This personal essay was written by me during the continuing political and racial unrest of 2021, then published in fort da (2021). Happy reading.....Kalpana
While writing the Letter from the Editor for this issue of fort da, and thinking about the ways identity, including race and culture, influence psychoanalytic thinking and technique, I received an essay about a personal experience involving difference, skin color, and oppression. As I read the piece, I recognized the author’s words, not as the words I had been looking for, but as words I would not find within me — because of my whiteness, my experience of being a man, and other identities privileged (and not) that have shaped my point of view.
So, for this issue, fort da is publishing the following essay as a Letter from the Community. Opening this edition with a personal essay from a community member is a departure for fort da. The journal began over 25 years ago as a way to give voice to a community of Northern California psychoanalytic thinkers. Our community culture is now undergoing significant changes, reflecting larger cultural shifts, and the journal is dedicated to supporting these changes by welcoming different points of view from an increasingly diverse community of psychoanalytic thinkers, with an increased awareness of who is given the opportunity to speak.
The author wondered if her piece was a Letter from the Community or a Letter to the Community. It is both. Making a system more equitable that unfairly advantages some and unfairly disadvantages others starts with an awareness of perspectives that fort da wants to give voice to within these pages. — Peter Silen, Ph.D.
LETTER FROM THE COMMUNITY (as printed in fort da)
By Kalpana Asok, M.A., LMFT
Calling In & Calling Out — From the Margins
Out of Place
When a friend started wearing a stark “Black Lives Matter” pin on her dress to most events, I hesitated to ask her how she was brave enough to do so. At that time, in 2015, it was a bold move, given that she seemed to live in an all-white world.
I told her I supported the movement but that if I were to wear such a pin, I would feel ambivalent about how I would be perceived in the world of grocery stores, walks in the park, and even going out to dinner in nearby towns. She told me that 90 percent of people who noticed it thanked her for wearing it. The others would eventually come around or be in a minority, she said, adding that a few people had been aggressive and cursed at her. I was not easily reassured and did not believe that 90 percent of people would thank me. You see, she was a large woman in a white body. I am relatively smaller and live in a brown body and my features are clearly South Asian. So I thanked her for being brave enough to wear it.
Honestly, I was not brave enough to draw hateful comments and deal with the inevitable effects it would cause in me. The experience of a raised heartbeat, to feel sweat gathering in my armpits and the skin crawling on my neck, would all be too much for me. I was not ready to deal with bodily outcomes of feeling attacked. I told myself I would do the work I could. I would write about it, while continuing to wear “inoffensive” Western clothes. I was not yet ready to face the simmering and about-to-boil-over hatred and fear I expected if I were to reveal any signs of my “discontent.”
A lot has changed in the last four years.
Since Obama’s presidency, the everyday lives of brown-skinned people have changed. Besides the stress of hearing new lies every day and witnessing the shamelessness of the supporting cast around the White House, many of us who live in Silicon Valley — where technology rules, and where South Asians, immigrants, and Asian Americans are valued at their jobs for their advanced engineering degrees and skills — have been direct victims of small and large acts of aggression from many sources, some unexpected.
One friend told me that while stopped at an intersection in her shiny and clearly expensive car, a woman in a car next to hers cursed at her and told her to “Go back home.” My spunky friend responded, “You go back home!” and took out her rage on her car’s horn. This happened in San Mateo. Another friend in downtown Palo Alto was terrified by a car full of young white men who unimaginatively called her a “sand n-----," and chased her in their car. She did not pursue charges because she understood that it could result in her family being harassed. In Cupertino, a majority Asian city where I work, white men in plumber’s vans with names, numbers, and logos swear at Asian women crossing the road at a pace they consider to be too slow.
It is as if the bottle has been uncorked and the genie of hate has been set loose among us. Although hate-crime shootings occur in other parts of the country, I could not believe this level of hostility was on open display in the liberal Bay Area, where Asian technocrats, programmers, and South Asian and Asian families are quite visible. When the injuries happen so close to home, they strike deeper.
A building contractor spoke to me recently of how angry and helpless he felt when he and his team were fired by their employer, who said, “I don’t want any damn Mexicans working in my home.” The contractor was from Mexico himself, and all his crew was from Guatemala. The employer did not care to know where the men were from or even whether or not they had work visas. He told me he would not forget. That he would go back one day and speak his mind. “It starts at the top, at the Casa Blanca,” he said, “and that kind don’t need to hide anymore.”
