I wasn’t surprised recently when someone, with a bit of a self-satisfied smile on his face, told me that I’m a coconut.
For those of you not in the know, he wasn’t accusing me of being a brown and hairy fruit (although yes admittedly there are resemblances) but that I had a brown outside and a white inside. That I was a white person, masquerading as a brown person. That I was an Indian who wanted to be White. Quick, get these fraudsters out there, these coconuts with brown masks on their faces when their blood and veins are coursing with white, alabaster, Cliff Richard-loving fluid!!
I wasn’t surprised because it wasn’t the first time I’d been called a coconut. Growing up in a nearly-white school and being one of very few Indians on my course at University, I’ve ended up with mainly non-Indian friends. I’m telling you this because when I asked other Indian people what the definition of a coconut really is, one of the main answers was: ‘Someone who doesn’t have a lot of Indian friends.”
I do actually have Indian friends. I also have non-Indian friends. But what I never understood is how I’m supposed to go out on an expressive mission to accumulate more Indian friends, so that I can rid myself of my ‘coconut’ title. Am I supposed to smile at any of my fellow Indians on the street and follow them home, hoping to add them to my growing army of Indian friend collectibles? Or am I supposed to aggressively corner any Indian that I do meet in my life ?
Or aren’t I just supposed to befriend people who make me happy, whether they’re brown, white, jaundiced or vertically striped?
What is also implied by this word is that I’m actively avoiding making Indian friendships, holding up an imaginary kalashnikov to wannabe Indian friend suitors and mouthing the words ‘Don’t even think about it.’ and chanting ‘White is Right’ on my way back to my oppresive brown-resistant fortress, cleansed of all residues of ethnicity. It’s a word that skips past all the blending, mixed, vibrant, cacophonous cultural fusions of our multi-ethnic society and heads straight to a junction pointing to either ‘White’ or ‘Not-White’ – make your choice and stick to it, for you will be judged with that label for all your life.
I have to admit, that part of me feels very wounded and angry when that word is thrown at me. It’s hard enough for British Asians without words like these holding us back. Our identity is often pulled in many directions, and while this can be wonderful it also means we’re asking ourselves lots of questions. Words like ‘coconut’ do nothing except hold us back from finding our place in this ever-shifting, multi-cultured, multi-layered society. An Indian person who does nothing to integrate in his or her society is like a White person who does nothing to integrate in his or her society- they simply don’t know and they remain uninformed. Maybe they’re happy in their bubbles, but I certainly would not. I want my coconut, chocolate, vanilla sundae, whatever, with a nice dose of beautiful, multi-coloured reality.