I used to think of myself as half brown and half white. More recently I have come to think of myself as a brown woman raised by a white mother. This consciousness has grown as I have come into a certain kind of knowledge that I never knew I lacked. This is the knowledge of how to live that women perhaps ought to get from their mothers. But being a brown woman raised by a white mother is kind of like being a wolf raised by humans: no matter how much love you receive, there are certain kinds of instincts that can only come from your wolf mother.
My real mother sits on the other side of the kitchen table. An expanse of white wood separates us. In our family the end of dinner means the start of debating, and this evening is typical in that way. But this evening is also atypical because tonight we are not remarking on politics or history, but are instead talking about something personal: body hair. My hands swoop through the air as I explain what it’s like to walk around with unshaven legs in a conservative and mostly Caucasian city. I am conducting a symphony of words over the dirty dinner plates. I speak of eyes that stare and mouths that smirk at the lush profusion of hair that swirls up my legs. She fixes her electric blue eyes on me as I talk and gesticulate. I see her brow furrowing. A question is taking form.
Now that I have grown older, I have found that those pristine, logical arguments do not traverse the divides that matter most. The residual faith of my childhood gives me the impulse to keep trying to find resolution through debate, but reasoning is an empty game where there is not also empathy and imagination.
“But why make such a big deal over something as trivial as body hair?” I feel myself tense up as soon as I hear the question but I try keep my voice measured when I respond. Wearing my body hair natural is a way of refusing the supposition that hair on a woman is ugly and wrong — a supposition which means shame for the South Asian woman whose every surface comes marked with black fibers. I explain how the treatment of hairlessness as a standard of beauty is both racist and sexist, hoping that an invocation of the language of social justice will make everything clear to her. The tightness growing in my chest translates itself into points appropriate for a debate like this one. I’m confident that these abstractions will work. She’s a liberal feminist who reads Ms. Magazine and owns books by Gloria Steinem and Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan; everything I’m saying should appeal to a pre-existing framework of concepts.
“It just seems like a lot of mental effort you’re expending on something as unimportant as hair.” My hands move faster as I keep explaining: years spent thinking nobody would want to have sex with a body as furry as mine. Why would I think that? That moment in Mean Girls where Regina George yells to Cady Heron to shove her apology up her hairy ass. The time I overheard one of the popular guys in high school making a joke to one of his female friends about “shaving her sternum.” The joke was that of course she wouldn’t do something so gross. The irony was that she was South Asian and probably did. So many words are coming out of my mouth: The time and money spent trying to live up to the hairless ideal. The fear of missing a spot. The violence that trans women face if they fail to embody the mythic hairless feminine standard. Abstract and concrete, personal and political, anecdotal and theoretical — I use every strategy I’ve got.
Her hands are waving in the air, too, as her animated voice lists more important things that I could be working on. The debate seems to give her energy, but to me it is tiring. My voice crescendoes as my irritation grows. The longer we talk, the more I feel that she does not hear me. We fill the kitchen with the echoes of our speech as after-dinner coffee grows cold in our mugs.
As I lie in bed that night, I tell myself that there might be something like a fundamental divide between women who can say “It’s just hair” and women for whom that combination of words is inconceivable. It feels strange to admit that such a gap could exist. It goes against what my parents taught me about the power of reason. Everything is supposed to be rationally comprehensible to everyone else. Debate is literally a form of worship for my family. When I was growing up, my parents would take me and my brother to a local diner every Sunday morning and read aloud the moral dilemmas from the New York Times Magazine’s Ethicist column. Over pancakes and waffles, each of us would adopt a definite position and defend our point of view. The lesson was clear: having a rigorous argument is what counts.
I am adept at loving white people and seeing how much they love me. But am I too adept at loving and being loved? I do not listen to the voice of instinct.
Now that I have grown older, I have found that those pristine, logical arguments do not traverse the divides that matter most. The residual faith of my childhood gives me the impulse to keep trying to find resolution through debate, but reasoning is an empty game where there is not also empathy and imagination. Now my mother and I find ourselves trapped in Skype calls that end in abrupt hangups and email exchanges that spin into cycles of criticism and counter-criticism. It becomes easy to say to her in the voice of accusation: If only you would read more bell hooks and Audre Lorde to go along with those white-woman feminist classics on your shelf. If only you would take intersectionality seriously. If only you would listen. It seems that my life has to be drained of color in order to make sense to her. But she can no more hear me than I can hear her.
In her voice that asks, “Instead of thinking about hair, wouldn’t you rather spend your time working against the discrimination women face in academia?” I hear the prioritization of professional success over racial dignity. My response in the moment is sharp but when the frustration fades away later, I remember that the divide between brown and white works in both directions. I find it hard to show her the empathy I wish she would extend to me. I wonder whether the white businesswoman of the 1980s who tried to camouflage her femininity with outsized shoulder pads might have felt as nervous in the office halls as I do when I walk down the street in a knee-length dress. Am I sure that I have it so much worse now than she did then?
There might not be a good way to answer this question, but the very act of asking it shows me where my shortcomings in understanding my mother might lie. I do not hear the result of the years she spent fighting to be taken seriously as a woman in business in the 80s and 90s, which is the wisdom that says: Opt for pantsuits over dresses because sometimes the expression of identity isn’t worth it. Make compromises today to get the corner office tomorrow. Don’t spend so much time on symbolic battles that you forget to fight the real battles for power. Is the problem that she won’t recognize that what’s merely symbolic to her is real for me? Or is the problem that I insist on turning everything into an all-out existential battle for survival?
