Race The World Inequality

Why does everyone question the validity of my ethnicity?

When I was eight, I told my third grade class that my mom was from England. They asked me why I didn’t have an accent, I explained, and that was the end of that. Fast forward five years, I’m thirteen. I tell my new, pre-pubescent middle school math classmates that my mom is British. This time, though, I sit through fifteen minutes of questioning of whether I’m “half-white” or “even a real Indian.” 

My peers are often under the impression that my mother’s British nationality makes my racial identity as an Indian woman less valid. Not that this makes sense at all; my mother’s British nationality has no influence over my Indian ethnicity (or hers, for that matter). The differentiation between nationality and ethnicity is a conversation that needs to be brought up in order to elucidate the idea that a specific race is not assigned to a particular geographic location. Girls who don’t fit into these predetermined correlations exist. And – hi, we matter.

There are just over 2 million Indian immigrants residing in the United States and 1.4 million in the United Kingdom. It’s detrimental for them and their posterity to grow up with the idea that their place of residence determines their ethnic validity. If any of these 3.4 million people chose to have children, would their children be viewed as “less Indian” than their peers whose parents were born and raised in India? With the influx of immigrants entering countries like the United States in recent years, it’s a question that needs to be addressed immediately. Immigrants, no matter where they hail from, represent an era of change, of growth, of progress. To invalidate the generations after them and use their nationalities against them contradicts everything that we supposedly stand for.

Growing up as an Indian-American girl in a predominantly Asian and South Asian community, I had always been very in touch with my roots. I knew where I was from, how hard my parents worked to get here, and the words to more Bollywood songs than almost anyone I knew. I never questioned the validity of my heritage, so why did everyone else? My mother is British, born and raised in Southeast London, and somehow that makes me less Indian in the eyes of my peers. In a sea of “You’re not even a real Indian” and other equally ignorant remarks, I started to believe them. At thirteen years old, I didn’t know enough to realize that there was no substance behind their argument. Maybe I was less Indian than they were.

In retrospect, I’m angry. I wish I would have stood up for myself, dropped some knowledge about nationality and ethnicity on their adolescent selves. But, as it turns out, that isn’t what I did. I took my mother’s British upbringing to mean that I wasn’t really allowed to identify with the narrative of an Indian woman. I clearly wasn’t white, though, so I spent most of my middle school years in a very awkward, confusing middle ground. Indian, but not quite enough to be a real one. People around me seemed to think that my mother’s nationality had diluted and invalidated my own ethnicity.

What I’m trying to say is that the two don’t need to match. One can exist independently of the other. If race and ethnicity influence almost all aspects of the American way of life, it’s important to distinguish between the two. Nationality refers to the state, province, or country that one resides in. It has to do with physical location rather than with history. Ethnicity, however, involves a particular racial or cultural group that one identifies with. This refers to ancestry and the original socially and linguistically distinct group of people that one is a part of. My ethnicity is Indian and my nationality is American. My mother’s British nationality is not something genetic that can be passed down to me; I am as American as she is British. Race, identity, religion, and nationality are all different things and do not need to match in order to be legitimate. In our increasingly multicultural world, it’s easy to get these muddled, but for the sake of respect and accuracy, let’s do our best to refrain from confusing them.

So no, my British mother did not play a part in my ethnicity. But it did, however, give me my appreciation for Earl Grey.

By Asma Elgamal

Asma Elgamal is our Head News + Society Editor at The Tempest. She's currently a student at Harvard University.