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Not Quite Not White: Losing and Finding Race in America

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A memoir manifesto about race, immigration and assimilation; how an Indian American woman navigated through her journey into the heart of "not whiteness" When Sen emigrated from India to the U.S. in 1982 at the age of 12, she was asked to "self-report" her race. Never identifying with a race previously, she rejects her new "not quite white" designation, and spends much of h A memoir manifesto about race, immigration and assimilation; how an Indian American woman navigated through her journey into the heart of "not whiteness" When Sen emigrated from India to the U.S. in 1982 at the age of 12, she was asked to "self-report" her race. Never identifying with a race previously, she rejects her new "not quite white" designation, and spends much of her life attempting to become "white" in the American sense. After her teen years trying to adapt to American culture, including watching General Hospital and The Jeffersons and perfecting recipes with Campbell's soup or Jell-O, Sen is forced to reckon with hard questions: what does it mean to be "white," who is allowed to be white, why does whiteness retain the power of invisibility while other colors are made hypervisible, and how much does whiteness figure into Americanness? Exploring hot-button topics such as passing, cultural appropriation, class inequality, bias within Indian immigrant communities, and code-switching, Sen offers new angles to the debate on race and immigration with emotional honesty, humor, and thoughtful criticism. Sen discovers her eventual acceptance of her "not whiteness" is actually what makes her American, and as a mother of three not white American children, looking at their own possible future, Sen brings the reader of Not Quite Not White to imagine how America might, by the end of the century, end up being defined outside its borders, in a new diaspora.


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A memoir manifesto about race, immigration and assimilation; how an Indian American woman navigated through her journey into the heart of "not whiteness" When Sen emigrated from India to the U.S. in 1982 at the age of 12, she was asked to "self-report" her race. Never identifying with a race previously, she rejects her new "not quite white" designation, and spends much of h A memoir manifesto about race, immigration and assimilation; how an Indian American woman navigated through her journey into the heart of "not whiteness" When Sen emigrated from India to the U.S. in 1982 at the age of 12, she was asked to "self-report" her race. Never identifying with a race previously, she rejects her new "not quite white" designation, and spends much of her life attempting to become "white" in the American sense. After her teen years trying to adapt to American culture, including watching General Hospital and The Jeffersons and perfecting recipes with Campbell's soup or Jell-O, Sen is forced to reckon with hard questions: what does it mean to be "white," who is allowed to be white, why does whiteness retain the power of invisibility while other colors are made hypervisible, and how much does whiteness figure into Americanness? Exploring hot-button topics such as passing, cultural appropriation, class inequality, bias within Indian immigrant communities, and code-switching, Sen offers new angles to the debate on race and immigration with emotional honesty, humor, and thoughtful criticism. Sen discovers her eventual acceptance of her "not whiteness" is actually what makes her American, and as a mother of three not white American children, looking at their own possible future, Sen brings the reader of Not Quite Not White to imagine how America might, by the end of the century, end up being defined outside its borders, in a new diaspora.

