I Am Your Racial Rorschach Test

My mother often says that I have the kind of face that makes people want to tell me their problems.


y mother often says that I have the kind of face that makes people want to tell me their problems. She usually includes the warning, “Don’t take in too much of their energy.” You see, she thinks words, problems, negativities all exist like a sticky substance that congeals from the ether and adheres to our souls.

She’s right about my face. When I was little, older kids told me about how they shoplifted or tried drugs—often when I was too young to understand what they were talking about. After a while, I realized that it’s not really me though. It’s something else. Something about my face invites you to see yourself in me. Like a mirror or an oracle, I am familiar enough to listen and reflect, yet different enough to skew your feelings in a new direction. This is especially true when it comes to race, a realm where my face and my skin sometimes inspire stories that are not my own.

Last summer, I was living in Rome with my family. Senior citizens kept asking me things on the street, like directions to the doctor, where to put their garbage, how to find the right bus. It’s my face, remember? I look like someone you should ask for advice. These neighbours were sorely disappointed to find that I don’t speak very much Italian.

One day, an old man sat down next to me on a bench where I was waiting for my husband and son. I had just gone to the grocery store and opened a bag of balsamic vinegar potato chips. I offered him some. After partaking, he announced, “You are Mexican.” Just like that, a fact.

I replied in broken Italian that my family is actually from India and he said, “Oh! That makes sense because of how you look.” Then he used his hand to draw a circle around his face, ending with a pantomime of a big nose. He was right, I do have a very large nose. But I hadn’t necessarily equated that characteristic with being Indian. The man wished me a good day and left, slowly standing up with his cane and shuffling away.

I’m assigned a different race almost weekly like this. It can make me feel closer to everyone else and simultaneously farther from myself.

On that day, in that place, I was Mexican, at least his idea of what a Mexican is. And this lines up with other times I’ve been Latina–like that time my friend texted to say that his toddler walked up to the TV screen while watching Encanto and pointed to the main character with a robust “Look, it’s Aunty!”, meaning me.

I’m assigned a different race almost weekly like this. It can make me feel closer to everyone else and simultaneously farther from myself.

In Central Florida in 1993, I was heating up my lunch in a microwave (my high school had one for some reason) when I heard, “There are four types of people.”

J. tossed her mane of shiny brown hair over her shoulder as she continued, “Everybody knows it. There are white people, white trash, black people, and [n-words].”

J. was a senior—a year older than me—and was holding court in the corner of the school newspaper office outside what we called the phone booth. A repurposed closet with a telephone, the room smelled of drywall and held the Yellow Pages, a calculator, and assorted town pamphlets. It was in the phone booth that J. made calls to local businesses for advertisements and classified ads. Her honeyed voice talked the pizza shops and florists into reupping their ads.

Usually my friends and I could ignore her lunchtime expositions. That day though, we sat across the room on a ratty old couch that someone’s parents had offloaded to the school years before. “Wait, she said what? Four what? What is she talking about?” we whispered.

There arose in me a feeling I did not recognize back then–one that I now know quite well. Like seasickness, I couldn’t push down the desire to fuck with her, to make a fool of her. Of course, I knew that I did not fit into J.’s easy four-part schema, but it had dawned on me that I really didn’t fit in anywhere, didn’t feel seen.

“Well, that’s interesting,” I said loudly. “Can you say those categories again?” Like the lawyer I would become, I needed to get her on record. After all, I was witnessing a rare instance of the normally unspoken being declared out loud, for the whole room to hear.

She smiled and repeated, “White people, white trash, black people, and [n-words].”

I was plunged into the memory of an incident years before in elementary school. A white child had called me the n-word out on the shimmeringly hot Orlando basketball court. To comfort me after being targeted by a racial slur, my teacher had taken me into the supply closet and said, “You are not what that girl called you, do you hear me?” Not understanding what the word meant back then, I had nodded and been left with a lingering thought—then what am I?

Standing there in that high school class, the anger of that unanswered question swelled inside my gut and I spat out, “So what would that make me? Where do I fit into your four categories?”

She stared back blankly. The room quieted, awaiting her official verdict. J. rolled her eyes and looked me up and down.

“You’re a good black… Obviously.”

She turned away, not thinking twice about her arbitrary judgment. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture website includes a few words about the falsehood of colour-blindness when it comes to race: “[I]n a racialized society like the United States, everyone is assigned a racial identity whether they are aware of it or not.”

The gatekeepers to whiteness and judges of colour, the arbiters of race and purveyors of belonging—they don’t feel discomfort, they don’t feel shame.

From time to time, I still feel that tightness in my belly, that desire to tangle with someone and relish their discomfort. But I know better now. The gatekeepers to whiteness and judges of colour, the arbiters of race and purveyors of belonging—they don’t feel discomfort, they don’t feel shame.

In 1996, I was in India, the subcontinent, my desh. After a childhood exiled in the Bible Belt, USA, I dreamt of being part of a sea of other brown people like me when I signed up for six months of study abroad. I had just read The Autobiography of Malcolm X and I thought that, just like his hajj journey, mine would be a glorious homecoming—I would be welcomed by my desi sisters and brothers with open arms.

“Shalom, Madam! Come into my shop!” I looked over my shoulder to figure out who the shopkeeper was shouting out—only to realize he was calling me. You see, what I didn’t know then is that those same brothers and sisters can spot inauthenticity in a second. My gait, my clothes, my shoes—they all give me away as not from that place, not really from India at all.

