"Jha Girl"
 
 

 

by Priya Jha

 
     

 

 

this is a performance piece... you need a brown gal and a white man....
 
 

 

After reading the four articles assigned for class today, I realized before I could fully do justice to De Margin and de Centre and White, I needed desperately to peripherally analyze and evaluate the general tone and theme of all four works. For me, what keeps echoing in these essays, even at this moment, is the definition of color, specifically within the context of the Manchiean division of Black and White. How can we, as students of criticism, accept, as Manthia Diawara suggests, 'the prevailing approach [which] has remained colorblind?' We need to respond to the problematics of colour articulated by each writer so that we are not stuck within the schizm of black and white.

This brings me back to the point of this exercise. Why am I choosing to talk about colours and [dis]colours? One prevailing reason for me is that, without intending to, I found myself rendering a very personal reading to these texts. Revolving through my head at various intervals have been thoughts of discipline and separation from the text along with the emotional connections I unconsciously made with each and every one. What remains at the core of these thoughts are the inherent symbolic connotations of black and white as colors which I had learned throughout my life and how these definitions have been imposed even on the cultural level with regard to the races of black and white.

Growing up in "post-colonial" India during the late sixties and early seventies, and having been inculcated in the British educational system, I had extremely solid notions of black and white. It was similar to that which Dyer speaks of in White:

 

I was taught the scientific difference between black and white at primary school. It seemed a fascinating paradox. Black, which, because you had to add it to paper to make a picture, I had always thought of as a color, was, it turned out, nothingness, the absence of all colour; whereas white, which looked just like empty space (or blank paper), was apparently, all the colours there were put together." (45)


The point in the above quote struck me strongly in its artistic references for, first and foremost in my life, I have been an artist. It got me thinking about any "scientific" differences I may have been taught, albeit in a subtly sinister manner. In India, where commodification of women is a way of life, the fairer you are, the more attractive and desirable you become; hence, the greater likelihood of a better marriage. There is, of course, an element of eroticism linked with skin color.

I remember snubbing girls my own age who just wanted to be friends based solely on the tint of their blackness. I have always been taught that white is better than black. While growing up, I never owned even an article of clothing that was black. My mother was visiting me recently and we got into arguments about my clothes, which to her, were "nice, but did I have to wear so much black?" And, did I have to sit out in the sun where my skin would become darker? To this day, my mother takes pride in the fact that her skin is much lighter in color than mine. I guess she also got a similar "scientific" education as Dyer.

 

Recently, I have had a paradigmatic shift which has left me confused as to where this "coffee-with-cream" complexion of mine fits in with the Manchaiean worldview and also within the context of feminist theory criticized for its exclusion of the Black woman by Gaines? This confusion has only magnified with the readings for this week, I think, because only one article even attempts to articulate the position of the "black who is not black, but shades of it": Introduction: De Margin and De Centre. Mercer and Julien acknowledge that "critical theories are just beginning to recognize and reckon with the kinds of complexity inherent in the culturally constructed nature of ethnic identities, and the implications this has for the analysis of representational practices." (3) What does this really mean to me or for me as an Indian woman trying to survive in a First World hegemony? Who is going to speak for me?

According to Gaines' argument which asserts that "women of color...have been added to feminist analysis as an afterthought," (201) I can't even have a voice in the feminist arena, let alone through the voice of psychoanalysis and, even lower on that scale, that of the Marxist. Reflecting on my formative years in the United States, I can remember when I let others speak for me.

Once, when I was in school in the ghetto of West Philadelphia, I was waiting for the water fountain. There was a black boy in front of me and a black girl behind me in line. Suddenly, the black girl pushed me away from the line, referring to me as "whitey." 'Hmm...I had never been called that before'...while I was pondering that point, the boy who was standing in front of me picked up my arm, and yelled at the girl who had pushed me, "Does she look white to you?" They proceeded to argue the point, while I stood there, fascinated, horrified, but most importantly, mute. After all, I had only wanted a drink of water.

