What it means to be Half-White

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When I first returned to New York to study film at Columbia in 2000, I remember hearing about a Brooklyn based parenting group created for South Asian parents called Mixed Masala. The group included parents who adopted from South Asia as well as parents who had recently emigrated from the subcontinent – the common thread being a desire to raise children within that culture. I decided if I had children in America I wanted to be part of that subculture.

Fast-forward 15 years and I found myself married to a Seattlite and living in Prospect Lefferts Garden. When I go to restaurants and parenting groups in the area, I’m very conscious of the fact that Ananda does not look particularly South Asian. I realize based on my clothing and the vibe I give out that particular day, many people assume I’m his nanny, and I can see their discomfort as to how to refer to our relationship when they ask me questions about him. His skin is not pale, but it’s not dark, and his features, aside from a robust set of hair, do not mimick those of Indian men. It then became even more important to go out of my way to raise my child with as much Indian traditions and culture as I could muster, and my husband was very supportive of this. For me being Indian meant communicating a Buddhist tradition, introducing him early on to Indian music and foods, as well language and place.

We became close to a few people from the MM group and attended their events. I found a Buddhist Tibetan nanny through a vigorous hunt where I pooled all my listserves together, and for the first year of my son’s life she brought a deep spiritual and cultural nuance to childcare. My mom cooked most of his early solid foods, from daal to idlis (South Asian rice patties), and my husband and I introduced him to spices early. My husband danced bhangra with him, and my friends showered him with Indian clothes. O insisted that my mother only speak to him in our mother tongue and I repeatedly spoke the few words of Hindi I can muster. I’m committed to bringing him to India early on, and for him to be immersed in Indian culture.

I feel good about all of this, at least for now. I resist when people ask how to shorten his 6 letter name and if he has a nickname. I respond that it’s already quite easy to pronounce and only 3 syllables. And I know I unconsciously give him an abundance of kisses and attend many happy hours to make sure everyone knows he’s definitely my son. The plight of bringing up a mixed child is old news, especially in Brooklyn.

What has changed recently is the intensity of the racial climate in America – or perhaps more transparency of a historically existing one. Within the context of the Black Lives Matter movement and the hatred Trump has brought into the American forefront, I now have to learn what it means to raise my son half white.

In the same way that introducing language, spices, and spiritual beliefs early on will impact Ananda’s life down the road, I think that’s important to begin communicating the cultural and political burden of his whiteness. I asked my husband how will we raise him white and he joked and said “consumerism.” Since the dominant culture in America is white culture, we don’t have to go out of our way to raise him white per se, as that’s the default.

But I want to make sure to teach Ananda that whiteness means privilege. It means that he may get scrutinized in airports when people see his hyphenated last name, but not when the police don’t issue him a ticket. I don’t want him to be ashamed of his whiteness, or adopt it too willingly – I want him to understand the deep responsibility to be aware of the political situations of our times, and feel deep compassion and act accordingly. It means understand that being white carries power that he can choose to use wisely, and that how his parents are treated differently is not coincidence.

I wonder how I will teach him these things. It’s not the same as my sing-song voice which hums tunes to calm him during a diaper change, or adding a bit of spicy chutney to his solids. It’s nuanced. How early does one learn privilege and power? How early does one understand racism and discrimination? I’m really not sure. I do know that habit formation happens early on, as does recognition of smells and people, and this is not something that can wait until school to be taught.

What I do know is that there are progressive communities like Mixed Masala and the anti-gentrification movements in Brooklyn to support me as I raise my son. I’ll continue to help navigate my son through the experiences he has when we ride the subway, and we ride it often. And that rooting myself in how my neighborhood is growing may be as important an education as a trip to Bangalore.

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About Author

Ambika Samarthya-Howard is a documentary filmmaker and communications specialist. Her freelance projects focus on social issues, specifically gender, public health, and child rights. After receiving her MFA in Film at Columbia University, she went on to shoot and direct art and media projects in Japan, Bollywood, and West Africa. She completed the Dharma Teacher Training program at the Interdependence Project, a secular Buddhist organization in Manhattan, and has taught meditation at Third Root Community Center in Brooklyn and WeWorks. She has worked with organizations such as BBC Media Action, UNICEF, and other agencies in creating social activism tools and trainings.

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