Welcome to Browntown
“Your new friends are all brown. Like, all of them.”
After my first semester of college, I heard a lot of that from my high school friends. I guess I can’t blame them. After all, I once prided myself on being the atypical Indian girl in the group. I defied most stereotypes: I could wear strapless dresses to Homecoming, I was allowed to have dates to dances, my parents let me sleepover at my friends’ houses even if they weren’t Indian and, when I hosted movie nights or pool parties at my house, we had a stock of chocolate chip cookies and other “normal” snack foods. I was just like the rest of my friends. I loved listening to country music, celebrated Christmas and seamlessly wove “y’all” into my sentences. Being as close to the definition of “white” as I could without actually bleaching my face served a purpose too: It gave me a rather ridiculous superiority complex over all of the other Indian kids in my school who didn’t leave their pack.
When I got to Duke, I went about making friends like any other freshman. I got to know the kids in my dorm, met people at various clubs, tried out for a dance team and made an attempt to plug myself into a new home. While things like joining an Indian dance team or working on Awaaz may seem like obvious attempts to become an active member of “Browntown,” I did not plan on becoming best friends with a group of kids that happened to include many Indians. So, when friends from home would comment that my pictures looked straight out of India or joke that I was finally acknowledging the Indian in me, I shockingly found myself a bit embarrassed. It didn’t occur to me to point out that their pictures didn’t have their usual token Indian girl anymore. I never wondered why it was OK for them to label my friend circle as racially or ethnically exclusive, while theirs were simply the norm. Instead, I began questioning my sense of balance and wondering why I was suddenly best friends with “the Indians.”
My insecurity peaked when I was rushing SLGs with my friends and was grouped along with the four freshmen Indian girls. It took people a while to separate our faces and untangle our names to finally distinguish our individual identities, although I didn’t let it bother me too much. I mean, four white kids could rush together but they wouldn’t be identified as “the white kids.” It’s only with minority students that ethnicity becomes the first label.
I even found myself paying attention to the Indian girls on campus that had more white friends than brown friends, or a few of the Indian guys I knew who chose to rush fraternities. I was almost nostalgic observing them, because they reminded me of my old self. Maybe I had chosen the wrong path. Maybe I should have avoided the Indian scene altogether. Maybe I made a mistake.
It wasn’t until this past summer that I had the chance to really process my freshman year. When I met a few new friends during summer session, we would recap our different experiences and laugh at our stories of all-nighters in Carr, Shooters mishaps, why we chose Duke and how we met our best friends during freshmen year. When I described meeting friends, I talked about how two of them allowed me to sleep in their room after knowing me for all of five minutes. Or bonding over our first Target run together that ended in excessive spending and squealing over new Tupperware. Or becoming best friends with the kid who tried and failed at as many dance tryouts as I did. Or finding the one person that could sleep through an organic chemistry lecture and still tutor me afterward. Out of the many different stories, traits and quirks I would share about my friends, their race just never came up. I didn’t refer to them as my brown friends or my white friends.
Yes, I am admittedly more comfortable talking to my mom on the phone in Hindi now or playing Bollywood songs while studying. But aside from that, my friends are my friends because they are awesome. Race or ethnic identification is not the defining factor in our friendships, and judging others for the color of their friend groups creates unnecessary insecurities. Though I may have been initially embarrassed by my “Browntown” assimilation, I now realize that I am proud to call these people my best friends and, even more, my family. Every day at Duke has served to challenge my sense of self and challenged me to feel more comfortable in my own skin. So whether my new friends are white, brown or purple, it shouldn’t matter to me or to anyone else.
Nandita Singh is a Trinity sophomore. Her column runs every other Tuesday.