“Well, who am I?” the apothecary asks Jane Eyre as she slowly begins to awaken, echoing one of the central themes seeded in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, her struggle to know who she is. The novel begins with Jane locked away for being disobedient, where she finds herself drawn to her reflection in the mirror. Unable to recognize herself she wonders who is “the strange little figure there gazing at me” before embarking on a circuitous journey to discover the parts of herself she cannot yet see. Bronte’s genius lies not only in crafting a novel whose lyricism croons our heart, but also one which nudges us to consider the question that plagues it, “Who am I?”
Jumping in front of me he lowered his head towards me and asked, “Who are you?” I had always tried to keep a low profile in school, not wanting to be seen, but his question seemed absurd considering he sat behind me in homeroom. He was wearing a black shirt notable for its declaration ‘Proud to be Italian’ carved in blood red lettering. I kept my eyes fixed on it, too scared to let them wander. I remember thinking I would have never worn a shirt that revealed my ethnicity anymore than my skin color already did. I would have sooner died than be found in a t-shirt that announced I was ‘Proud to be Indian.’
Who am I? I had wondered. I didn’t know then. I know now who I was: Someone who was too embarrassed to be Indian, and too Indian to be American. An outcast. Alienated and isolative. Someone who didn’t belong anywhere. Someone who never felt good enough. Someone who a few years later would punish her body by starving and purging it to fit in.
“What are you doing here?” he questioned, as he blocked my path, and the door out of school. A group of boys gathered behind him and fanned out around me. Leaning close to my face and pointing with his index finger he questioned, “Did you lose your way?” Turning his head to one side and cupping his ear with his hand he continued, “What? I can’t hear you.”
When I didn’t respond he enunciated each word with labored clarity, “Do-you-speak-English?” and after a brief pause slapped his friend’s back as he ducked his head up and down with laughter adding, “Gandhis don’t belong in this town. Gandhis belong in Gandhi-field, not here in Bergenfield.”
I had stood speechless.The fiery words that clamored within me smoldered in my mouth, but I had swallowed them, I always did. I felt relieved when he turned away from me and began to walk away, but looking back he had shouted, loud enough for everyone who had been looking on to hear, “A f---ing dot head is who you are. Go home!”
“Why are people so mean?” my older daughter Saige wondered out loud.
I couldn’t have gotten to her fast enough. We hadn’t watched the 2014 Miss America Pageant live, but she was excited to see Nina Davaluri’s performance in the talent segment, because her dance teacher Nakul Dev Mahajan[i] had choreographed it. Having eschewed television, it was my patient who had mentioned a woman of Indian origin had won the pageant, while warning me “some people are not happy about it and are saying some pretty racist things about her.”[ii] Waiting for the YouTube video to load, Saige had read most of the comments below it, before I had scrambled my way to her. Looking up she had asked, “Mom, what’s a dot head?” I wish I had warned her as well.
Teasing in childhood is a common experience, but one that can leave scars that persist well into adulthood. The intent underlying teasing behavior can be humorous or hostile, and while adult teasing tends to be playful, teasing in childhood is intended to be hurtful and is frequently directed towards those who are different or disliked by other children. Racial teasing targets an individual’s ethnically distinct features, such as skin color, and practices typical to their culture, and often takes the form of racial slurs and epithets, such as dot head, Gandhi, and Paki (Iyer and Haslam, 2003).
“Because we sometimes wear a bindi like with Indian clothes, a ‘dot head’ is way of making fun of people who are Indian. When I was younger sometimes people would say that to me to tease me because I’m Indian.”
“That must have been hard Mom,” Saige said snuggling her head on my shoulder.
“It was hard. It made me not want to be Indian. I didn’t want to go to school. I felt kind of alone and sad. And while it might have been easier for me if I didn’t have experiences like that, because I did it’s made me a better person. Those experiences, and coming to terms with them, have made who I am.”
Similar to other types of teasing related to weight, general appearance, and competence, racial teasing leads to low self-esteem, depression, increased risk for suicide, and aggression towards others, especially the bully (Mouttapa et al., 2004). However, particular to the experience of racial teasing is the development of what psychologist Erik Erikson has termed ‘negative identity.’ When a target internalizes the negative comments and attitudes expressed, believing the taunts to be reflective of a personal truth about herself, it can lead her to denigrate herself, her culture, and those belonging to it, while trying to mitigate aspects of herself that draw attention to her disparaged differences.