I can remember during my high school years in the suburbs similar instances taking place only with white contemporaries. I bring up this point, not for an emotional reaction or even empathy from all of you, but to illustrate that even back then, my identity was constantly being questioned by all those around me, never by me. I considered myself to only be Priya.

Back then, I never wanted to be associated with any group of people; in fact, I prided myself in the fact that I was an "in-between" color because it meant that I would always belong in the world of abstraction and conception. Little did I realize that that would be my downfall. By not identifying myself as anything, I had become nothing. I couldn't even elocute my own position! While mentally listening to the argument posed by Julien and Mercer that "the subject of race and ethnicity is still placed on the margins conceptually...,"(3) I felt as though I had been hit by a powerful force.

 

I needed to find an identity of sorts, and if it is within the division of black and white, where do I fit in? I thought about the application I had filled out for a job with the Colorado state. In the section where the race of the applicant is asked, there was included an additional sheet which separated racial categories and what did I find out according to this sheet, but that I was considered White! But, I don't want to be White, I have never considered myself to belong to that race, I am obviously not white in colour, so, according to the Manchiean dialectic, I would then be black. Alright, so I'm now black. But, again, I am a tint of black, a "subaltern" as Spivak would suggest, but a subaltern suspended. Again, then, we come back to the rhetoric of "who is going to speak for me?"

 

My unsuccessful attempts to insert myself into the dominating Euro-American discourse here -- at the University level and beyond -- has at least provided me with an inner imperative: the need for my stubbornness in making my voice heard. And, it is through the theorizing of issues surrounding race, gender, sexuality and the points of intersection for these issues within hegemonic constructions, that I become most vocal. I am aware that there are those who would like to believe that my chosen field is appropriate for someone like me, and that it falls within the realm of the "politically correct." After all, what could be more academically "in vogue" than a bi-cultural, bi-sexual, Indian American Woman discussing the politics of identity?

 

As Rajeshwari Mohan has suggested in her recent article, "The Crisis of Femininity and Modernity in the Third World, "A tame pluralism has become fashionable under the banner of "diversity" or "multiculturalism" and has all but displaced a rigorous analytical understanding of the historically and culturally specific ways the tension between margin and center plays itself out across hierarchies constituted along the lines of class, gender, sexuality and race. (226)

I agree with what she has to say, especially when I see this "tame pluralism" at work each and every day. Within the term multiculturalism, "difference" is acceptable only within certain limits. One can only occupy a space that can be labelled, and these labelled spaces must conform to culturally understood systems of difference which participate unquestioningly in a logic of binaries: normative/other is the master trope which leads into black/white, male/female, heterosexual/ homosexual. You must become one or the other. Difference is, then, recapitulated as a binary system, the Manichaean worldview.

 

Somebody asked me recently if being an Indian or being a woman is more crucial to my existence, and which did I think was the greater obstacle in my life. Stepping outside of the binary and injecting a third term is not "fashionably correct" and brings on a vast, social confusion which, in turn, oppresses -- you are forced to identify with one or the other term in that binary regardless of the deformations this performs, while it refuses the possibility of surviving intact. I am not allowed a voice for myself; in order to be understood, my position must be subsumed under the logic of binaries. Who will speak for me?

Reflecting on my early years in the United States, I can recall incidents which subsequently forced me to perceive the world in a very essentialized and dichotomized manner. My first experience of this binary system occurred when I started school in the ghetto of West Philadelphia. I was waiting for the water fountain and there was a black boy in front of me and a black girl behind me in line. Suddenly, the black girl pushed me away from the line, referring to me as "whitey." It was strange, I had never really thought of myself as "white"...As the scene developed, I watched absently the boy picking up my arm, and yelling at the girl who had pushed me, "Does she look white to you?" They proceeded to argue the point, each speaking for me, while I stood there, fascinated, horrified, but most importantly, mute. After all, I had only wanted a drink of water. I bring up this point, not for an emotional reaction, not for sympathy, but to underscore the insidious ways in which these binary oppositions insinuate themselves from an early age and throughout our lives. It is only through self-conscious address that we break free from essentializing codes and begin to gather knowledge and experience and to de-essentialize "difference." We have to forcefully and consciously acknowledge that these polarizing systems cannot represent the experience of paradoxical positions like mine.

