We are “coconuts.” On the Indian sub-continent, we are viewed as “brown” on the outside and “white” on the inside, for we have the privilege of spending a majority of our lives away from the motherland. We are part of an immigrant experience that saw India export Science, Technology, Engineering and Math professionals all around the world.
In the United States, most South Asians began crossing the shores following the Immigration Act of 1965. As South Asians, we are beneficiaries of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the perpetual struggle of African Americans in the struggle for racial justice. In many ways, South Asian immigrants did not have to endure the social and economic hardships that bonded our African American brothers and sisters. Yet our experiences as South Asian Americans in a post-9/11 world are pretty daunting.
Here’s a snapshot of some of our individual experiences around the issue of race.
My name is Manoj. Manoj, in Sanskrit, roughly translates as “lover of the mind.” I was christened with this name. My surname is Zacharia, a name passed down through generations of many priests in the Syrian Christian tradition as this name means “Yahweh remembers.” My father’s name is Mathew and my mother’s name is Elizabeth. These names are Anglicized variations of the Aramaic-Syriac of Mathaiyahu and Aleysheva. Contrary to the belief of many of my American friends, their names were not given to them when they converted to Christianity. My wife and I descend from first (yes, 1st) Century Christians who were converted by the Apostle Thomas in India. However, if one were to look at me, they’d see someone who is not typically depicted as a Christian. I am brown and I have a beard. I’ve been stereotyped not only outside of the church but also inside.
All through elementary, middle and high school, I felt that I was always excluded because I did not fit in as either white or black. Following the tragic events of September 11, 2001, I have grown accustomed to “random” checks at the airport, suspicion and, at times, overt looks of disdain because of how I looked and the perception that I have the last name of a “stereotypical” terrorist – Zacharia.
The curious thing is that I am a minority in all its essences. In the United States, I am a minority because of my color and in India I am a minority because of my religious and ethnic identity as a St. Thomas or Syrian Christian. Coupled with this is the fact that the people of my ethnic-religious identity in India label me a “coconut.”
I didn’t really experience racial “difference” until I moved to the United States. I have lived in Bahrain, India and Canada. My first experience confronting difference was in a classroom setting in suburban New Jersey. I had just been hired as an adjunct to teach an Introduction to Literature class. When I walked into the classroom, the professor who was wrapping up his things after teaching looked puzzled and asked me, “Are you sure that you are teaching English?” The only thing I could do to keep from fuming with anger was to laugh and pass off his comment as Euro-chauvinism as he probably deemed me unworthy to teach the language which his ancestors used as a tool of colonialism to subjugate people who looked like me across the world.
Moving to Cincinnati from New York, I have felt that people here have a hard time in relating to me. I find Cincinnati to be struggling with a historic legacy of addressing issues of racism based on two colors – black and white. But grappling with anything in-between is trying for many people.
For instance, at the grocery store, there are a curious few who presume that I, as a seemingly exotic individual, know and can share South Asian cooking recipes off the top of my head. When I purchase beef or pork, there are some who are quite puzzled as I look like someone who is not permitted by religious law to eat either beef or pork. The irony of the matter is that I find it intriguing that people are trying to protect me from breaking what they perceive to be my religious laws. At the same time, I feel oppressed by the exertion of such stereotypes on me. I guess that such ambivalence actually falls in a “gray zone.”
Our personal narratives reflect our perceptions about our social location. In many ways, we are privileged because of our social location as an educated middle class family that has strong community support in our church and wider social network. Yet in many ways, outside of these networks we are consistently contending with prejudice and fear.
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Manoj Mathew Zacharia is Canon Sub-Dean at Christ Church Cathedral in Cincinnati. He is currently ABD from his Ph.D. program in the area Philosophy of Religion. Joelle Thomas Zacharia, M.A., M.Ed., is married to Manoj. Her vocation is currently lived out in her capacity as Project Manager for the Zacharia household. Prior to her arrival in Cincinnati, Joelle taught College English and worked in the area of Curriculum Development for non-profit and for-profit organizations.