We Picked the Wrong Side

When I was in the sixth grade, I met a girl named Nicole. Nicole was a good student; she was polite to teachers. She was in the gifted program, a group of students handpicked for their exceptional promise. I was not in the gifted program. When my mother found out I had not been chosen, she became furious. She wanted to know why I was not worthy and how I might prove otherwise. I suppose this was her mistake—she assumed I was better than I actually was. Over time, Nicole and I became friends. We sat next to each other in class and gossiped during lunch. We watched horror movies on weekends. When boys made fun of me for being queer, she jumped to my defense. If I hadn’t been paying attention in class—which was often—she passed me her notes. Sometimes I imagined what it was like to be Nicole, with her spotless record, her enviable grades. I imagined what her teachers said during parent-teacher conferences, all the glowing, effusive praise.

It must have been the opposite of what they said during mine. I talked too much. I didn’t pay attention. My homework was always late. Sometimes I said I had turned in an assignment when really I had not. I would complete the assignment later and step on it with my shoes—this gave it the effect of some mysterious trauma—and drop it on the floor by my teacher’s desk, as if it was her fault she had lost it and not mine. I was diabolical. I impersonated my father to call myself out of school. I cut class and went to the mall. I intercepted the mail to hide my grades. I pretended to be good when I was not. Nicole didn’t do those things. She didn’t have to cover her tracks; her steps were always measured, taken with great care.

“Why can’t you use your brains for good?” My mother once complained. “Just look at Nicole.”

I spoke of Nicole often, how smart she was and how good her grades were, how she wanted to become a doctor just like my dad. “Wow,” my parents would say, masking their own disappointment in me. “Look at that.” While Nicole was graduating from medical school, I was still unsure of my place in the world, aware of the expectations I had failed to meet. Because Nicole was everything I was supposed to be, the opportunities I had squandered, the chances I’d let slip. In a way, my failure was similar to her success; they both came as a surprise. Because I’m a South Asian. And Nicole is Black.

To say I never saw Nicole’s Blackness would be a lie. To say I never heard the narrative of Blackness in America would be an even bigger one. Though we didn’t speak of race often, I knew what my parents had been told about Black people in America. It was on the news, in movies, tucked into conversations at the table. A story of danger. Fear. I had witnessed car doors locking, purses being hugged. I had heard white people describe an unpleasant encounter with someone before saying “she was Black,” as if this was what they had meant to say all along. The danger of Blackness was their central thesis. They supported it at every turn. I had heard these stories, had grown weary of these stories, had fallen victim to these stories myself. I knew what my mother meant when she said, “Just look at Nicole.” I also knew why I talked about her achievements so much at home: her race was the subtext. I wanted to show that she was good.

*

When I was young, my father had been watching the news in the doctors’ lounge with a white doctor when a crime was reported. The suspect was Black. The white doctor shook his head.

“See that?” he said, turning to my father. “We should have never brought them here.”

My father was stunned. He had never discussed Black people with this doctor before. This doctor had no idea that my father had been born and grown up in Nairobi, Kenya. He saw only that my father was not Black. Perhaps he assumed my father would agree with him—or worse, he assumed my father could be persuaded to agree with him. It’s the kind of imperious attitude only a white person could have.

When my father told me this story, I immediately thought of Nicole. I became enraged. I asked him how anyone could say such a thing. Then I asked him what I had been afraid to ask all along.

“What did you say back?”

*

Many years later, I was on a date with a white man at a bar. It was 2014, shortly after the inception of Black Lives Matter. During the course of our conversation, the topic shifted to race. I was immediately uncomfortable. Race was not something I had wanted to discuss on a first date, especially with a white man. But he persisted, explaining that he wasn’t racist at all—he believed in equality—he just felt Black people needed to get over things. Then he told me a story about his uncle’s store in Mississippi, which had been robbed by three Black men. It wasn’t so much his choice of words that echoed, but the careful layering, the casual way in which he unfurled them. He was telling a story. A story of Black danger. I was shocked. This man was my age. He did color runs and drank kombucha. He was gay. Later, he told me he had many South Asian friends. He knew all about my culture. He loved Indian men. I knew in that moment why he had told me this story. He assumed I already believed it.

A month later, I was at a train station in Chicago when an Indian man approached me, telling me he had been robbed. Two Black men had attacked him and stolen his wallet. He needed train fare and food. I gave him twenty dollars. He thanked me and walked off. Later, I felt good about what I had done. I called my mother and told her what happened. I walked away from that station feeling absolved of my sins, like I had the power to make a difference in the world, like I could be good, too.

Three weeks later, I saw him again. This time it was outside a bank. He approached me with folded hands. He told me he had been robbed. He said two Black men had attacked him and stolen his cash. Every detail was the same. After I told him I had already heard this story, he shrugged and walked off, prepared to tell it to someone else. What struck me then, what still strikes me today, was his choice of words: two Black men. He didn’t need to describe them; I was not a police officer writing a report. This man knew the narrative of Blackness in America and understood the credibility it lent him. He may have been in America only a few months, but that was all it took to absorb the racism in the air.

*

The problem with the narrative of Black danger is that it has normalized Black death to the point where we regard it as an inevitable consequence of the stories we’ve heard. Gangs. Violence. Men with guns. But after witnessing the tragic deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, after hearing the story of Amy Cooper and Christian Cooper in Central Park, after numerous memes and video clips and pleas, we’re ready to hear a different story. We’re shifting the lens back onto us.

