I wasn't conscious of being brown before moving to the United States. The truth is, I feel very Indian, very Assamese — not brown, because I never grew up considering myself brown. But after a year of living in the United States, through many gatherings in which I was the only person of color, I have learned better.
Once, in a reading I attended in Minnesota, I was shocked to find an up-and-coming author describe a messy, filthy location in her story as a "Third World neighborhood." I was instantly transported to the neighborhood where I had grown up. People in my city call it an oasis for the greenery in it, for the cleanliness in an otherwise polluted and dirty city. It is true, India needs to clean its cities; but what kind of privilege gives an outsider the license to paint the entire "Third World" in such broad strokes?
But I wasn't annoyed that day.
In my second year, while returning from a night class, a young boy screamed, "Darky, darky," at me from his truck. I felt amused. I told myself, "How foolish that guy is." When I told my Indian friends about it, they laughed and told me, "Welcome to America."
I wasn't really annoyed that day, either.
But I was annoyed and shaken when I realized that "race" is a bad word in a writing workshop. One day, a workshop attendee had brought in a work-in-progress from a novel set in a neighborhood dominated by a racial/cultural minority in a large U.S. city. For this article's sake, let's say it was Devon Street, Chicago, and the people in it were Indians.