In some sense the problem of being a brown woman with a white mother is a concrete, empirical, historical fact about my life. It’s about the things I didn’t learn: that it can be dangerous to trust hippie white men who loves all things South Asian. That maroon lipstick shows up better than red against brown skin. How to respond when other people treat me as an exotic token. How to keep from treating myself as an exotic token. In another sense the problem of the brown woman with the white mother is everyone’s problem. It’s about realizing that you were not given the wisdom that you will need in order to survive, about having to invent or discover for yourself what you wish you had inherited, and about coming to understand that the people who love you may never be able to understand. To be brown in a white world is not the same as, and yet not so different from, being queer in a straight world and being a woman in a man’s world and being human in a world that sometimes seems so damn unsympathetic to anything like humanity.
I am adept at loving white people and seeing how much they love me. But am I too adept at loving and being loved? I do not listen to the voice of instinct which tells me, Get away from that white man, he’s no good for you. I have been taught that my world is a safe place filled with safe people. I learned to think about good and evil and love and hate and right and wrong, but I never learned that more fundamental than all of these is the knowledge that this person is dangerous to me. Even after experience shocks that lesson into me, the impulse which identifies my natural predator coexists with the desire to go up to him and run my hands through his hair one more time and say, It’s all been a big mistake, you’ve always loved me and I’ve always loved you and you didn’t mean it so let’s just forget what happened.
My domestication is an ambiguous gift. It is the training that enables me to eat out of the hand of fancy institutions and receive the benefits of cozying up to the color and gender of power. That same training keeps me from showing my teeth during those moments when I most need someone to back the hell off, right now. And that same training makes me wonder whether the judgment implied by my choice of the word “domestication” isn’t perhaps a bit too harsh.
There are no conclusive answers to the questions that echo through me. From my social justice consciousness I have learned to say, the personal is political, conformity is complicity, don’t trust that Lean In feminism which is all about cis white women grabbing the power of white men while leaving trans people and women of color behind. But there is always another voice which tells me that even a justified condemnation is only part of the truth. It tells me not to be so harsh on others. The first voice says, Stop listening to the self-justification of the oppressors. The alternating voice says, Why does everything have to get turned into the oppressor and the oppressed? When I step back from this endless internal debate, I wonder why these voices both sound right and both sound wrong. This ambivalence is not wholly about being a brown woman raised by a white mother, but it is not wholly separate from it, either.
I can’t stop fighting with my white mother but I won’t stop trying to talk to her about what’s most important. She would say the same about her brown daughter. “I want to improve my communication with you,” my mother writes to me. “Know too that I am always on your side, even when I don’t demonstrate it particularly well.” I tell her that I’m also committed to figuring out how we can better understand each other. But we’ll still argue many more times after she writes this. We can afford it because we both know that neither of us is going anywhere. This is how we live out the maternal conflict between feminism’s second and third waves: in love and indignation and rejection and reconciliation.
I know that there are things she will never understand. The significance of the fact that the hands which type these words are dusted with fine black filaments. The years it took me to stop hating them, the years it will take me to learn to like them. The fact that I see this investment of time not as a waste but as an obligation to all the other brown women out there who believe that freedom from shame will come through waxing or Nair or razors. I know that she can’t imagine what these facts mean to me. But I also know who made up bedtime stories for me when I was young, who picks up the phone every time I call home, and who always tries to hear a voice that doesn’t quite make sense to her but which is important because it belongs to someone she loves.
It’s not about a brown half and a white half. It’s about the ghostlike inner presence of the white woman I once thought I was. The Indian Barbie doll I got when I was a kid looks exactly like White Barbie but with tan plastic instead of white.
This synthesis between frustration and sympathy feels revolutionary and reactionary at once. Sometimes I think that the harmonization of mutually irreconcilable yet interdependent perspectives is exactly what intersectional feminism is supposed to be about. And then other times I wonder whether I need to further disentangle myself from the whiteness that used to illuminate my view of the world. But there is no way out of whiteness for me. Having a white mother means that there is some part of me which feels beholden to white womanhood itself. I embrace a radical worldview, but somehow its rainbow dye doesn’t soak through every strand of my being. Both the polemics and the apologetics make sense to me: I am at once the author and the target of those frustrated denunciations of racial oppression. My voice tries to say “I know exactly what you mean” and “But haven’t you considered…” in the very same moment.
The entanglement with whiteness goes deeper even than this. Sometimes I feel like I am struggling against part of myself when I fight with my mother. It’s not about a brown half and a white half. It’s about the ghostlike inner presence of the white woman I once thought I was. The Indian Barbie doll I got when I was a kid looks exactly like White Barbie but with tan plastic instead of white. That was me: a white girl with a tan. When the hair all over my body started to thicken as I got older, it felt like a betrayal emanating from the core of my being. I wanted to have a body as clean and smooth as a purely logical debate. The stubborn insistence of my inner wolfishness has forced me to understand that I’m brown, but I’ve also never stopped thinking that I am supposed to be white. There is always a white woman inside of me. She is my mother and she is me, and she is also not my mother and she is not me. This is my new non-logic.
When I was in college I signed up for six sessions of laser hair removal. I tried to burn away the evidence of my difference, but it all grew back anyway. When I was in college the debates with my mother started to feature raised voices and hurt feelings. I tried to stop having these exhausting discussions, but they kept happening anyway. Nothing I have tried to banish stays gone for long. The tension between brown and white is not one that affords the satisfaction of a precise resolution. This last point has been harder to accept than any amount of body hair.
My mother said to me that she understands what I’m trying to say about body hair. I believe her and I don’t. Maybe she thinks she understands when she doesn’t. Or maybe I think she doesn’t understand when she does. I’m not sure how I would know the answer. I used to believe I could solve any problem if I just thought about it in clear and rational terms. Now, I suspect that I will never decipher the riddle of even a single moment because it will always be so very mixed up.