Coming to America

Below are the personal reflections of two of the high school students who traveled on a civil rights tour of the South with Project HIP-HOP (Highways into the Past: History, Organizing and Power). 

Project HIP-HOP Voice #1

The question was not a new one.  “What are you?”  Even before I emigrated from the Philippines , I was asked “what” I was.  Being light-skinned for a Filipino, many of my classmates mistook me for an “American.”  To them, an “American” meant, of course a white person.

After having arrived in the United States , my “American” classmates revived the question, as I was not too “foreign-looking” to be mistaken for “American.”  I wasn’t white, which meant that I would share in a tradition people of color in this country daily partake in.  I would have to negotiate how my non-white body measured against the white standard.  For me, that meant I had to suffer that humiliating question, “What are you?”

Growing up, I had no sense of humor about it.  Every time I was asked what I was, I sincerely felt as if blinding spotlight had betrayed me, and had revealed that, crime of crimes, I wasn’t white.  I laugh now, remembering how in basketball, I and another Asian were put on the “foreign” team because, to the middle-school mind, we clearly couldn’t qualify as “American” players.  Kids would want to make fun of me and call me by a racial slur, yet the old stand bys – “nigger” or even “chink” – didn’t seem to apply.  They’d try “chink” and add “gook” for good measure.  Ha, I felt like saying, I am neither of those!  Yet nor could I say that I was white.

In this country, I wasn’t American – not because I had emigrated, but because I wasn’t white.  The name “American” was apparently very much tied to race.

My experience has shown that whites have a better claim to being “American” than I did, and that meant they were exempt from their own question, “What are you?” -  a question I could never ask of them.  While whites, among themselves, could ask, “Who are you?” I was to them a “What?” – a body before a person. 

Project HIP-HOP Voice #2

I had to learn who I was, and part of that meant what race I was.  My race was defined by those around me.  It wasn’t easy for people to place my racial identity. 

Some thought I was Latino, others thought I was a mix, between Latino, Black and even white.  Some figured me for being Native American.  None were right.

I am Indian American.  My parents emigrated from India to the United States .  I was born and raised in Boston , and have lived there all my life.  But there were no other Indians in my neighborhood.  Therefore, on account of my brown skin, people put me in whatever category that made sense to them.  It’s interesting to be called a “spic” when you are not.

Race is something placed upon me by society.  Since it is based on how one looks, I became what I looked like to someone else, regardless of my true racial identity.  Yet one thing has remained the same: though people can’t place what I am, they know I am certainly not white.

Growing up “non white” has its positives and negatives.  Since I lived in a mostly poor and working-class Black and Latino neighborhood, I was more accepted by Blacks and Latinos on account of our shared “non white” skin.  I became a “person of color,” and formed a community with other people of color.  I also felt more comfortable with Blacks and Latinos because we faced everyday racism.  There was a tacit understanding between us that, because of our shared lack of white skin, we’d have to stick together.  Of course, my color was a burden as well.  I had to deal with harassing police, condescending teachers, and other pains people of color face in white society.”

I am brown.  People see that, yet they don’t know the history behind my color, that my parents came from a country which struggled against a colonial force.  They don’t care to understand the rich culture of India .  I am no one beyond my color.  I am brown and not to be trusted, to be watched more carefully, to be stupid and less-than, to be different.  I am different, but why does my difference attract the fear and uncertainty I see in their looks?  Race is a construct which has shaped how I’ve been treated, as it has influenced how I see people. 


How do you define yourself?

Do you think of yourself in terms of a particular “race”?

Were you born in the United States or in another country?

Can you identify with anything in these Project HIP-HOP voices?