I am my Brownness

Cal in Color

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After spending another summer in Ukraine, I sat next to my Babushka on an overnight bus that would deliver us to the airport in Kyiv. Every few minutes, the bus jerked and rattled as we hit yet another pothole. Babushka and I relinquished all hopes of getting any sleep and populated the hours of our commute with talking. My travel-weary mind somehow ended up asking: “Have you ever seen me as different?” I was referring to my being the only person of color in my family. 

 “No, of course not! I never even paid attention to that!” said Babushka. Her reply was too quick and too measured, as though she had been practicing.

This was typical for all of my family members. They were reluctant to acknowledge the fact that I wasn’t white. They preferred to sidestep it, calling me “tan” instead. When I was little, they insisted that I was just like them while simultaneously slathering me with sunblock that felt like a layer of glue and stung once it inevitably got in my eyes. They scolded me for neglecting to wear my wide-brimmed hat outside whenever it was sunny. 

This felt insidious, especially given the pervasive anti-Middle Eastern and anti-South Asian sentiment in our community. Though Ukraine is a homogeneously white country, there is a small population of South Asian and Middle Eastern immigrants, some of whom, such as my Afghan father, moved to Ukraine to escape war. 

Generally, they were treated with suspicion and distrust. Whenever we happened upon the occasional small cluster of nonwhite vendors at the local swap meet, my relatives would casually steer clear of them. “It’s best to avoid them,” I was told, “People like that will trick you.”

Growing up in this environment, I started to feel validated and relieved whenever my friends and family ignored my biracial background and treated me like one of them. I was afraid of being villainized and alienated like other olive-skinned, dark-haired people were.

I took this fear with me when I immigrated to the United States. When introducing myself, I told everyone that I was Ukrainian, forgoing the Afghan half of myself. I hung out with white girls at school and dabbed lemon juice on my face to try to lighten my complexion. Pretending to be white just made things extremely awkward, since I was clearly not white-passing. When I told people that I was from Ukraine, I could see from their confused expressions that they were wondering, But why are you Brown? 

I remember one particular dentist appointment from my early teen years. The dentist was making small talk as he settled in. He asked how I was doing, what grade I was in, where I was from, et cetera. When I said I was from Ukraine, he raised his eyebrows and interjected, “Really? You don’t look Ukrainian.”

“Yeah….well, technically, I’m also Afghan, but I’ve never been there or anything. I grew up in Ukraine,” I mumbled, feeling awkward and called out. 

As a kid, I’d get touchy and irritated whenever someone pointed out my race. Obviously, I knew that I was Brown, but like my family, I was uncomfortable when hearing this fact spoken. 

In their attempts to make me feel included, my Ukrainian family made me feel even more othered. 

As I grew up, however, this fear of being seen as Other and/or Afghan began to unravel as I ventured into the local South Asian communities and met other people like me. 

The more I learned, the more proud I became of my other half — the half that my white friends and family preferred not to mention. I went from not wanting to be associated with other Afghans to wanting the opposite: To be seen for who I truly am, regardless of how different or unconventional it is. 

When my mom came to visit me in Berkeley last spring, we ate at an Afghan restaurant. As we were about to leave, my mom, wanting to thank the waitress, asked her, “How do you say ‘thank you’ in Afghan?” At that moment, I desperately wanted to pretend like I didn’t know my mom. It was such a white thing to say; akin to asking an Indian person whether they spoke Indian. The most common languages in Afghanistan are Farsi, Dari and Pashto. I’d assumed that my mom knew this, given that my father was Afghan.

It was incredible to realize that she, like the rest of my relatives, was so clueless about something that makes up such a significant part of my identity. The thought that, because of her white privilege and Eurocentric outlook, she could only see half of me — the familiar, white half — is a chilling one.

Once, I mentioned to my mom something about being the only Brown person in the family, to which she replied, “You’re not Brown! That’s exaggerating. You’re just tan, that’s all!”

“Come on,” I huffed, “You can’t just pretend that I’m white like you!”

“Don’t be ridiculous, you are like us! And anyway, why does it matter what color you are? Why is it so important to you? I’ve never even considered you different.”

When I was younger, I would have taken this as a compliment. I found comfort and safety in how my friends and family claimed not to “see color.” But now, it feels like erasure. My Afghan identity is inextricable from me — it makes me whole. This is what my family didn’t realize when they assured me that they didn’t see my Brownness and that they only saw me. What none of them understood was that I am my Brownness. 

I want my white family and friends to realize that colorblindness does not constitute true acceptance. True acceptance starts with transparency and being unafraid to talk about race, ethnicity and skin color. When white people avoid bringing up these topics for fear of awkwardness, they perpetuate the notion that such conversations are taboo and transgressive. 

True acceptance would involve my Ukrainian relatives educating themselves about the other part of my background, rather than expecting me to explain to them that no, Afghans don’t speak Afghan. It also involves not being afraid that, by recognizing my Afghanness, they’re othering me or implying that I’m not Ukrainian. 

To do so, they must move past seeing my two identities as mutually exclusive or opposed to one another and understand that recognizing one does not automatically erase the other because the coexistence of these identities is what makes me who I am.

Arina Stadnyk writes the Friday column on being a person of color at UC Berkeley. Contact her at [email protected]