The Hidden Struggles of a Dual-Cultural Identity

There are some things that we just don’t talk about. The reasoning behind this is simple; it makes us uncomfortable. It makes us hash up our insecurities and remember all the times we were made to feel less. Sometimes, it makes us question our entire identity and beat ourselves up for letting others define us when only we have the right to determine who we really are. 

One thing that I don’t usually talk about is my dual-cultural identity as an Indian-Canadian girl living in Richmond Hill, Ontario. I often feel like my cultural identity was nothing more than just another adjective others used to describe me. Going to school in Ontario’s education system and being expected to behave and think in particular ways that correspond to “Western” ways of knowing made me feel like there was only one truth.

woman sitting on boardwalk facing ocean Photo by Birti Ishar from Unsplash After starting school at York University, I began questioning everything around me and completely shifted my perspective. I started to value my Indian identity more and question people who used terms like “whitewashed” to describe me. After learning about the implications of the term, I realized that using words like “whitewashed” and “coconut” to describe people like me can be very hurtful.

Women sitting on brown wooden bench Photo by RF._.Studio from Pexels Calling someone whitewashed implies they do not live up to the standards of their culture; they are lacking in some way and have given in, assimilating to the dominant “Western” culture. They may not speak with the “right accent,” carry themselves the “right” way, or relate to others and popular culture in the same manner. The use of this term gives into the ideology that our cultures can be defined and categorized in one particular way. Being Indian (or any ethnicity, for that matter) comes with all of these assumptions, and no matter what, labels come into play. 

To many racialized people, especially those in my community, I am “whitewashed.” But to everyone else, I’m “not white.” I am expected to fit the image ascribed to me by my physical appearance, which is why whenever someone asks me where I’m from, “Richmond Hill” is never good enough. I have to be “Afghani” or “Iraqi” or “Persian” or “Indian,” or it just doesn’t make sense. My identity has to make sense to others, more than it has to make sense to me. I can never just be. 

man with sticky notes on face Photo by Yasin Yusuf via Unsplash We are living in a time where people have become overly sensitive. I do not mean this in the way that right-wing individuals like to suggest; that we take offense to every little stereotypical or discriminatory comment. I mean this in the way that we’ve found comfort in terms like “politically correct” to explain behavior that is just, correct. We use this term as if everything in life is not driven by politics, as if our political identities must and can be separated from our professional ones. The danger here is that we start to narrow our perspective when it comes to culture and identity. We create rigid hierarchies and criteria, and when someone chooses to define this criteria for themselves, we must allow them to do so out of “political correctness,” not out of human decency.

If you take away one thing from this article, let it be this. Don’t define other people based on your own preconceived notions or stereotypes that you’ve been exposed to. Don’t call them whitewashed, or “F.O.B” (Fresh Off the Boat). Give them the chance to define themselves, for themselves. You never know, if anything, it may connect us all a little more.