When I was in college, I bought a shirt that said, “Everyone loves an American girl.” It was a black shirt with a big red heart and white letters emblazoned across the heart, and I wore it with pride . I wanted people to read my shirt and acknowledge me as American. After all, everyone loves an American girl.
I’m sure that, when my parents immigrated to the United States from India twenty or so years earlier, they would have never imagined their US-born child wanting nothing to do with their Indian heritage. However, whenever I faced a conflict between my Indianness and the white culture around me, my parents taught me to compartmentalize my identity. If your peers at school make fun of your Indian lunch, don’t take Indian food anymore; Buy the hot lunch at school. Please don’t show your friends that movie about slums in India; We don’t want them to think we grew up like that. You can wear Indian clothes at family functions, but no need anywhere else. The instructions weren’t intended to instill shame in me for being Indian (although that was still the result). It was just… easier. It is simpler to deal with whiteness by slowly allowing it to erase your culture than it is to stand up to it. And for hard working immigrant families, life was challenging enough. Adapting to whiteness was the solution.
My culture couldn’t be compartmentalized, no matter how hard I tried.
As a result, I attempted to live my life like a neatly compartmentalized tiffin. My Indianness was in one compartment, and my Americanness was in another. Each one was sealed off from the other, and it was my responsibility to only open, or use, one at a time.
But no matter how hard I tried, my tiffin compartments never stayed separate. My brown skin, dark eyes, and thick black hair conflicted with my California accent and white friends. My sheltered childhood and strict upbringing was always a source of anxiety in my dominantly white school. My pierced ears with golden hoops betrayed me when my teenage friends were longing for piercings too. My culture couldn’t be compartmentalized, no matter how hard I tried.
The third layer in my tiffin was my religion. My mother was raised in a Roman Catholic home, and my father was raised in a Protestant home, both in Bangalore. Coming to North America must have felt like a natural fit. My family no longer had to represent a religious minority in India. My family was free to speak English exclusively. They reached the land of ultimate opportunity, a place where I could have a “better” life.
I’m 33 years old, and only now I’m starting to understand how my parents and ancestors understood the concept of “better.”
White Culture is Better
When my great-great-great grandfather converted from Hinduism, Christianity was deemed “better.” And according to British missionaries, Westernization was “better” too. Pants and dresses were “better” than saris and kurtas. English was “better” than local Indian languages. A Westernized Biblical name was “better” than an Indian name. Food suitable for British palates was “better” than regional Indian food. Classical music was “better” than the sitar and tabla. Anglicized names of cities were “better” than the original Indian names. Statues of British rulers were “better” than any Indian leader. British education was “better” than Indian education, and the British way of ruling was “better” than the “uncivilized” Indian way.
As scholar Susan Visvanathan puts it, “The improvement of the life and soul of the Indian became the centripetal force of British life in India.” The white way was extolled as an improvement. It was simply “better.” And since the British held the power, they could make India “better” too.
So what becomes of my tiffin identity? I have my Indianness, my White Americanness, my Christianity, and my family’s history of better-ing (read: whitewashing) through colonization. I have no choice but to look back that far to understand why I am the way I am. I’m Indian in some areas, but I want to fit in with my white friends, which shouldn’t be too hard because I’m Christian in America, and my inherited Christianity teaches me that White Christianity is best, which is then reinforced by local American Christians and churches who tend to ignore my Indianness anyway.
A quick Google search will tell you that a synonym for better is “supreme.” That’s why scholars call this dynamic between who holds the most power and what ideas permeate the society as “white supremacy.” The white way is the ideal, the standard, the more favorable option. And that idea is reinforced time and time again through unintentional and intentional thoughts, words, and deeds. White supremacy says that the white way of being is better. This is white supremacy.
And the legacy of white supremacy has marked my life. Nowhere in my story does the KKK appear. No burning crosses, no pointy hats, no stereotype of extremists. Just the idea that the white way is better, normal, or neutral, while my Indianness is different, abnormal, and exotic. And I bought it. I didn’t know any better. Without knowing it, I pushed myself to be as white-adjacent as possible. But it took some challenging instances of blatant racism to help me realize that as much as I acted like it, I’m not white. I just had internalized white supremacy.
Changing the Architecture
Believing that one type of person is superior to another violates the doctrine of the image of God. Every person is made in God’s image and has inherent dignity, value, and worth. My internalized white supremacy made me think that Indian people, myself included, were not quite as valuable as white people. I would never articulate that, of course, but it was evident in my lifestyle, and it came out in my priorities, my choices, and my words. I remember correcting my parents incessantly on their use of Indian English, their pronunciation of certain words, and of idioms they used. I was embarrassed every time I used an Indian English phrase at school and was mocked. So I went home and promptly told my parents that they were wrong, this is the “right way” to say it, and that they didn’t know how to speak English properly. Little did I know that Indian English is a legitimate dialect, with its own set of idioms and phrases. It even has a dictionary dating back to 1886 . Believing that one type of person is superior to another violates the doctrine of the image of God.
