Last year, comedian Shazia Mirza did a show called Coconut, where she discussed her evolving identity as a British-Pakistani Muslim woman. It was a bold move, not just in terms of subject matter (among other themes, it explored ideas about British Asians being accused of failing to live up to preconceived notions of who they are “supposed to be”) but the title as well.
Coconut is a term that refers to a person of color who is considered “brown on the outside but white on the inside”, in that they are seen as not reflecting their inherited culture. Mirza’s attempt to subvert the meaning of the word came to mind shortly after I had it against me last week from a random person on Twitter. This got me thinking, do those of us who have been accused of being outside of narrow ideas about ethnicity and race owe it to anyone to prove otherwise? And if being an “authentic” person of color means fiercely defending, representing and embodying our heritage, how far should we go to protect the problematic aspects of our cultures?
The man who called me “coconut” did so after he assumed I was Sikh because of my surname and Indian heritage, and criticized me for not being unaware of a specific detail of a religion that was not mine in the first place. Ironically, the ignorance was his – not mine. But it made me wonder how much I owed to my inherited culture.
I have always been deeply aware of my Indian culture; it has always been so important to my family. I love the hospitality and the way it emphasizes respect for the elder members of the community; they are considered wise and meaningful and do not feel redundant. But admiration for something should never blind you to its downfalls.
There are things I hate about Indian culture. Boys are shamelessly more favored than girls. There is a practice of giving sweets at the birth of a son who is absent if you have a daughter.
I remember asking my dad why I would respect a culture that didn’t respect me. I was 11 years old. My dad agreed and bought me a word processor so I could write about it. It was my very first article. From an early age, I was aware of the injustices of the culture in which I was born. So it’s strange that I’m writing this now, a woman in her 40s, having been shamed for not respecting my culture enough. But even at 11, I knew respect was a two-way street.
The irony of being called a “coconut” is that this stranger was accusing me of not being who I am by telling me what I should be. The slur is a way of measuring freedom; How far are you allowed to stray from your culture before you’re told you’re not brown enough? But whether it’s marriage, politics or one’s own culture, belonging should never feel like subjugation. We should feel free to leave the party when what we are served no longer matches our values.
I have always chosen my Indian culture and my British culture. I choose the Indian exuberance who likes to have fun, but rejects the dowry system.
I choose British democracy and freedom but reject the idea of imperialism and monarchy. It’s an obvious way for me to live: adopt what suits me well and eliminate what bothers me. Knowledge of different cultures helps us formulate how we want to live.
The idea that anyone who strays from their culture should be viewed with suspicion and disdain is unfathomable to me.
People who blindly follow ideas without questioning them need to be more aware of what they are subscribing to. It is easier to walk on a well-trodden path; it is more difficult to create your own. To do this requires an enormous amount of self-awareness and responsibility. This is what the French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre would call “bad faith”; a form of self-deception, where people deny that they have the freedom to make choices – out of fear of the responsibility that comes with actively making a choice.
The dowry system in India, for example, was made illegal in 1961, but people, including my own family, still practice it. Researchers looked at 40,000 marriages that took place in rural India between 1960 and 2008 and found that dowry was paid in 95% of cases.
It’s a shameful statistic that makes women vulnerable and open to violence and even death. Would the man who called me a coconut on Twitter suggest that these women – whose lives have been turned into hell by an outdated tradition – owe it to their culture to ignore how these practices affect them?
Culture is made up of traditions, values, food, language, customs and beliefs. It is a living, breathing, moving and changing beast of consciousness, both dramatically and imperceptibly. It changes because we change. If not, white Europeans would still support slavery.
It is said that once your mind has been expanded, it can never return to its old dimensions. This perhaps frightens those who cling to absurd traditions: if a culture is too diluted, what have we become?
Someone once said, “Life is a perfect balance of hanging on and letting go.”
There are many things in my Indian culture and in British culture that I love, but live with our eyes wide open and let go of the things that no longer serve us.
Kiran Sidhu is a freelance writer