Eric Garner was killed in 2014 after being arrested for selling “loosie” cigarettes in New York. Since then, the world has watched with incredulity and horror. Is this happening? Is this real? Another nonchalant killing. Another smirking cover-up. And we almost turned away. But the timing is right and enough young people, with time and social media, are awake and ready for change. They are stressed, angry, and aware of the privilege and cost that comes with race.
At times I was overwhelmed by the protests last year, the almost-daily videos surfacing that documented how people of color are routinely subject to acts of microaggression and, of course, extreme acts of violence and murder. I am consciously aware that it reopens some of my scabs. While COVID-19 stresses add to the daily burdens of most people, a few of those in power with pale skin are seeing and hearing about the harsh realities that many of us “others” experience. I realize how much psychic energy I use up putting these experiences aside so I can get on with daily life. My left eye-lid’s small twitch reminds me of the stress I am under.
* * *
About 20 years ago, the greeters at my polling station absently smiled at me but did not point me in the direction of the voting booth because they assumed I was the foreign nanny, only there to wait for the mother or father in the family to finish voting. They stood up straighter when I announced I was there to vote and were decent enough to be embarrassed by their instinctive behavior. Just a few years ago, when I left my dog in the car for a few minutes, a White woman came up and asked me if the dog’s owners knew I was leaving their dog in the car.
Now we have a name for certain women who decide whether or not you belong in a particular space; they are unafraid to speak their opinions about race. These are the “Karens” — White women who feel confident that the law will protect them when they tell people of color that they are out of place.
My first experience of a Karen was 15 years ago while my husband and I were walking our dog in our neighborhood. A big, goofy creature, our dog could be unpredictable around other dogs, so we were very careful to avoid other dogs on walks. We crossed the street or turned away and generally did what we could to avoid encounters. That day, I had crossed the street when a large Golden Retriever dashed out of a nearby gate, lunged at our dog, barked, and tried a few nips, but I was able to shoo her off. Whew, okay, at least it was not our high-energy dog doing the chasing. I guided the dog in towards her gate and tried to close it when “Karen” popped out. She asked quite unpleasantly what I was doing at her gate.
Looking back, I feel ashamed that I did not right away put on a serious face to tell her what her dog had done. Instead, I did what I have been conditioned to do all these years — smile in the face of aggressive authority and show them I am harmless. Not a big deal, I said. Your dog ran out of the gate and tried to attack my dog, but these things happen, so let’s close the gate. What happened next was astounding. Instead of thanking me and apologizing, she said it must have been my dog coming too close to the gate! I assured her that was not the case, asked her to keep her gate closed, and continued our walk. To our extreme shock, we saw her get in her car and start following us. A block on, she pulled up and told us that our dog looked dangerous. We ignored her and continued walking. After another block, I lost my patience, confronted her, and asked her if we (my darker-skinned husband and I) looked dangerous to her. If my dog looked dangerous enough for her to follow us and deny that her dog had attacked ours, what was she going to do about dangerous-looking people? She looked uncomfortable and said she was going to call the police. We invited her to please do so and to follow us home. She did for another two blocks. We were out of place because of our skin color.
These memories come back to me during the current protests. I welcome the protests and am so hopeful — and, at the same time, so angry — that it is hard for me to do my daily chores while yet another Karen video surfaces. She may be less menacing than a man with a gun — cop or crook — but she still scares me. I resent having to live this way in the place I call home. But at least right now, some people are listening.
On a summer morning this year, in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights, a White woman told off a Filipino man for using sidewalk chalk to make a BLM sign on the wall. She said she knew it was not his home and threatened to call the police. While openly videotaping the interaction on his phone, he asked her why she was so sure this was not his home, when in fact it was. He posted his video on Twitter and said that this is why Black Lives Matter. She has since apologized. It is hard to dispute a video recorded in real time.
If we, relatively recent immigrants, feel all this sadness, despair, anger, hatred, and envy from those who live around us, what must African Americans feel in similar situations? From Emmett Till, to Willie Horton, to the Central Park Five, to African Americans of means, to our former President. I can’t begin to fathom. This kind of treatment is not the majority of my experience, but when the Karens or worse happens, it is a jolt, a reminder, to not get too comfortable.
What is this sense of entitlement and where does it come from? Are darker-skinned people only expected in the fields and not in the swanky car next to you? Thanks to technology, videos prove what actually occurs, which was previously denied.
