It’s India, in summer 2010. My family and I get a respite from the intense heat and walk into a sari shop, where my mom wants to finish her shopping for the day. We sit down, the shopkeeper brings us various sodas and water. My mother, my brother and I each take a glass while my dad politely refuses. He never drinks the tap water in India out of fear he will get sick.
This upsets the shopkeeper, who begins to complain in his native South Indian language, Telugu, that my dad is a rude white man who doesn’t belong in his country and who has disgraced Indians everywhere by marrying an Indian woman.
Little does the shopkeeper know my dad can understand him, because his native language is also Telugu. You see, my dad is an albino.
Albinism is a common genetic disorder that appears in approximately one in every 17,000 humans globally. There is nothing physically wrong with my dad, and he doesn’t look different from your average Caucasian male. Although he was born in India, he moved to America when he was 5 and has almost completely assimilated into American culture. You wouldn’t notice anything different until you met his brown-skinned parents, his brown wife and his brown children.
That someone would be a different color from the rest of his family shouldn’t be all that confusing. But it’s astonishing how something so normal is not accepted in our society.
As a child, I didn’t notice anything different about my dad. It wasn’t until I traveled to India and heard my own cousins questioning their parents about the color of my father’s skin that I realized something was off.
While I was growing up, strangers would ogle us in disbelief when they saw my father. Questions like “Whoa, how can he speak in an Indian language?” or “Is he your stepfather?” were standard. There are still moments on family vacations during which I want to walk up to the surprised parents and their children and yell, “He’s actually Indian!”
Instead, I resort to pointing out my parents, assuring that everyone knows whose father that is. I point to my grandparents, saying, “Those are my dad’s parents.” Yet, strangers still look at me kindly and say, “You mean your mom’s parents, sweetie?”
I shake my head in frustration.
Other times, I wait for my dad to speak Telugu, proving to the naysayers that he is, in fact, Indian.
In college, I used my Dad’s skin color as an icebreaker. “I’m half white” would be my falsehood in the game “Two Truths and a Lie.” It was my way of addressing the situation head-on so my friends wouldn’t question me about it later, catching me off guard and making me feel embarrassed.
What bothers me most is that my father is an outcast in both Indian and American societies. He is not accepted by either because citizens of both countries can’t understand how a white-colored man can speak the language of a country thousands of miles away. Sometimes, it makes me ashamed to be Indian because my father cannot be accepted in his own country. I then remind myself that this is bigger than a case of hasty judgment and lack of acceptance. Rather, perhaps it is a case of centuries of global racial discrimination that has become ingrained in our human framework.
There is an incredible closed-mindedness on race that’s still pervasive around the world. We are not accustomed to seeing different types of families — or people who are different from us, for that matter. In today’s world, we are siloed into distinct racial and ethnic categories, and if you do not fit into one, there is often nowhere else you can fit. We subconsciously continue to create these categories because race, whether we own up to it or not, once dictated the borders of countries and the subordination of various peoples, and it continues to affect our perceptions of the world around us.
I’m proud that my father more fully embraced his native culture by choosing to marry a woman of the same culture, regardless of skin color. I look up to him for having the courage to do that, in the face of adversity and incessant questions that would spring up for years to come. But I still haven’t come to terms with the way my father is treated. There are some days I wish my father could just be “normal,” but what is normal? Is normal being brown? Is normal being white? In an ideal world, it just wouldn’t matter.
These uncomfortable questions will be something my family will have to endure for the foreseeable future, but they are not of my own making. They are of society’s making, and it’s not just my responsibility to answer them but also yours.
“Off the Beat” guest columns will be written by Daily Cal staff members until the fall semester’s regular opinion writers are selected.