I’ve noticed that racial radar sometimes gets scrambled and spits out the wrong identity when it comes to me. My curly hair, olive skin (there it is again—that skin!), my height—all these random genetic sequences go into an algorithm and spit out a category. In Jaipur that day, surrounded by young Israeli backpackers, my skin blended in too many directions at once, and I was to be greeted in Hebrew rather than with a “Namaste.” Over those months in India, I became a walking cliché, a member of the permanent diaspora, with nowhere to call home.

Recently in the bathroom at work, I remembered that feeling of displacement as I rolled down my tights. I noticed a tiny patch of pulling skin on my thigh, striated like a stretch mark or a burn scar. Shaped like a miniature Eastern European country, I was puzzled at its sudden presentation. It didn’t hurt at all. I don’t smoke, so I couldn’t have dropped ash on my lap. How did this one spot change colour with no action on my part? Was my skin trying to send me a message? Why would only this one mark—in a place that no one else could see—transform from olive-brown to purplish pink? Would the shadow be gone the next day? What colour would I be then?

Critic Jason Zinoman once wrote, “Some artists argue that making light of prejudice, or turning purveyors of it into absurdities, robs hatred of power.” I decided to try it. I started to keep track of the almost weekly conjectures on my race, on my ethnicity, on my identity, on my skin, on myself—with the goal of writing jokes.

Here in Toronto, just last winter, I was taking a walk with my friend M. and trying not to slip on the ice. A woman approached us; her bright-pink lipstick and shock of red hair was sending some intense vibes even before she started shouting. Ignoring the other pedestrians, she stomped up to us and blocked the sidewalk. “Hey you! Iranian terrorist bitch!”

“My glasses are fogged up,” M. said. “Is she talking to you?!” I realized that yes, she was.

“You’re gonna try to walk right by me like that?” the lady screamed. “You and your friend are gonna ignore me? I know your kind, you bitch! You’re an Iranian terrorist!”

I hurried us into the drugstore and stopped for a breath. The security guard shrugged her shoulders at me, having witnessed the entire encounter through the plate-glass window. “Oh my god, that was so weird!” M. exclaimed.

We collapsed into giggles. Because really, what else can you do but laugh?

At home that night, I tried out my new strategy. I recounted the story to my husband and amped up the comedy—the lipstick, the flaming red hair (a wig?), the fogged-up glasses, the security guard (how incompetent!). I try to make it into a tight five, ending with, “I wish racists were a little more literate about geography! If anything, she should have called me an Indian terrorist, not Iranian, am I right?”

My husband didn’t laugh. In fact, he said I joke too much about terrible things.

I totally get what he’s saying. Maybe comedy downplays our trauma. Maybe it does a disservice to this kind of violence. In fact, I recalled that my father was mugged when I was four years old. He was in Brooklyn, and a few white people shouted that he was at fault for the Iran hostage crisis. As I told my husband the story of my dad, we reflected on cross-cultural solidarity and intergenerational harms.

But then things felt too deep and I couldn’t help myself. “My dad and I should do Ancestry.com. I mean, maybe there’s something Iranian in our genes after all!”

My husband laughed, but not too hard.

I think I am just open, like a book, to your interpretation. I’ve been a person from almost every continent. I’ve been “an honourable white person” but also a Caribbean Islander, Arab, Egyptian, mixed-race, Italian, and more.

Sometimes I make you feel comfortable—I’m just like you, or like your mom, or like your aunt. You can find your home in me, see your reflection in my face, feel the trade winds when I walk by, smell the spices of the market when I get in your cab.

But other times, I make you feel hate. I’m just like those people, the ones who invaded your country, who stole something from you, who are taking your son’s job or taking over your neighbourhood.

And once in a while, once in a blue moon, you see me for the proud Indian that I am. Like that one morning in Toronto in 2012, when I was freezing cold and walking my kid to day care. I had on my favourite North Face sleeping bag coat and was chatting it up with my four-year-old.

Once in a while, once in a blue moon, you see me for the proud Indian that I am.

I felt someone following me, and turned around to see a white man walking a few feet back. It was clear that he was quite disturbed as he stared at me and kept following. I walked faster, and he did, too. I passed the turn-off to my kid’s day care because I didn’t want the man to see where we were going. I heard him start to speak, soft at first, then louder.

“I’m going to skin you alive.”

“You think you’re so special?”

“I’m going to kill you and send your body back to India.”

And it kept going like that for a few blocks. I knew it wasn’t really his fault, but my heart still raced and I started to sweat. Eventually he got tired and left us. By the time I showed up to the office, I was shaken. My co-workers sat me down, gave me some water. I tried to explain what happened. They looked stricken and I felt the burden of the story I was relaying.

“Don’t worry, guys, I’m feeling a lot better now… ” I stopped for a second. “There’s always a silver lining. Even with this puffy coat on, he still recognized that I am Indian!”

Everyone laughed, but not too hard.

About the author

Archana Sridhar is a South Asian writer and university administrator living in Toronto, Canada. Archana focuses on themes of meditation, race, motherhood, and diaspora in her poetry and flash writing. Her work has been featured in Barren Magazine, Guest, Funicular Magazine, and elsewhere. Her chapbook "Renderings" is available through 845 Press, and her chapbook "Our Initials Were U.S.A." is available through Ethel micro-press. Archana's writing can be found at www.archanasridhar.com.