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.
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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.