Until recently, I spoke only to my friends of color about such things for fear of embarrassing my White friends who live life without these particular weights on their shoulders. I am careful not to embarrass them, assuming they will feel the guilt and shame of the majority. Underneath that worry is a smaller — no, actually larger — worry: will they believe me? Will my White friends think I am unduly sensitive? That I am perhaps imagining it? Will they tell me to ignore it? I know that my LGBTQ friends will get it, having experienced marginalization in other ways. Microaggressions hurt every day and all minorities experience them.
How can it be that all the Indian computer science students were the only students huddled in the basement of the Engineering building? When I met a White American student in the same department and saw that he had a really comfortable office cubicle upstairs near his professors, I assumed he must have had a different position to get to sit near the teachers, avoiding the basement, where an asbestos removal program was in process. When I heard that he was a student like all the Indian foreign students in the basement, I was shocked. It didn’t make sense until I saw the pattern repeat. In the Biology program, only two foreign students were seated like everyone else, and I had assumed that other departments would also function like that. Why didn’t anyone speak up, at least about the asbestos? Shhh, I was told, let us not make waves.
In the eight-unit building where I started life in the United States, six of the studio apartments were occupied by Indian and Pakistani graduate students. The two apartments that were occupied by American (White) graduate students somehow looked different. I assumed that they had lived different lives, having grown up and worked in the United States, and that they were not recent arrivals in the country, ascribing the difference in our apartments to those reasons. Imagine how taken aback I felt when I learned that our American neighbors got beds, couches, tables, chairs, and curtains from the same stock room that we did. Their curtains were not dingy, their sofas did not have collapsed springs, and they even had their carpets cleaned! Amazing. Did they have to pay extra for these nice things? Did they bring their own couches, maybe? Did they pay to get the lined curtains cleaned? No, no, and no. What a mystery. They said they dealt with the same Mrs. A., who was known to all of us as a harridan, a difficult woman who had to be cajoled to let us have what the University gave us as graduate student benefits. Really? Yes. The very same Mrs. A? Yes, but she is very pleasant to us, they said.
“It is very simple,” said one of the Indian residents of the building, a man of the world, who said he knew how things worked. “Just bring her some gifts when you go to India next, boss, and it will all work out. Catch with honey, not vinegar, hain na?” We all learned that American students had a different system from us. So, why does no one complain about her? Shhh, I was told, who knows who pays who here for what?
Why are we being taxed while some other foreign students were not? Same answer. Don’t ask, don’t complain, just do your work, we don’t have a voice or a choice. This was all in the Midwest in the late 1980s. Maybe things have changed by now? My niece laughed at my naivete. She said that all the foreign T.A.s are huddled in hard-to-find basements. Even now.
It is 35 years from graduate school. We are settled in the country, many of us are citizens, some have been immensely successful. Others have achieved a good quality of life, all have worked hard, been productive, raised children, and most of us vote. But most of us do not speak up or out about racial aggressions unless we are in a small group of our peers. The taboo and horror of not being believed or being told we are imagining these aggressions is maybe just too much. Will we shame White people? Will we burden them? Will they feel they have to apologize? Or will they tell us to be grateful? Will we feel apart from them? Will speaking up about it give it too much life?
It is hard to have a conversation when the other side of the table is empty.
Some of our peers living in India tell us that they never want to live in a country where they will be second-class citizens. But we don’t speak up to them and explain that already having money is the price of first-class citizenship in India. Caste can make for first class. Dark skin, a “lower” caste, not having political or powerful connections also make for second-class status. We explain that, for most purposes, we are first-class here. Getting a home, getting a good job, getting a good education, and dealing with bureaucracy are all much easier here.
It is the small aggressions that we don’t share widely. We only speak to our closest Indian friends here about the police officer who pulled you over to give you a ticket when you feel sure that a White person may have gotten away with a warning to fix a brake light. I tell my son to be careful and keep both hands in view if pulled over. I tell him to be polite and say, “Yes, sir,” and “Yes, ma’am,” to officers. And if an officer comes to your home and speaks to your middle school son about a discipline issue at school, you don’t protest and speak up about how that should not have happened without a parent present — it is illegal to do so. And we all laugh a little too much when our sweet blonde friend says she was warned about going a little too fast by an officer but didn’t get a ticket.
When we see Jacob Blake — shot 7 times in the back as he walks around his car and gets it — we need to speak up. When we see Kyle Rittenhouse, with an assault weapon, walk up to officers (after having shot two people) and walk away, we can see what’s what.
We all need to speak up. We all need to open our eyes. Wider.
