'I was still me'

Aparna Jayaraman Lesotho
By Aparna Jayaraman
May 17, 2016

The first time someone called me “white” was November 2011. 

I was still in training but I was visiting my to ­be site for a few days, getting to know my fellow teachers and such. It was finals week, and I was bored, so I offered to grade the vice ­principal’s poetry papers. And as I was, she took a long look at me and said,

“Indians are the most beautiful white people.”

I was taken aback a bit. I wasn’t offended, more surprised; no one had ever called me white before.

“Um... Indians don’t really consider ourselves to be white.”

My VP thought a bit and casually said, “Oh, but you have the same hair and light skin. So you’re white.”

And there it was, my new race. I was white.

I wasn’t the only non­-white Volunteer to get that label and we started using it quite liberally. In Sesotho, the word for foreigner and white person were the same, lekhoa. Basotho- and Sotho-speaking South Africans used it to describe Afrikaners and, in my case, Peace Corps Volunteers. And so, in true Volunteer fashion, it became a part of my vocabulary:

“I was in the taxi today and there was this child that couldn't take his eyes off of me. Guess he’s never seen a white person before.”

“Someone asked me, the only white person, for money in the grocery store again!”

In fact, the terminology became so integrated into my language that after earning my “R” and returning to the U.S., I used it a few times when I talked to my friends about what it was like to live in Lesotho.

"You know, the hardest thing about being white in Lesotho....”

“What? You’re not white.”

(And at that point I wondered if I should explain why I was using the word “white” or if I should just correct myself and keep going. The latter ended up being the easier one.)

And there I was, back to being Indian again.

Race is a funny thing and I never realized how constructed it was until I was in another country. Whatever I knew about race in the U.S. didn’t matter anymore; I was in a new racial system. And so I adapted to it. Before Peace Corps, I would have rarely actively identified myself as “American” but in Peace Corps, where most Indians in the country were shop owners and quite wealthy, I emphasized my American identity as much as I could, so I would be grouped with a group of people associated with volunteering and providing aid.

The funny thing was, most Basotho recognized that I wasn’t American­ American. You know, the stereotype of light skin, light hair, light eyes. And many Basotho would ask, “You’re Indian, how can you be American?” It was a good teaching moment, using their relationship to South Africa as a metaphor: just like Basotho go to South Africa to study and to get jobs, my parents did too in America. And many of them would have that “ah-­ha” moment teachers strive for and continue the conversation by saying, “Yes! And their children are both South African and Basotho.”

There’s a lot I can say about being Indian in the Peace Corps, the complexity of race and self-­identity. But in the end, what I found was that regardless of how others identified me, I was still me and my labeled race was a tiny, tiny part of that big picture. And so while being Indian undoubtedly impacted my service, the biggest impacts were my attitude, my actions and my relationships with the people around me. Being Indian or being white, I was still me.

Aparna Jayaraman

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