30 review for Not Quite Not White: Losing and Finding Race in America

  1. 5 out of 5

    Arti

    A bold and candid 'immigrant manifesto'. Sen arrived the U.S. with her parents from India when she was twelve. Refused to be identified as a FOB, 'fresh off the boat', Sen cast off her Bengali self and immersed in striving to achieve 'whiteness'. She went to public school in Cambridge, Mass, aced it with much hard work and creative ways to learn American English, and was chosen class valedictorian the next year. Entered Harvard after high school, later got her PhD in English literature from Yale A bold and candid 'immigrant manifesto'. Sen arrived the U.S. with her parents from India when she was twelve. Refused to be identified as a FOB, 'fresh off the boat', Sen cast off her Bengali self and immersed in striving to achieve 'whiteness'. She went to public school in Cambridge, Mass, aced it with much hard work and creative ways to learn American English, and was chosen class valedictorian the next year. Entered Harvard after high school, later got her PhD in English literature from Yale, then taught at Harvard. A 'model immigrant'? Maybe, but Sen discovered the underlying problems with such a term. Through her journey of adaptation and assimilation, she had learned that she would always remain 'Not White', and that no matter how much she tried to transform herself, she would always be 'Not Quite'. The duality of being both an insider and an outsider prescribed her identity, amounting to tormenting contradictions and internal conflicts. Sen's 191-page book is daringly honest, risking accusations of being an 'ungrateful immigrant,' and laying out issues and questions that may be impossible to resolve. But it's not all arguments, Sen's detailing her childhood years in Bengali and her later adaptation to American life is intimate and revealing. Once in America, the everyday challenges are like waves too strong for one to stay afloat. She had a hard time dealing with the bombardment of questions when she, as a newly arrived immigrant, went with her grade 7 class to see the movie "Gandhi". Here's an excerpt that further extends that conflicting voice as she became an adult: "I avoided watching movies about India, such as Salaam Bombay!, Slumdog Millionaire, or The Lunchbox, with white Americans. The sincere conversations over a cappuccino or a glass of wine that inevitably following such movies were dreadful for me. I was expected to discuss human rights, the poverty of slums, the plight of untouchables, child marriage, and widow burning. I had to play native informant, as well as the assimilated immigrant. My presence completed the cosmopolitan experience for my white friends and reassured them of their own open-mindedness, generosity of spirit, liberal politics, and cultural superiority. And my cheeks hurt from smiling through it all." In light of recent tragic events of racially-driven extreme violence and unreined expressions of hatred, it's crucial that we try to listen, if only just to make an effort to understand one person. And Sen is a most apt voice in articulating one immigrant's personal journey and the challenges she faces now that she's a mother raising the next generation.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Katy

    Sen narrates her journey from a very privileged life in India to that of a minority immigrant in Massachusetts. From the age of 12, race becomes a part of her life as she struggles to navigate the confusing journey to “becoming an American” with her foreign accent betraying her light skin. Not Quite, Not White is part personal history and part academic treatise, and while I wish it were a bit less academic, that doesn't diminish the importance of what Sen has to say. A highlight is the section in Sen narrates her journey from a very privileged life in India to that of a minority immigrant in Massachusetts. From the age of 12, race becomes a part of her life as she struggles to navigate the confusing journey to “becoming an American” with her foreign accent betraying her light skin. Not Quite, Not White is part personal history and part academic treatise, and while I wish it were a bit less academic, that doesn't diminish the importance of what Sen has to say. A highlight is the section in which Sen talks about how male British travelers and explorers have historically “gone native” by appropriating the dress / culture of places like India, the Middle East, etc., and how these men derived power from the fact that they weren't actually “not white.” Sen casts “going native” as something that only white men can do, as they can slip back into their original privilege whenever convenient. Overall, I really appreciated how thought-provoking this book was.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Susie Dumond

    In this memoir, Sharmila Sen uses her experience of immigrating from India to the U.S. to explore notions of race and whiteness. The strongest part of the book is the last chapter, where she solidifies her argument and broadens the conversation. Prior to the last chapter, it lacks an engaging arc or argument for me. She introduces a lot of interesting ideas, like white men "going native" and American vs. Americanized. However, I wish her perspective had been a little more contextualized and her In this memoir, Sharmila Sen uses her experience of immigrating from India to the U.S. to explore notions of race and whiteness. The strongest part of the book is the last chapter, where she solidifies her argument and broadens the conversation. Prior to the last chapter, it lacks an engaging arc or argument for me. She introduces a lot of interesting ideas, like white men "going native" and American vs. Americanized. However, I wish her perspective had been a little more contextualized and her arguments set up a little more clearly from the beginning. Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the ARC in exchange for my honest review.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Tanisha

