When I was in graduate school one of my fellow students told me at a social gathering that I looked like Sharon Stone. SHARON STONE???!!! Now don’t get me wrong. I think Sharon Stone is gorgeous, talented, and has a body to die for. Why shouldn’t this be the best compliment I have ever received? Well, the truth of the matter is that I look nothing like Sharon Stone. I am brown skinned, have wavy black hair, and a curvaceous figure. In fact, the only thing that Sharon Stone and I have in common is that we both are women.
It took me some time to absorb this information completely and make sense of it. I even spent several minutes staring at the mirror trying to see how Sharon Stone and I were similar in our appearances. Eventually, I was able to talk to this fellow student in a way that only graduates in a school for psychologists are awarded the honor and luxury to do. She was appalled later on about the reaction that it elicited in me and was profusely apologetic, and we were able to examine the racial dynamics behind the “compliment.” Her rationale for giving me the compliment was that comparing me to someone that is white was the ultimate in compliments. She felt like it was her way of equating me to something or someone that she thought that I yearned to be. I appreciated her candidness and her ability to examine her own issues of prejudice. Opportunities like these are rare in life and these conversations just don’t happen enough. The thing is, we engage in this type of complimenting all the time, equating people with things that we want them to be, the ideals that we want them to live up to. Incidentally, I read somewhere that the number one compliment that African-American professionals receive are how articulate they are. It doesn’t matter if they went to Yale or Harvard or for that matter are the president of the United States, the fact that they can speak in a manner that defies what our stereotypes of them are, are compliment worthy.
Every month, every year at least a handful of people express shock at my ability to speak English. I have to remind them that Britain colonized India for approximately 200 years and so yes, a number of us do speak English in India. In fact, many of us speak better English than the average U.S. citizen. Another compliment I frequently receive (particularly after people have learned that I have spent many years of my life in India) is “wow, you have no accent at all. Not like those other Indians.” My other favorite compliment is how “exotic” I look. Really, I can’t be that exotic if a billion plus of my people are roaming the earth. Mangoes and toucans are exotic, people from India, not so much. Oh let me not forget my absolutely favorite one that my house or I don’t smell like curry. I know I am not India’s answer to culinary genius but come on folks, let’s keep our stereotypes in check.
A dear professor of mine from graduate school reminded me constantly of picking and choosing my battles. When I was younger, picking and choosing those battles were harder, as I had a voice and boy, did I want that voice to get heard. As I get older, I am realizing that I have the confidence to respond in a way that gets my point across in a much more subtly exasperated or humorous way. So when someone says, “wow, you speak such great English, “ I thank them and say, “you’re welcome, so do you.” It usually elicits a confused response in them, but mostly results in me internally high-fiving myself.
A flip side to these acts of cluelessness is a humorous account from years ago. A dear friend of mine from graduate school was looking at my wedding album. He had a confused look on his face when he came across a particular picture of a young woman standing next to me. Knowing him the way that I did, I had a feeling that he was reluctant to comment that this young woman looked like this mutual friend from graduate school, because he didn’t want to make the assumption that all Indians looked alike. We laughed heartily when I told him that she was indeed that person and almost 14 years later, it still makes us burst out into extreme laughter when we relive that moment of his racial sensitivity.
I myself have been guilty of seeing someone that is of color, or for that matter, even from the mainstream race and telling him or her that they look like someone else that is famous. At times, this might be the case, but other times it serves as a conversation filler because really, people mostly just want to be themselves. It’s also a form of prejudice that I have to be aware of and one that I have to make concerted efforts to avoid at all costs. Ultimately though, I think it is our inherent need as human beings to try to find a connection, some commonality, with one another and to like and be liked, even though the ways that we go about it may, at times, be dysfunctional. I know I have to find better ways to make that connection. In the mean time though, I’ll stick with my non-Sharon Stone looks, but I’ll definitely take her body.