* * *
“Did you pick those lovely roses from a neighbor’s garden?” the realtor asks with fake sweetness. I can see she is worried that we didn’t know not do that. I hate that I overexplained to her that the kindly gentleman next door had seen me admiring the roses and snipped off a few for me. What a gracious welcome, I had thought, and then this from the realtor. Was she a “Karen”? Would she have been sharp with me if she didn’t have to be careful about offending me? Is it me? Why can’t I just remember the neighbor and forget the realtor? The truth is that both exist — kindness and hostility.
Yes, it is about time that the white majority and all of us acknowledge privilege of all kinds and hear the experiences of those less privileged whether they are marginalized because of gender, sexual orientation, color, race, or economics. It is work to sort out the layers of perception, intuition, and truth. And it is a burden — one we do not have an option but to carry. I am hopeful, though, because the climate of listening is changing, because we have technology that allows the average person on the street to speak up and show us all what happens, because the events of the last four years and the Summer of COVID-19 have made some conversations possible, because young people are joining the fight against racism and bias, because of the BLM movement, and, most importantly, because the intersectionality of racism, sexism, and other biases to the BIPOC community has so many of us speaking up and out. And speaking loud.
Speaking Skin Language
Skin color speaks its own language.
The challenge is in the familiarity of hearing enough of the language to let it become a background hum and not the central bass drumbeat that drowns out the rest of the music.
In the private world of the therapist and patient, the experiential aspect of living in colored skin (or other easily identifiable physical markers) is unavoidable. An agreement is made between the therapist and the patient that they will speak together about experiences, sharing space and time, so that the therapist can help the patient know themselves better, thereby becoming more whole and reclaim more aspects of themselves. When trained, kind attention is paid to the disparate pieces of a patient’s dysfunctions and difficulties, sustained psychological growth becomes possible, and the out-of-tune can move towards harmony. Perhaps each of the drumbeats of skin-color experiences may first need to be heard separately before they can become background hum.
Many years ago, I worked with a man who was having difficulty at work. He was a Black man from Ethiopia with a noticeable accent and an obviously Muslim name. In the year 2002, it would have been unthinkable to not talk about his experiences of having become a feared and reviled “untouchable other” in society. After the world-changing events of September 11, 2001, being a Black Muslim foreigner was terrifying in many new environments. I began with the obvious and said, “It must be an especially difficult — and, perhaps even dangerous — time to be a Muslim Black man now, in this climate. There is so much fear, suspicion, and hatred.” He was so startled that he said he did not hear me at all and asked me to repeat myself. When I did, he just said, “Yes,” and was silent for the next few minutes. Just before the silence became unbearable for me, he broke it and said, “Yes. I can talk with you.” I don’t remember what exactly we talked about during the next few meetings, but I clearly recall the tension he brought into the room, and the light feeling as soon as it was broken. Although we spoke with different accents and had different skin colors, we recognized that we were both immigrants from different worlds and were now sitting together in a newly retraumatized country. A country that has never known what to do with trauma.
I can only imagine that I bring some of that separateness in a different concentration into the room with me: my Indianness, my skin color, my accent, and therefore, my foreignness. To not be aware of this in every new group encounter in the United States would be to pretend that I am in India, where I am one with almost everyone else, except for the privilege I carry with my lighter (for South Indians) skin color. The skin-color privilege I had in India no longer serves me in the United States. Sadly, here, even in the multicolored and multicultural Bay Area, I experienced this for myself — people talking to the white woman next to me, avoiding eye contact with me, and ignoring me. I feel angry and sad — how uncomfortable it must be for them, too, to let their eyes slide over me, land on the wall, back to the white person, my shoes, a spot behind my shoulders, and back around the room. I have thus experienced the privilege of lighter skin in India, and the non-privilege of that same skin color in the United States.
When my family toured a private school for our children in a white-majority town and liked it for its emphasis on a developmental model of education and low stress, we left our names at the front desk of the Admissions Office so we could be mailed an application. Several weeks passed and no application arrived in the mail. I called and asked if my form was lost, and a cold voice offered no apology but reasserted that one would be mailed out soon enough. When I did not hear back, I did not call again, and it was too late to apply for the coming academic year. Later, a friend who was on the school’s board (whom I had met through a book group) expressed only mild shock at my experience, sighed deeply, advised me to apply again the next year, and to “look beyond the front desk.” She had children who had gone to the same school (which I had not known about) and brought the application to me. Her advice was clear: persist. She, a White woman of some privilege, knew all about racism from another secret source — her children were ethnically Asian. She and undoubtedly others in the administration also knew that admission into the school was controlled by one woman at the front desk who functioned as a filter that no one took responsibility for.