A few days ago, I watched a video of a South Asian man urging our community to reframe our narrative. After explaining the impact the civil rights movement had on our immigration, after reminding us that our success in America was by design (post 1965, only the highest-qualified Indians were allowed to immigrate to the U.S.), after condemning the rampant anti-Blackness among South Asians, the racism, the denial, he ended his diatribe with two powerful words: wake up. And we did. Now, as I scroll through Instagram, I see step-by-step instructions on how to combat anti-Blackness in our own spaces. I see a video of Hasan Minhaj urging us to get involved. I see signs that read SOUTH ASIANS FOR BLACK LIVES. I see brown people protesting for the safety of Black people. It’s inspiring to witness, but I can’t help but remember the countless other lives that were lost along the way, and I have to ask: where were we then?

*

I was at a wedding hosted by a wealthy Indian family in the Northeast, an event that served oysters nestled in ice, paella in giant pans, and sparkling flutes of champagne, when a guest, an Indian man, swept his hand across the scene.

“You see,” he said, his eyes glistening. “We are just like the whites.”

I was amused. The man proceeded to tell me that his house, compared to the elegant home we were presently outside of, was larger in size. Then he told me he owned a successful medical practice, and he did very well. I didn’t know then what I know now, that his success, like many other Indians’, came at a cost. That while Indians were minting money from practices all over the nation, Black kids, capable and smart, were being discouraged from even applying to medical school. That in one generation, South Asians have amassed generational wealth—businesses, investments, homes, the kind of wealth that grows—while many Black families who have been here for centuries have nothing to pass on. I hadn’t seen the videos on systemic racism that now circulate the web, explaining the unjust ways in which neighborhoods have been zoned, home loans denied, résumés with Black-sounding names driven to the bottom of the pile, all while South Asians rub elbows with presidents and CEOs. I didn’t think about how fortunate I was to be a guest at that wedding in the first place, crossing paths with well-connected people who could take me far in life. What I did know, in spite of my ignorance, was that I felt sorry for that brown man. At some point in his life he had been told a story of whiteness—a story of power—and he thought he could write himself into it.

*

As a child, I never considered myself privileged; I’m brown and gay. When I finally came out of the closet in 2012, shortly after Trayvon Martin was killed, I expected it to be met with backlash from the South Asian community. It was not. By then, it was deemed cool to be gay. So why did anti-Blackness still exist among South Asians? Why were we still locking our doors and using the N-word and forbidding our children to date Black people? Black people are the ones who built the America our parents crossed oceans to reach. So why have we placed new oceans between us? Because being gay, like being rich, is centered around whiteness. Being Black is not.

*

There have always been those who are in power and those who are not. And there have always been those in between, whose standing could shift up or down depending on whose company they kept. We are those people. We made our choice as far back as the lunchroom, where Black kids sat on one side and white kids on the other, and at recess, where Black kids played double Dutch while white kids sat on the lawn.

Taking directions from white people is nothing new for South Asians; it stems from colonialism. My father still remembers the time he was accosted by a white officer in Kenya for walking through a neighborhood that was allegedly white. He still remembers the haughty way white doctors spoke to him during his training in London. He still remembers the time a white patient walked into his office and, upon realizing my father was brown, immediately walked out. Still, he endured, knowing it was a means to an end: the house, the cars, the security. White people could provide that. Throughout time, we have pandered to white people, ingratiating ourselves with them. We have shared their spaces and held their jobs. We’ve even claimed to be them: in 1923, a South Asian man, Bhagat Singh, petitioned for naturalization under the Naturalization Act of 1906, claiming to be Caucasian. The petition was denied. We have come to view white people, even colleagues, as authoritative figures. We defer to their opinions. We don’t make waves. When that man at the train station told me “two Black men” had robbed him, I believed him. When that brown doctor said, with a gleam in his eye, “We are just like the whites,” I said nothing. When my father’s white colleague made an anti-Black comment in the doctors’ lounge, my father, too, said nothing.

*

Though we’ve drifted apart, though our phone calls are less frequent, our movie nights have ended, and the gossip has stilled, Nicole and I do keep in touch, texting every now and then. Our lives have taken different paths: Nicole is a doctor and married with kids; I live alone and write for TV in LA. The last time we had texted each other, recently, was to discuss a very old picture of us Nicole had sent. It had been taken after a Janet Jackson concert. We laughed at how young we looked. I told her I couldn’t wait to see her at our twenty-year high school reunion. That was eight months ago. The next text was from me, a stilted, fumbling message I would later regret. I told her I was thinking of her, and that I hoped she was finding some peace. It’s the kind of bland text you send to an acquaintance who is grieving a loss. I would have said more, should have said more, but I couldn’t find the right words. I sent the text, then I posted a link to the Minnesota Freedom Fund, an organization providing bail money for protestors, on Instagram. An hour later, my mother texted me: “Don’t get too involved.”

Later, my mother explained that she was afraid of what might happen if I did, considering the people I work with are white. Because my mother, like my father, has seen what whiteness can do: rewrite our futures, erase our pasts. In spite of what she and many others like her have been told, in spite of the narrative of Black danger in America, in spite of TV shows and news reports and whispers from white neighbors, my mother’s true fear was revealed. It’s not the story of Blackness she was scared of after all. It’s the people who wrote it.

Neel Patel is the author of the short story collection, If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi, and the forthcoming novel, Tell Me How to Be. He lives in Los Angeles, where he writes for television and film. 

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