In a doctoral dissertation by Karen Tee, on the experiences of first and second generation South Asian women in Canada, a participant recalls, “I remember calling another South Asian boy a Punjab and he looked at me and then he said, well who the hell do you think you are?” Being teased about her ethnicity led her to internalize negative views toward herself and her culture culminating in a desire to distance herself from her Indian heritage. She continues, “I had internalized so much (racism) that I was angry at anyone that was South Asian for being visible, which made me visible. That was the natural outcome of it was to call someone that, that you yourself were being hurt by…the only way to get out of it was to continue to deny any of your Indian heritage. To not wear Indian clothes. To not go to temples or gurdwaras. To not have other South Asian friends. To be as non-South Asian as you could.”
In studying racial teasing we (Iyer and Haslam, 2003) found that it was a potent but overlooked variable in the onset of body image concerns and disordered eating attitudes in South Asian women. Our findings led us to extrapolate that the racialized and exclusionary responses of other Americans towards South Asian women and the sense of not belonging it engendered lead some to direct their attention toward altering their appearance, the salient basis of their denigration, creating fertile ground for the development of body image dissatisfaction and disordered eating (Iyer and Haslam, 2006).
I patted the empty space beside me to encourage my younger daughter Anika to sit. “Sometimes people might say things to you that are mean about the way you look, about being Indian, if they do, that doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with you, or with being Indian.” I wish I had known that. “If they do I want you to tell me about it. There’s lots of things we can do to stop it from happening.”
“Like in 1st grade when Erin was being mean to me and Mrs. McDonald made us read Love, Ruby Lavender and discuss it during lunch?” A girl in Saige’s class had written a note to her telling her she was her 4th best friend because she didn’t like her dark skin color and hair.
“Exactly, you told me about it and you were scared to tell Mrs. McDonald about it, but when you did she stepped in so that it didn’t continue.”
“Mom,” Anika said climbing onto my lap to get a better look at the laptop Saige was holding, “I didn’t know that an Indian person could be Miss America.”
“Of course,” I responded, “that’s why Nana and Nani left everything behind in India to move here. They always told me if you worked hard and never gave up you could be anything you want to be in America.”
“Does that mean I could be Miss America?” Saige asked eagerly.
Beauty pageants, regardless of who wins, evoke mixed feelings in me. “Yes that, or you could be an astronaut, the president, a veterinarian, a psychologist. Though it’s pretty cool that someone Indian won. I didn’t think that could happen.”
“Maybe Nana and Nani were right. When you grow up in America, you can be anything you want. You just have to keep practicing and trying.”
I nodded in agreement, though the one thing I never wanted to be when I grew up was Indian. I spent a lot of time hating and hiding that I was, and trying not to look in the mirror, which would make salient what I was most ashamed of that I am Indian.
“Look at yourself in the mirror: you have not taken one peep.” Sophie says to Jane Eyre prior to her initial failed attempt to marry Rochester. Turning toward the mirror Jane sees “…a robed and veiled figure, so unlike my usual self that it seemed almost the image of a stranger.” While we repeatedly find Jane not recognizing her reflection, we see a different Jane emerge in response to Rochester, who she does eventually marry, as he teases her that he would like to visit Europe with “a very angel” like her “as [his] comforter.” Jane is quick to retort, “I laughed at him as he said this. “I am not an angel,” I asserted; “and I will not be one till I die: I will be myself.”
It’s taken me some time and self-reflection to get here, where I can say, I like who I am and what I see. And while I haven’t seen a “Proud to be Indian” t-shirt, if I did, I would wear it, finally knowing that I am.
I’m not sure what that boy and others like him who teased me see when they look in the mirror.
I know what I see.
When Dumbledore finds Harry Potter returning repeatedly to the Mirror of Erised he says to him, “The mirror shows us nothing more or less than the deepest, most desperate desires of our hearts…The happiest man on earth would look into the mirror and see only himself, exactly as he is.”
What I see is myself.
Part 2 will examine ways to address racial teasing. To continue the discussion please follow me on Facebook and Twitter.
Erikson, E.H. (1968) Identity: Youth and Crisis. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Iyer, D. S., & Haslam, N. (2003). Body image and eating disturbances among South Asian-American women: The role of racial teasing. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 34, 142–147.
Iyer, D. S., & Haslam, N. (2006). The Psychological Cost of New Cosmopolitanism: Eating Disorders in the Context of Globalization. In G. Rajan & S. Sharma, New Cosmopolitanisms: South Asians in the US (pp. 138-149). California: Stanford University Press.
Tee, K. (1997). Between two cultures: Exploring the voices of first and second generation South Asian women. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Simon Frasier University.
[ii] Public shaming page regarding racist tweets about Miss America: http://publicshaming.tumblr.com/search/miss+america