Hari Raghavan in Avidly:
In the second or third grade, a girl in my class took me aside one day while we both washed our hands to give one of my arms a thorough inspection. I was confused, but submitted anyways. That was my way, back then, when things happened to me that I didn’t quite grasp. I’d smile benignly, I’d wait it out, I’d make light of it after. So, when she returned my arm to me with a grin, and said more to herself than me – in a tone of triumph I still remember vividly – “So it doesn’t wash off,” I didn’t think twice. Things hadn’t quite clicked yet. Hearing the story later, though, my mother, in her kind and knowing way, sighed, took my hands in hers, and asked me: “Was this girl white?” I should mention, here, that this experience wasn’t to me what it might’ve been to someone else. It didn’t shape me profoundly, it didn’t alter the course my life took (to my knowledge), it didn’t activate my political consciousness (that happened later). In fact, I didn’t even so much as bring it up with that girl again. I think instead I went to her birthday party, which had a tea party theme I hated but cupcakes I fucking ruined. I also became convinced thereafter that white people (of which there were multitudes in the Portland suburb that raised me) had it made. They had an ease to them I couldn’t find elsewhere, a cool and confidence in the way they navigated the world. They could say what they liked about race and think nothing of the attendant complications. They literally could get away with murder. I coveted the freedom they enjoyed, and the space they claimed for themselves.
I was reminded of all this anew when I recently started watching Netflix’s remarkable new series, Master of None. In its premiere episode, the show’s main character Dev (Aziz Ansari) spends a day babysitting his friends’ two white kids who couldn’t be more terrible (my opinion). They visit a frozen yogurt shop, where one of the kids promptly proceeds to point at strangers and yell out their ethnicities: “Black! Chinese man!” The scene is hilarious, obviously, but it’s strangely incisive, too, about how at ease white people– especially children!– are with classifying and claiming space for themselves by pointing fingers at others.
Ta-Nehisi Coates writes of just this phenomenon in his memoir Between the World and Me, when he thinks back to a scene he once observed in Harlem – young white parents, letting their son run free ahead of them, stomping and screaming as he pleases. Coates laments that many children of color may never know this same joy or how to claim space themselves, for the realities their parents fear; his own child was once shoved on an escalator by a white woman twice his age. It’s not that the people who live with this certainty mean to offend in the questions they ask or things they grab. It’s that they have a unique ability to claim space (or feel entitled to it) while forgetting how the people of color around them, conversing with them, are constantly compelled to shrink themselves.
It’s a delicate kind of shape-shifting that takes an eventual toll, and Aziz Ansari, first generation South Asian that he is, seems to know something of the burden in the question his show asks repeatedly: How can he (and I by extension, and others like us) carve out and claim space in a culture or establishment that doesn’t allow us the room?