 

Who is going to speak for me? And with which voice will I be heard?

 

My mother firmly believes that if my skin turns even a shade darker, I will suddenly become undesirable to the large groups of eligible Indian bachelors clamoring to claim me as their bride. The attitude and interest she has towards my destined role as a wife have played themselves out continually in various battlefields throughout my life. When I was old enough to recognize that marriage was what was expected of me, I would always wonder why it was that my sister, Mona, did not feel this sometimes implicit, but mostly explicit pressure. The more I observed my family, the more clearly I could see that while I was being groomed for marriage, my sister was being pushed into a professional life. I remember the numerous times my family and their friends made comments as my sister and I stood by, present but not seen: "Priya has such light skin, she should have no problem finding someone...Mona is the smarter one, isn't she..." I understand now that they were planting the seeds of color hierarchies. My close observations of my mother, in particular, led me to the conclusion that since my sister is darker than me in color, with kinky hair and full, sensual lips, she is not as "pretty"; therefore, the only course she could hope to follow was to become a professional and entice a husband in that way. I, on the other hand, because of my lighter tone, did not need an education to find one. As I approach my 29th birthday and the end of my master's degree, I see these tensions still being played out in my family vis vis my mother, who still cannot look beyond the binaries she was brought up in.

While there are certain similarities between the color dynamic that constructs my skin as more attractive than my sister's and the dynamic that produces the African American female body as always eroticized through its exoticism and always sexually available, there are significant differences as well. The construction of color hierarchy in my life has been one of coercion, whereas for African American women, historically, their sexuality has been a compulsory one. At the same time, I am the exotic "other". Neither White nor Black feminism can fully express my identity, and so I am left with a choice between two types of representation, neither of which fit me comfortably.

At one point in my life, I embraced this neither/nor position. I remember the pride I had in myself because I am an "in-between" color, or that I could "pass" in terms of race or sex; in my typically naive manner, it meant that I would always belong in the world of liminality. The esssence of "me" could never be pinned down. I was unable to realize, back then, that by not identifying myself as anything, I had become nothing. Reflecting on this, I now feel that this position was not transgressive of the norms but, in fact, one which was imposed by external, social forces. I was not the person in control: in a hostile, rebellious response to the either/or oppositional messages I was receiving, I mistakenly believed that physical and even sexual androgyny was the voice I was desperately seeking. Gloria Anzaldúa articulates an alternate position of the bi-cultural mestiza in Making Face, Making Soul/Haciendo Caras, when she asserts that we, as feminists of color "...cross or fall or are shoved into abysses whether we speak or remain silent. And when we do speak from the cracked spaces, it is con voz del fondo del abismo, a voice drowned out by white noise, distance and the distancing by others who don't want to hear. We are besieged by a silence that hollows us." (xxii)

Anzaldúa's language and thoughts seduce me with their clarity and conviction and convince me of my own: I don't need to write "jargonistically and abstractly, in a hard-to-access language that blocks communication, [which] makes the general listener/reader feel bewildered and stupid" (xxii).

 

To paraphrase Audre Lorde, the master's tools will not de-colonize my house. I have come to see that in order to articulate myself in all of my complexity, I must selectively sift through linguistic codes and theoretical models to make appropriate use of them and to incorporate any creative means necessary to claim those which belong specifically to me--my gender, my race, my color, my sexuality, my experiences. I must fuse these models coherently to make my voice heard. In the end, it is I who must speak for myself.

 
     

 

 

 

"Jha Girl" © 1996 by Priya Jha
 
     
 

 Original Graphics © 1996 by Lenni J. Calipo
 
     

 

 

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