On Whiteness and Cultural Capital

By Lydia Odegard

In each public space I entered in India, I did everything I could to go unnoticed. No matter how hard I tried to blend into the crowds by wearing a tailored salwar-kameez (Indian women’s clothes), my blonde hair revealed me unmistakably foreign, eliciting frequent blatant stares and occasional discomforting cat calls. I dreamed that the hundreds of hours spent studying Hindi would pay off and convince rickshaw drivers that I was actually Indian (so I could pay the Indian rate), but the pasty skin my northern European ancestors bestowed upon me would never let me pass as a native. My acute awareness of being a foreigner in every public space left me self- conscious and, at the end of the day, wanting to escape my whiteness. I wanted to escape being a spectacle, a display worthy of scrutiny, and to “pass” as Indian. I believed this would free me from the stares and grant me implicit and explicit invitations into circles and experiences my whiteness barred me from entering.

It’s hard being white here, no? I admittedly caught myself thinking.

This must be how people of color in the U.S. feel, I thought.

A second analysis of those naïve moments of perceived “understanding” revealed the extreme position of privilege I embody, both in the context of the U.S. and in the context of India.

Of course, there is no way I could ever claim to know what it is like to be a person of color living in the U.S. Even though I was part of the ethnic minority in India, the attention I received because of it was more often than not based in curiosity rather than prejudice. Shopkeepers frequently started conversations with me about my country and my culture, and I typically didn’t leave interactions with locals feeling threatened by them. Despite the discomfort I experienced being a minority in India, I knew that it was temporary and escapable in many other situations and places. My identity as a white woman adds an element of gender; I felt threatened by cat calls, immature men blatantly taking photos of me without my consent and sometimes conversations with men that turned unsettling partway through. But despite the subordination I sometimes experienced as a woman, I also became hyper-aware of the power my skin color reflected and granted me.

My presence as a white body is a reminder of the power that white people in affluent countries exert over the Global South politically, economically, culturally and socially. I would often overhear conversations in “Hinglish,” speakers indexing their class status as proportionate to the amount of English they incorporated into their discourse. Face “whitening” creams reminded me of the wish many Indians have to be fair-skinned, which would allow them to be perceived as more attractive and desirable in their culture, a pressure particularly exerted upon women. Jeans and shirts are gradually replacing traditional clothing styles, the former often considered more “stylish” and the latter more “old-fashioned.” These markers of Global Northern cultures indicate those who have the resources to embrace them as upper-class, while those who stick to traditional ways of life are often members of the lower-class. While I found myself vainly wishing I could look more “like an Indian” in order to blend in, many Indians strive to mimic aspects of cultures of the Global North that have asserted dominance over their nation for centuries—and understandably, as doing so elevates their position on the socioeconomic ladder.

My presence as a white body, born and raised in the U.S., and living in India is a stark reminder of the privileges that allowed me to be there in the first place. I was lucky to be born into a middle class family and fortunate to have the resources to attend college and study abroad. The Hindi that I flaunted in conversations with locals signifies that I had access to the educational resources that allowed me to become proficient in another language. My ability to speak Hindi granted me an added privilege as well; I used it to my advantage, bargaining my way to discounts and stopping street harassers in their tracks by directing harsh retorts in Hindi toward them. In these ways and more, I benefitted from the very structures of social, economic and educational inequality that allowed me to travel to and navigate India in the first place.

I can’t, and shouldn’t want to, change the color of my skin to alleviate the feelings of discomfort I experienced in India; the very wish to do so undermines the struggles that people of color endure worldwide. So yes, it was humbling to experience moments of uneasiness when I was the only white person on the streets. But it was even more humbling to realize that I can’t compare that discomfort to the historical and contemporary burdens of racism, economic inequality and cultural capitalism that have impacted people of color globally.

Love this piece? Read Lydia’s article from our 2015 fall print issue, Not a Distraction; an Interaction

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