    Notes: "The greatest division in a society is one that makes an entire group of humans simply invisible to us." p. 34 (On going Native in America): "I use camouflage frequently to lift the weight of visibility off my shoulders." p. 113 "As aspirational immigrants we aimed for a higher rung, desperate to impress the dominant culture with our work ethic, family values, and the antiquity of our culture. Emigration itself is risky enough. Having embraced one kind of risk, the immigrant needs to assess Notes: "The greatest division in a society is one that makes an entire group of humans simply invisible to us." p. 34 (On going Native in America): "I use camouflage frequently to lift the weight of visibility off my shoulders." p. 113 "As aspirational immigrants we aimed for a higher rung, desperate to impress the dominant culture with our work ethic, family values, and the antiquity of our culture. Emigration itself is risky enough. Having embraced one kind of risk, the immigrant needs to assess all other risks judiciously. The black figure, etched against the backdrop of white respectability and normalcy, stands for preposterous risks--economic, political, moral--from which the new immigrant, regardless of the exact shade of her skin, tries to inch away. Once you see the American racial hierarchy through the newly arrived migrant's eyes, you understand why Toni Morrison once wrote that the road to becoming American is built on the backs of blacks." p. 122-123 "In the U.S., the anti-black racism that many Indians bring with them from the subcontinent--a mixture of homegrown color bias and Made in Europe racism--is hardened by the prevailing myth of the model minority. These new immigrants, as well as some of their children, envision themselves as the embodiment of neoliberalism's promise. Judging their professional success to be a well-earned reward for hard work and merit, they remain blind to the historic disadvantages that prevent others from attaining similar success." p. 124 "Real power lies in being so dominant that you need not be named." p. 173 "No one can call themselves a person of color without implicitly seeing that color against a backdrop of whiteness." p. 177

  5. 4 out of 5

    Bookworm

    The title of the book intrigued me and it was interesting to see what the author was going to say about race relations, racism, immigration, etc. Author Sen talks bout her life and times discussing what it was like to move to the United States and suddenly be forced to see what it's like to be different in the US, what is to try to become "white," navigating white-majority spaces, etc. Initially I thought it was great. Reading about her experiences, talking about what it's like to navigate and ad The title of the book intrigued me and it was interesting to see what the author was going to say about race relations, racism, immigration, etc. Author Sen talks bout her life and times discussing what it was like to move to the United States and suddenly be forced to see what it's like to be different in the US, what is to try to become "white," navigating white-majority spaces, etc. Initially I thought it was great. Reading about her experiences, talking about what it's like to navigate and adapt, how to deal with this in her own community, etc. But then I felt overall the book was quite messy. I'll certainly grant that part of it is that I don't share many of her experiences but the book felt quite jumbled and confusing. It felt like a ramble-y mess of thoughts. It's a shame because there's a lot here to unpack and I think what she had to say was definitely something many immigrants or children of immigrants can understand and relate to and feel. More editing might have been what's missing for me. Bought this but wish I had waited until my library had it.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Սամուէլ Sam

    As a Bostonian, a light-skinned Middle Eastern American, a grandchild (and great-grandchild) of immigrants, someone who had to “tell [my] teacher the correct way to pronounce [my] name at the beginning of each school year,” and as someone who was “once ashamed to call [my] parents Mama and Baba” who later “outgrew [that] shame,” SO MUCH of this book resonated with me. Additionally, it was very cool to read a narrative in the town it took place in. Notable quotations on pages XII, 147 and 175 (if As a Bostonian, a light-skinned Middle Eastern American, a grandchild (and great-grandchild) of immigrants, someone who had to “tell [my] teacher the correct way to pronounce [my] name at the beginning of each school year,” and as someone who was “once ashamed to call [my] parents Mama and Baba” who later “outgrew [that] shame,” SO MUCH of this book resonated with me. Additionally, it was very cool to read a narrative in the town it took place in. Notable quotations on pages XII, 147 and 175 (if I remember, I’ll type them out later). Too bad the only Armenian reference in the book was the owner of the business where the author’s father was bullied! Unfortunate but accurate snapshot of the way many American Armenians have used our liminal whiteness to contribute to White Supremacy rather than fight against it. I also very much enjoyed the Latin/Classics references, because they reminded me of the way which many of us who come from non-Western histories often know Western culture better than our white peers! More to unpack there. Definitely a book I’ll revisit.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Marie

