You’re not whitewashed; you just deserve better


Unnati Bhat

For young people of color, finding their cultural identity can be confusing.

Unnati Bhat, Social Media Manager

Dear fellow people of color, you’re not whitewashed; you just deserve better.

If you’re a person of color in a predominately white area, you’ve probably heard the term “whitewashed” at least once in your life. You may have been called it, know people who have been called it, or even have been the person describing someone as it.

For those who don’t know, ‘whitewashed’ is when a person of color is regarded as being more ‘white’ due to assimilation, proximity to white individuals, or a perceived distance from their assumed cultural identity. Basically, someone acting ‘too white’ is generally used in an insulting manner.

Despite all of this, I am here to tell you, you cannot be ‘whitewashed’.

As a child of Indian immigrants, balancing my ethnic culture and the culture of the world I am surrounded by has not been easy. This is an experience many people of color share, especially first-generation immigrants.

Much of the reason Indian Americans are regarded as whitewashed by their fellow Indian Americans and even white peers is because the idea of being American has been conflated with what it means to be white. While there is some truth in saying that American culture is close to whiteness and white supremacy, the definition of being American is constantly changing, and there is no one true definition.

I among many other people of color have experienced struggles with cultural and racial identity. These struggles come with balancing what it means to be an American while preserving who you feel you are as an Indian American, or whatever your cultural or ethnic background is.

When immigrant children are in an area where they are misunderstood and not represented, being ‘whitewashed’ is many times a form of protection from being seen as an ‘outsider’ or experiencing blatant and directed racism. Despite this, I have come to learn that no matter how much you try to fit in with your white peers, they will never truly view you how you want them to. You will never be able to hide your race no matter how hard you try.

During middle school, the struggle with my racial identity became more prevalent. I occasionally allowed others to joke about my race, staying quiet when Indian accents were mocked, or small comments and microaggressions were made. I stayed silent and did not show my true feelings, I never wanted them to know the power their hurtful words had over me.

I had somehow convinced myself that I was distancing myself from ‘weird’ members of my culture when in reality, I was only hurting myself while perpetuating racism against my own people. I thought by agreeing with their racism, I somehow would be seen as an equal, rather than someone they saw as a punchline. For the better part of middle school, I made it a point to distance myself from those who didn’t conform to a white perspective.

I was only able to fully change after unfortunately experiencing a traumatic instance of racism myself. Near the end of 7th grade, I was verbally harassed by two white boys; they insulted parts of my culture, criticized my religion, and even spilled the contents of my pencil case onto the floor, telling me it smelled like curry. They mocked the Indian accent and were doing anything they could to make me feel like I was worth nothing.  Two other white girls were at our table and they stayed silent as well. When I told the boys to stop their racist words, they continued until I was at the point of tears. “Go back to India” is what they said before I ran out of the room in shock, fear, and embarrassment.

Only then did I come to understand that no matter my efforts, as a person of color in a town like Westford, when I align myself with individuals who don’t respect me for every part of myself including my race, I am alone.

It breaks my heart, to know that there are so many young people of color that have not come to this realization yet and are trying so hard to fit in with a group that will never view them as how they see themselves.

If you are alone, in a group of ‘friends’ who use your race as a weapon and a punch line, I want you to know that you deserve better. You’re not whitewashed for being cautious in order to protect yourself from ridicule; you’re simply someone who hasn’t found their true self yet. But, I can tell you that your true, happiest self isn’t found among those who do not respect you for something that is so deeply a part of you.

If you still find yourself still wanting to chase the concept of fitting into a white setting, please know it will never happen. You will never fit in among people who force you to compromise your dignity.

So, when others call us ‘whitewashed’ to try and shame us, it’s not only regressive but unnecessary and unhelpful. You can have white friends and assimilate yourself into American culture, but this doesn’t make you any less Indian or less of a minority, because people of color are versatile and human. We are fallible and we are bound to vary in our perspectives and opinions; no one way is the right way to view the racial experience in America.

Being called whitewashed is just another facet of white supremacy that intends to divide us as people of color. When we are divided, we have to face the effects of white supremacy alone. It more or less says that people of color can only act in a few specific ways that many times adhere to stereotypes.

As an Indian American in Westford, a predominately white town, I can only speak from my perspective, but I have seen that many times when non-Indian Americans call any of us whitewashed, it comes from a place of stereotypes and preconceived notions. You are not whitewashed for doing things that make you happy, even if they do not fit into cultural or societal expectations.

Over the past few years, I have grown to understand my worth. I have been called whitewashed and I have been called a “currymuncher” too. I will never be able to please everyone and it goes to show that terms like whitewashed are so arbitrary and meaningless when compared to the racism we all face.

Only you know what life is right for you.

There’s no one way for all people of color to behave. This type of thinking — that all people of color have to think or act the same — is inherently racist. But, it is as equally internally racist to think that when you veer from your own culture, you are somehow better than those who more actively participate and understand it.

You decide your future. You decide how you will react to those around you. And I hope you will decide that you deserve better.