Although I have repented of my internalized white supremacy, I am still being sanctified from it. I still attend a predominantly white church in a predominantly white denomination. My husband is white, and I am still surrounded by mostly white friends. The good news is that forsaking white supremacy does not mean forsaking all white people. It means forsaking whiteness. Jun and Collins describe whiteness as architecture, or “a design that creates limited choices one can make when it comes to moving into certain spaces, opening doors, staying, or departing.” The architecture is designed to be an ideal fit for only one particular group-- white people--and demands that all other groups adapt to fit into the space. In order for me to fit into my school, I needed to change my language and take on phrases unnatural to me because it was deemed “normal.” As long as I conformed to the architecture of whiteness, I could fit through the door.
At my predominantly white churches over the years, the architecture was the same. To fit through these doors, I needed to learn more about common white experiences just to make sense of the sermon illustrations: baseball, Star Wars, pop culture in general. Expressions of lament and suffering were limited to illnesses or abortion. Prayers centered on “our nation” with the American flag up front and patriotic songs were sung on American holidays. Church leadership was usually all white, from the pastor to the music leaders to the Sunday school teachers. Although I was told I was welcome there, everything about the service expressed that it was not made for someone like me. If I wanted to be comfortable, if I wanted to be truly Christian, I needed to embrace whiteness. That was the architecture.
However, if whiteness is built into the architecture of our church spaces, then celebrating diversity is like throwing a party for the non-white people’s ability to awkwardly contort themselves to fit in the door. Churches need to realize that compositional diversity does not dispel white supremacy in the church. Is this really our best effort to be kingdom embassies? Because the kingdom we represent consists of every tongue, tribe, and nation, all using our unique cultural identities to worship the Triune God in unity (Rev. 7:9). Jesus taught us to pray for this reality, the clear will of God, “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10). How can we settle for cultural whiteness alone when heaven will be in technicolor?
Re-Evaluating My Tiffin
At this point in life, I’m learning to embrace my tiffin, to learn the skill of being fully me in all my spaces. The beauty of the tiffin is that one compartment may hold rice, the next compartment holds sabji, and the last contains dal. Each item is sufficient on its own. But when that tiffin is opened fully, and I mix the dal and sabji into the rice, the flavors meld together for a delicious bite. The aroma of the spices mix together in the air, and a delicious meal is complete. Similarly, my identities work best when taken altogether, as a beautifully complete course. To prioritize one compartment over the other minimizes the creative genius of the Maker.
Although I am extraordinarily skilled at fitting into the white architecture around me, allowing myself to notice my discomfort, notice my contortions, notice my adaptations, and resist bending over to fit is a small act of resistance. Rather than mindlessly contorting, I am actively choosing to learn how to be fully me.
Practically, that looks like allowing myself to use Indiannisms in front of my White husband. It looks like cooking Indian food more regularly. It looks like reading more Indian authors, following Indian scholars, learning about Indian history, and celebrating regional holidays with my family. It also looks like raising my son to embrace his Indianness too. We have a map of India in our home, we read South Asian children’s books, and we listen to different types of Indian music together. Even writing this article is an act of resistance as I dig deep to bring out examples and share my personal narrative without white-washing my experiences. Some of these experiences come naturally, while others take much more intentional effort. That effort is my resistance. That effort is adding complex flavor to my tiffin.
At times, the process of unlearning my internalized whiteness and relearning who I truly am has left me feeling undone. Anzaldua (2015) describes this process as Coyolxauhqui, the symbol for reconstruction. Her point is that our knowledge is constantly being undone and remade as we process new information, perspectives, and patterns. We do not approach knowledge as neutral beings or blank slates but come with preconceived ideas and a sense of knowledge that has been building since birth. Knowledge must be processed, tested, broken, and rebuilt. And for someone like me who is regaining an understanding of what was historically stolen from my identity, I am “re-membering,” literally pulling in pieces of my identity and reconstructing myself as a whole, healed being. The kingdom we represent consists of every tongue, tribe, and nation, all using our unique cultural identities to worship the Triune God in unity.
Re-membering will be a life-long process. But getting to open and enjoy my tiffin as a whole is worth it, not just for me, but for my world. Our knowledge is deeply personal yet has a broad impact on society. This tension between personal and societal is what makes awareness of one’s cultural identity an important investment as it affects not only ourselves, but also how we interact with the world as influencers and change-agents. Society, the church, and other institutions that have embraced white architecture may invalidate my identity, but the more I embrace who I am, the stronger I am to put some dents in those walls. My cultural identity, once weaponized against me, becomes a God-ordained tool in dismantling systems that do not honor his intentions and goals for his world.