    “We smile because it is the only face we can show. If we stop smiling, they will see how angry we are. And no one likes an angry black man or an angry brown woman.” “Not whiteness dares to name whiteness. It refuses to fly the flag of color while allowing the dominant culture to retain its powerful invisibility.” “I became a brown woman mimicking a white man pretending to be a brown man.” "The greatest division in a society is one that makes an entire group of humans simply invisible to us." "Real p “We smile because it is the only face we can show. If we stop smiling, they will see how angry we are. And no one likes an angry black man or an angry brown woman.” “Not whiteness dares to name whiteness. It refuses to fly the flag of color while allowing the dominant culture to retain its powerful invisibility.” “I became a brown woman mimicking a white man pretending to be a brown man.” "The greatest division in a society is one that makes an entire group of humans simply invisible to us." "Real power lies in being so dominant that you need not be named." "No one can call themselves a person of color without implicitly seeing that color against a backdrop of whiteness."

  8. 4 out of 5

    Calleen Petersen

    This was a fascinating book to me. I cannot pretend that I know what being an immigrant is like or someone who isn’t white. This book opens a window into that world. There are a lot of parallels between Indian caste and American race, but it was interesting to learn that race isn’t something that really exists in India. Having grown up in the U.S., I had never thought of India being in Asia, but of course it is. A thought provoking book.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Lauren Stewart

    *Received as a Goodreads Giveaway* Sharmila Sen describes her childhood growing up in India, her efforts to assimilate after moving to America as an adolescent, and her struggle to find her identity as an adult. While the book is brief, it raises excellent questions about the dominance of white culture and the pressure for people of color to assimilate.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Jee Koh

    An American's search for understanding the ache behind her smiles. The last two chapters are particularly powerful in their call to self and others to name themselves Not White. "Once I thought that to be Americanized was to pass as white." Now I am American because I know I am Not White."

  11. 4 out of 5

    Kelly Danahy

    This should be required reading. I have read so few stories, nonfiction or not, that involve Indians. I am very ignorant of the struggle of Indian immigrants to assimilate to a prejudiced, racist white culture. I'm glad that I've taken my first step out of that ignorance.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Denise Woodruff

    I love it. About the struggle of a person it's like your going through it with them all the emotions the feel I feel your learning with them

  13. 4 out of 5

    Heather

    A clear, fascinating memoir of an Indian immigrant to the US and her experiences of race. A really interesting take on what it means to be not white and not black in the US.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Carol Tilley

    Definitely one of the best books I've read in recent months.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Carly Thompson

    Powerful and wonderfully written. The author writes about race and whiteness from her perspective as a Bengali immigrant to the US.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Alex Yard

    I got my own ARC of this entry and in turn provided a full fledged review of my thoughts and impressions. That all-out review is located on RunSpotRun.com. In brief, the best way to describe this book is that it is engaging and enraging. It's articulate and interesting and speaks to an interesting corner of humanity. But its logical arguments are totally far fetched, tripped up in functionless semantics, and the book is filled with so many contradictions and catch-22s that it is counterproductive I got my own ARC of this entry and in turn provided a full fledged review of my thoughts and impressions. That all-out review is located on RunSpotRun.com. In brief, the best way to describe this book is that it is engaging and enraging. It's articulate and interesting and speaks to an interesting corner of humanity. But its logical arguments are totally far fetched, tripped up in functionless semantics, and the book is filled with so many contradictions and catch-22s that it is counterproductive to the cause it seeks to support.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Joyce

  18. 5 out of 5

    Cam

  19. 4 out of 5

    Alice

  20. 4 out of 5

    Corinne

  21. 4 out of 5

    Alice

  22. 4 out of 5

    Elena Kuran

  23. 4 out of 5

    Ganesh Ramanathan

  24. 5 out of 5

    J

  25. 5 out of 5

    Gerie

  26. 5 out of 5

    tiara

  27. 5 out of 5

    Asha

  28. 4 out of 5

    Charlene

  29. 5 out of 5

    Ali (ageekyreader)

  30. 4 out of 5

    Linda

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