Consulate in Chennai: 1) I was claiming my birthright, which was inherently cool, 2) getting foreign visas would be soooo much easier on an American passport than an Indian one, and 3) I’d be able to cast an absentee ballot in the next general election. That last reason was especially empowering. I was going to vote soon, and it was going to matter, even from halfway across the world.

I walked into the Consulate pretty pleased with myself. I was there to have my first adult US passport signed by the Consul General’s office. We were making things official. After several minutes of preliminary paperwork with the clerk, the man himself arrived. I’m not sure what I expected — a smile maybe? Or a “Congratulations, you’re in!” Instead, he looked at me, then down at my passport picture (one of my best to date, if I’m being honest), and then back up at me standing there expectantly. He handed my passport to the clerk, an Indian woman, with a casual, “Is this her in the photo? I can’t tell, you all look the same sometimes.”

And that was my official American welcome. At the time, I was mostly amused. How ridiculous that this man had taken a diplomatic posting in India and couldn’t tell Indians apart. Ha! How foolish he must feel. Now, though, when I think of the incident, my face gets hot. I’m not laughing at him anymore; instead, I’m sure the joke was on me. This man had taken a diplomatic posting in India and didn’t feel the slightest need to tell Indians apart. His position and his skin color granted him a mantle of indifference, an inherent superiority. And I had chosen that very moment to willingly yoke myself to his country for life.

I brush off my discomfort by remembering my original trio of reasons for choosing American citizenship. Over the years, they’ve all been true. If anything, the list of reasons to take pride in my passport has grown. I did indeed cast my first presidential vote two years after declaring US citizenship, and it felt incredible. I did a piss-poor job of researching (or even understanding) the propositions on the ballot, but still, it was the beginning of something good.

Shortly after this time, I made the move to America, and absentee voting became mail-in voting, then in-person voting. Each time, I grew to appreciate the nuances of the electoral process, and the system, a little bit better. And I’ve never taken it for granted. National, state, and local elections — done ’em all. Can’t stop, won’t stop exercising those rights.

If it seems like I’ve forgotten that niggling encounter at the US Consulate, though, have no fear. Racism, both subtle and overt, has reared its head over and over again, just as it does for every minority person of color in this country. I’ve gotten gentle jabs at workplaces, received tone-deaf insults from strangers, and been the repeated object of possibly well-meaning but always offensive tokenism. Along the way, I’ve gotten pretty good at standing up for myself and strengthening my body armor. I’ve polished both my snarky comebacks and righteous defenses.

None of it prepared me for the reality of the last four years. In hindsight, I should have learned my lesson the first time around. Donald Trump running for president seemed like a massive joke at first, but just like my Consulate experience, it seems like he’s the one having the last laugh. One term of his presidency has been rampant chaos, the possibility of a second term sounds like a death knell.

This is why the next few days leading up to November 3rd feel especially urgent. I hand-delivered our family’s mail-in ballots to the county voting office weeks ago. I’m not chancing this one. But still, our collective futures are being held hostage by the upcoming election. Before Trump entered the White House, racism often felt like ignorance shrouded in cockiness, but now it’s grown into something even more grandly delusional. It stands up proud, a defense unto itself, pummeling everything in its path. And like every good bully, it’s picked up a few allies along the way — sexism, bigotry, and rampant name-calling.

I know I’m not alone in my desperation. And I know this rage, this need to shake everyone I encounter and make sure they GET IT isn’t reserved for minority races or people of color. Almost all my white friends are just as angry as I am, just as worried, just as filled with a listless need for change. But more and more these days, I’ve found myself transported back to that morning at the US Consulate, and it’s become a scab wound I can’t stop scratching. After all these years, am I really American at all? What’s worse: being indiscernible in a sea of brown immigrants, or being marked as Other? And — the most persistent, unsettling voice in my head that refuses to be quieted — is there really room for our family and others like us in a country where a second Donald Trump term is possible?

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Often reading, writing, or teaching. Always cooking, baking, and eating. Words in Human Parts, Curious, Modern Parent. Connect on Twitter @purnima_mani

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