A friend once said to me, “I’ve realized recently that you are really white.” I would like to point out that this comment was inspired by his purchase shortly beforehand of the book “Stuff White People Like” from an Urban Outfitters, which is perhaps the whitest thing ever. I do have to concede, though, that he was right; I am a gigantic coffee addict (#1 on the Stuff White People Like Checklist), I hate Ed Hardy (#124), I am obsessed with “This American Life” (#44), and I am currently traveling in a “third world” country that is mostly vegetarian, where I will be interning for a non-profit organization (#19, #32, and #12).

But since my arrival in India, I’ve started to understand my whiteness on a whole new level. I had never before been forced to be so aware of being white. On my walk to school here, which takes about 45 minutes, I am constantly stared at, and not just by children—white-girl watching seems to be an all-ages form of entertainment. This is usually fine on the way to school, when I’m freshly awake and showered, ready to take on the day. But on the way home, when I’m exhausted and I just want to zone out while I walk, it becomes a challenge. I never realized how much mental energy it takes to be stared at, to stand out so glaringly, but when I’m walking home after a day of classes and adventures around Pune, I find it impossible to zone out.

Sometimes the stares can be overwhelming, but most of the time I’m able to remind myself that this is part of the experience of being in India, that this is why I came. And I definitely prefer standing out on Karve Road (the road that takes me to school) to the bizarre bubble that has been created in the more modern parts of town, called Koregaon Park and Camp. Last weekend, my friend and classmate Pooja took me to see these parts, which many of the young Indian kids consider to be the “cool” side of town. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but what I found were basically American shopping malls, American grocery stores, and fancy Italian restaurants. First of all, the entire culture felt different—there were advertisements for bikram yoga (an American interpretation of yoga which I love, but felt really weird seeing in India), street vendors selling the kind of stuff you’d see on Venice Beach in L.A. (rice necklaces, key chains with names engraved on them), and white couples buying Nutella and loaves of French bread from the grocery store.

But what really threw me off was the concept of it all: Why would white people come to India just to seclude themselves in a bubble that is essentially a western version of India? And why would Indian kids want to consume an American reinterpretation of India? I was in a really strange mood when we got back from Camp. I actually felt relieved to be stared at as I walked down my street.

In my “Issues in Political Economy and Development” course, we spent most of a class discussing what “development” means—why some countries are considered “developed” (the U.S.) and some are considered “developing” (India). Pooja thinks that when everyone has access to education and basic needs like food, India will be developed like the U.S., because the U.S. provides these rights to its citizens—which of course elicited a giant “NUH UUHHHHHH” from every American in the class. Without a doubt, many Indian teenagers idealize the U.S. in a way that suggests that the Hollywood/Coca-Cola propaganda has pretty much worked.

On the other hand, there are plenty of Indian kids who reject the westernization of their culture. I recently went to a student forum at an organization called Open Space, which addresses social justice and queer issues in Pune. About 20 students were there—Indian and international—and we discussed what the word “modern” means to us. The kids who spoke were amazing and insightful, and they really seemed to value their roots in a way that I found inspiring. After the discussion, I realized how grateful I was—for the opportunity to be in India, to be meeting so many amazing people, and for the first time, to feel uncomfortable in my own skin.

  • Anonymous

    This was the first time you felt uncomfortable in your own skin?

  • Anonymous

    But why is the title of this Learning to be White?

  • David Lott

    Being white is like riding a bicycle. Once you learn you never forget.

  • Anonymous

    Being white is like getting the fucking golden wrapper in Charlie and the Chocolate factor.

    You’re a winner!