Even more sadly, discrimination and class consciousness still persist even within the Indian community in the Bay Area. I was doing a friend a favor in meeting someone who wanted an “Indian” perspective on an educational institution. She was late by over 15 minutes, dashed in looking glamorous, did not apologize, and then asked me many questions about the institute. After a half hour of this, she speculated that I must live in a neighboring town that is known to cost less in terms of real estate compared to where we were meeting. I asked her where she lived, and she told me. It was one of those rare moments that fate throws at you to let you know that there may be some justice in the world. You know, when someone cuts you off, drives dangerously, and then you see the sheriff’s car fly out of nowhere, lights flashing, and pull the transgressor over? The address she gave me was only four houses down from mine. “Oh, you are my neighbor!” I exclaimed coolly. Not one of my finer moments of grace. I did enjoy her look of confusion, as she glanced at my uncoiffured hair, my plain, non-branded jeans, and my average Honda keys. She had some deep need to see me as less than she. And there’s the rub.
Over the years, I have come to feel as if I belong in some groups, where I can be comfortable being myself — in mind, heart, humor, art — quiet, as a therapist, a person, and a lively being. I am fortunate to have persisted and to have quality people in these groups see all of me, including my Indianness and my active mind. And, I have my groups of Indian friends with whom I can be more Indian, make and hear jokes with pieces of Hindi or Tamil thrown in, talk about difficulties with parents and family in India, the problems encountered in dealing with bureaucracy in India, or roll our eyes when the conversations become too Silicon Valley. How lovely (and privileged) to be able to slide in and out of these groups. In being held in the Desi (South Asian identity) group with comfort and security, I now adventure into other groups and speak. Loudly.
It is too simple to say that it is “lovely” to be able to move in and out of different groups. Many layers of complexity reverberate under it. In moving to the United States, I parted ways financially with my family after disagreements about my personal life. Starting over and being financially insecure in graduate school in a new country, I was suddenly in a population where I had to struggle to make ends meet. To be seen as a person of color was different, too, and I felt I now belonged to a different class, where I was segregated by skin color. I could experience for myself what some of my darker-skinned Indian friends in India had felt. Now, after more than 30 years living in this country, I have all kinds of privilege. In becoming well-educated and well-employed, my family has benefited from jobs in the field of psychology, information technology, and computer science, along with the ability to meet people who are educated and egalitarian. I am, once again, experiencing a new reality of being.
But my work life has slowly narrowed: most of my clients are Indian, in crisis mode, and those who have not been in therapy before. These people are referred to me by Indian doctors who somehow have my name or have found me through online queries for an Indian therapist. This has led to my speculating on the reasons why I get calls mostly from South Asian people. A large population of the Bay Area’s South Asians sometimes look for a therapist within the culture. I also wonder what keeps other people (from the majority culture) from calling and leaving me a message. Do they feel my name sets me apart and they will not feel understood by a person with a non-Anglo name? Or do they call my voicemail and hear my accent and assume a vast ocean between us? Am I a good-enough therapist only for South Asians? I certainly have expertise in the area. But, then when I was on an insurance panel and people from the majority culture got assigned to me, I could feel a rapport and enough feelings of common humanity that we did good work together. Would I have no patients at all if not for the Indians who fill my practice? At the same time, I am glad to be there for all the South Asians who do call me, and I enjoy the warmth of working with them. Maybe the therapist sitting across from you, listening to your most sacred difficulties, needs to look like you. Perhaps our internal cultures and worlds are so far apart that non-Indians don’t “feel” me? No, that is not true either; that is the reality of the economic burden this marginalization leads to. And so the circle goes, around and around, with no resolution.
I wish I could tell all the other people who land on my website, who look at my name and photo and decide that one of us cannot bridge a gap they imagine, to “look beyond” my name — that they can connect to part of me, if they let the name and skin color become ground. And, then again, perhaps the loss is mine, only financially, and qualitatively theirs in that they cannot yet work on their assumptions of difference in humanity. I can’t let that be and I have to let it be. I don’t have a choice.
Do I have to accept that we can’t all learn to be fluent in Skin Language?
For some people, the drumbeats of skin color drown out every other instrument in the orchestra. For those like me, it is an intrusive rhythm, hurtful, discordant, and out of tune with the rest of the music.
I am an experienced psychotherapist practicing in the Bay Area who has, until now, been a silent witness. I have listened to many more stories that I am not free to disclose, but they live on in my heart. This is not an easy topic to open, even with my professional colleagues. Here I am.
Kalpana Asok, M.A., LMFT