Examining My Brown Privilege: Confronting Otherness Through an Assumption About Homeownership
- I am by some definitions an outsider-turned-insider. But I've never experienced outsideness overtly until a white postman injected otherness into my morning.
The sun shines magnificently on the wrap-around deck of our new home in Westchester, New York. It’s been only about a week here, and I miss Brooklyn, where we moved from, and the hum of the city in which we lived for nearly two decades. I am still in the larger New York City area and yet the suburbs — quieter, bucolic, seem a world away.
Our new ranch-style home, its many rooms, and sprawling backyard feel vast and spacious compared to our beautiful yet constrained Clinton Hill apartment. School hasn’t started yet. I’m standing on the deck and scolding my eight-year-old son about an ongoing tussle with his younger brother.
Then I hear a voice saying hello. A man walks up, around the house, introducing himself as the postman. We talk about his mail route, the portion he walks on foot, which includes this home, and he shares a few mailbox tips.
As he wraps up the conversation, he asks me to let the owners know that he had come by. And please would I also give them the tips he’d shared with me?
“I am the owner,” I say with a slight edge in my voice.
He recovers gracefully and goes on to chat a tad more. But he leaves me with an unease I have rarely felt in my many years living in America, crisscrossing the country both as a journalist and an avid traveler.
Yes, technically I am a brown immigrant, a graduate student turned New York-based international journalist and author. I am by some definitions an outsider-turned-insider. But I’ve never experienced outsideness overtly. Not while conducting hundreds of interviews as a journalist, from members of Congress to celebrities, from CEOs to international leaders. Not while staying at Airbnbs, walking in the park, giving birth twice in this country, or buying and selling property.
My accent still has a distinctively Indian tone even though it’s acquired a global tinge. Over the years, I roll my r’s a little more, changed the way I pronounce a few words like “schedule.” But I’ve never deliberately tried to sound American. I haven’t felt the need to. Truth be told, out of loyalty to my Indian roots, I resisted changing my accent even when it would have been more convenient to do so in my line of work — communication, journalism, television production, and reporting where time is precious, especially with the bigwigs, and would be wasted if my questions were lost in translation. I do remember Brad Pitt on a red carpet once, leaning forward, straining to understand the intonations of my words amidst the din of photographers and reporters shouting out questions. But he was gracious in his patience, and I’ve always remembered that moment.
I’ve been comfortable in a wide variety of rooms and settings–at news conferences, behind the mike, inside the White House, at the U.S. State Department, international summits, political conventions, and yes, overall in this country. I will be lying if I said I never felt a trace of otherness, but it was usually fleeting and rarely stuck, especially as a New Yorker, a Brooklynite, with the privilege of living in a cauldron of diversity.
But was that ease fuelled by my naivete and privilege growing up in India as part of the so-called upper-middle class? Did I come from privilege into privilege as a journalist in this country? Not having experienced what it must have been like growing up here as a minority, not having faced any bullying or racism in school or college.
The postman didn’t say anything derogatory. Or make a big deal about his assumption. Yet he left me with questions.
My mind returns to what I was wearing that morning. As it happens, I was dressed in casual track pants and a t-shirt, geared for writing and parenting from home. But why should I even go there, to my clothes? And what in turn does it say about my assumptions about how we choose to dress or not? That to be accepted as the owner of this house, in this neighborhood, I must also look a certain way. And what way is that, precisely?
I get it. Assumptions are how we navigate life. It’s predicated into the human mind, into evolution even. Our sorting abilities helped us survive as a species and that translates into our modern assumptions about race and class.
My friends and family tell me that he might have said that because although I’m Indian, I look like and am often assumed to be Hispanic. If that was the case, his assumption is still equally troublesome, that a Latina woman couldn’t have been the homeowner here. Hispanic. Black. Brown. Native American—so many “other” shades and hues.
It is the otherness that the postman injected into my morning, an assumption around who traditionally owns land and property in this country, and in what form and where. What startled me was his easy confidence about it all. So, am I being oversensitive to give it so much thought?
But the thing is assumptions can carry barbs.
And what assumptions am I making when I see someone on the street? When I ride in a cab? Meet delivery persons or my white postman? The list of our interactions across economic, racial, political, cultural, religious, ethnic, moral, and other lines are long. We often make conjectures without even being aware of them.
The lesson here is not just about the postman and his preconceived notions. I am now seeing this as an opportunity to dig deeper and confront my own suppositions as well, including my brown privilege in these United States of America.
Natasha Israni is a New York-based author and international journalist. Before venturing into fiction with her first novel “Monsoon Gods,” she spent over 15 years as a journalist juggling exclusive interviews, breaking news, and live shots, with prior experience in Mumbai. She has written, produced, and reported on camera for leading news outlets like Reuters Video News, Associated Press Television, Times Now, and India Today. Her stories have been published in Reuters, The Quint, International Business Times, The Times of India, The American Bazaar, and Khaleej Times. As a speaker, she has moderated various media panels, such as TiEcon New York and Fuqua School of Business, Duke University. She holds a Master’s in Broadcast Journalism from New York University on a Ford Foundation scholarship, and a Master’s in English Literature from Mumbai University. She can be reached at Website, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook.
Beautifully written Natasha- the world whirls on assumptions and I think you bring out the defining line between being assuming and being judgemental.
Beautiful piece of writing. Love it!
Thanks so much, Shalini! Natasha.