By Simren Shah
Associate Features Editor
So much of cultural identity resides in language and names. Society has attached certain expectations to names; particularly, society has assigned assumptions of what people with certain names should look like. Well, what happens when someone’s appearance does not necessarily match their name?
My name is Simren Shah and I am a white brown girl.
My mother’s ethnicity includes various shades of caucasian, however my father immigrated from India when he was around my age. As a result my skin is white, my name is Indian, and my features are somewhere in between.
Upon first impression, most people assume I am just white. My name is usually a shock factor. While I receive many compliments about my name, introductions can be awkward for me since questions about its pronunciation and origin are bound to arise.
“Oh I knew you were mixed with something” or “oh yes, the hair and the eyes… it makes sense now,” are some comments I have heard many times. These comments are harmless, but sometimes I contemplate how people who appear to be of only one ethnicity do not receive comments on their features upon meeting someone.
Oftentimes, I find myself settling for telling people that my grandmother chose my name (which is true) and that I have no idea why (which is untrue). I also shorten my name to “Sim” for ease of pronunciation. I can pass for white, so why make a fuss? How can I be Indian if I do not fit the category that people have in their minds for Indian people?
Lately, I have been questioning whether or not I am doing a disservice to my grandmother by not having pride in my name. She chose mine and my sister’s names from famous Indian films.
Sometimes, I feel that because I appear to be white I am not entitled to explore my Indian heritage. It has been a strange experience to not look very much like half of my family. I have been given white privilege but in receiving privilege I have subconsciously made an effort to be more caucasian.
Why should I have the benefits of privilege but also have diversity?
Sometimes it is easier for me to change my name to something more “American” when I meet someone I probably won’t see again. Some days, I’m just “Sim.” Other times, I change my vowel and become “Sam.” I usually go for “Sam” when ordering coffee or when retail staff ask me for my name so they can write it outside my dressing room. It is sadly convenient to be able to push aside my culture whenever I choose.
I am able to bypass the “what are you” and “where are you from” questions. However, to answer those questions: I am a human and I was born in Connecticut, but I grew up about forty-five minutes away from Millersville University. I know those are not the answers that people are searching for, though.
To comply with the real intents of those questions, I am half Indian (from India, not Native American), and I am half white. No, my father was not born here. Yes, my mother is white. Yes, I was born in America.
Yes, I am proud of my culture but it is hard to decide who I am when what is inside is not fully evident on the outside. I am a white brown girl and I am taking steps to embrace that.