Disclaimer: I am not a profound scholar or novelist but I often wish I were. As I attempt to tackle this loaded concept of identity while studying abroad, I must first confess that I am only profoundly knowledgeable of my sole definition of identity and that I am cannot confidently reference literary geniuses or notable scholars who have made it their lives’ work to document the meaning of identity. I make this disclaimer to say that all experiences I will be writing about while in India will be made in the first person, it is not be said that I will not try to gather insight from the sparse population of African and Afro-American individuals residing in India. Furthermore, my goal for these blog posts is not to insinuate that India is a racist country, rather it is to address that, like the United States, racism is inherently apart of their cornerstone code.
I was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. My paternal family lineage has been traced through the soil of Haiti dating back to the nineteenth century. Now how accurate these records are can be left up for debate but as it stands, I am Haitian, my parents are Haitian, my grandparents are Haitian, and my great-grandparents are Haitian. And had it not been for the turbulent reign of Papa Doc and the governmental instability of Jean-Bernard Aristide, my mother would not have fled her home and opt to raise her children within the American borders. Bypassing through all the immigration nightmares my family endeared to secure proper documentation, it seemed as though identity took a backseat in order to protect against possible deportation. Now how realistic were those fears in a nation that seems to only associate undocumented citizens with our neighbors below the border can be left up for debate as well. Yet, the realization is that for ten years, I was warned against detailing my family’s origin and heritage. All sense of inherent Haitian identity was substituted with that of an African-American female, speaking fluent English and from an American household with parents who only may had been taken as Caribbean due to their sun kissed brown skin and mild, incomprehensible dialect of American English.
It was not until my Hindi professor asked me, in front of my classmates, what my mother tongue was that I realized whatever identity I was clinging to, whether it is Haitian or African American, was suddenly berated. I stood there, dressed in traditional Indian attire, a kurtha, leggings, my Vibrams Five-Toe Shoes and my kinky black hair twisted back into a slight up-do, staring at her. I could not even fully comprehend her question before I heard slight gasps and gentle hints of laughter coming from my peers that I realized she was insinuating that I was not raised speaking English. I could not understand how after being informed that I was a student from the United States and hearing me speak several times in class with a mild Southern American accent that she would ask if English was my second language. And as if my muted response was not evident enough that I did not want to entertain her question, she continued on to ask if my mother tongue was Swahili, a language spoken vastly in East Africa; 12,000 kilometers from Haiti and Georgia-my birthplace and my place of residency. I should stop and explain that my Hindi teacher is an elderly woman and that her questioning may not have came with bad intentions but is that enough reasoning to compensate for her questioning. Would the assumption that she simply did not know better allow for her to non-so discreetly claim that my difficulty in learning Hindi was because I was raised speaking Swahili, instead of English like the rest of my classmates, who, coincidently, were also struggling to learn Hindi. At what point will ignorance be unraveled from the shield of lacking knowledge?