Brown White Black: Stories of an American family.

“We check all the boxes,” said author Nishta J. Mehra (far left, with Shiv and Jill).

“We check all the boxes,” said author Nishta J. Mehra (far left, with Shiv and Jill).

I have just finished reading Nishta J. Mehra’s new memoir Brown White Black: An American Family at the Intersection of Race, Gender, Sexuality, and Religion, and the word I can’t get out of my head is BRAVE.

 This collection of essays, both deeply personal and solidly researched, takes the reader through Mehra’s own journey toward clarity about her identity, biases, desires and choices. While it’s possible some readers might wonder what they have in common with a first-generation, queer, brown teacher and writer who grew up in the South, this book is also a field guide to building authentic family relationships during a time when just not talking about differences can be the easiest way to get through the day.

Mehra grew up in the racially polarized city of Memphis, where “just not talking about it” is a way of life. As the beloved only daughter of two Indian immigrants, she was well on her way to fulfilling their every dream for her … until she wasn’t.

To her great credit, she listened to her heart when she fell deeply in love with her religion professor in college; that professor is now her wife. It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t comfortable. But, as Mehra writes pointedly, in one of my favorite lines in the book: “So much is riding on our ability as a society to give up the notion that we are entitled to be comfortable all of the time.”

For someone who is not part of the dominant culture, of course, comfort is not an option, and, in each of these essays, Mehra provides a window into living that life that’s as wide-open and honest as you’ll find.

She tells, painfully, of the rude and questioning glances she and her wife get when they are out with Shiv, their now 6-year-old. (They are Brown White Black, or, as Mehra calls them, a tri-color family.) When Shiv was 3, Mehra had to figure out how to respond when an older white boy on a playground said, “Black boys can’t play here.” Even ordering a coffee at Starbucks sets up a cross-cultural experience; apparently no barista anywhere spells NISHTA correctly without help and (sometimes) an explanation.

Still, you get the feeling that all of this hard work is, for Mehra, also where she finds the good stuff. The most authentic connections. The strength to keep moving forward. I hope so. Parts of this book are so searingly honest that they make me a little afraid for her. Her writing, though, is confident and intimate. She is clearly not afraid. Which is what makes this book so compelling.

Like the English teacher she is, Mehra is careful about language, both in this book and in her life. Shiv, her adopted child, was “placed with us” by his birth mother, rather than “given up.”

She and her wife Jill are resolutely truthful, especially when it comes to really difficult truths. After Shiv questions why there are child-sized shackles during a trip to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Mehra writes: “In our family we believe evil is not inherent but chosen or taught. … There is danger, I feel, in fooling ourselves into thinking that all of the people who perpetuated a slaveholding state were somehow evil, different from us, separate, removed. A comforting thought. One I have learned to refuse.”

Mehra moves her stories along quickly, and doesn’t spend a lot of time explaining ideas she thinks a reader should know about. If you don’t already know what a bindi is and its significance, look it up. If coming out hasn’t been a part or your life or the life or anyone you know, you won’t find any hand-wringing about it here.

Yet Mehra’s point of view is clear and authentic without being defensive or harsh. It’s first-gen kid training in action, in the best way. If you’ve ever stumbled over pronouns for a colleague or friend, asked to be reminded what cisgender means or found yourself wondering how to think about a child experimenting with gender identity, you’ll find help here.

Mostly, though, you’ll find stories of a warm, loving family, told in Mehra’s signature, heart-tugging style, with a focus on what it takes to raise a healthy, whole child.

Shiv, who loves to dance, wore a tutu to see his first performance of The Nutcracker, and insisted on the same sparkly costumes and elaborate makeup as the girls in his dance class when it was time for their first recital.

Mehra continues: “The morning before (the recital’s dress rehearsal), he and I set off on an adventure with the dog, tromping around the backyard lake in the mud and muck … carrying sticks, both of us pretending to be superheroes with magic powers. And then the same boy, with the same level of excitement, took a shower, got dressed up in his leggings and ballet shoes, sat perfectly still while I put makeup on him for the first time, smoothing on his foundation and lining his eyes with my black pencil. … He took one look in the mirror and told me, ‘I’m pretty, mama!’

“You are, my boy. You are.”

 

"Do better."

Photo: High Ground News

Photo: High Ground News

I hadn’t thought about him in years, the most awful boss I ever had. He was a condescending and ill-informed bully, hiding behind a shiny educational pedigree in a city – Memphis – where he clearly did not want to be. It was a scary time in journalism, and for a while, his ideas were the answer to every question about how to “save” the newspaper.

I know now that he was also a racist, thanks to a heartbreaking recent Facebook post by a former colleague.  I’m only sorry – and embarrassed – that I didn’t know it then.

As I continue to process the terrorism in Charlottesville and think about my response to the hateful Confederate statues in Memphis, I see and hear often from my African-American activist friends about how I can help, and what they need to keep going.

One thing they DON’T need is to have to keep explaining what white people can do about racism. That’s up to me.

It seems to me that the first thing I can do is own it. My privilege makes it easier for me to step away from the pain and aggression and exclusion and go back to my comfortable life any time I want. (Not necessarily easy, but easier.) But the racism and hatred that fueled the violence in Charlottesville is only a new point on a very long continuum for my black friends. This IS America. I know that now.

The next thing I can do is try to see the world around me in a new way, as it really is. Where is the exclusion? What systems don’t work for everyone? Who is being marginalized and excluded, especially at work?

The Facebook post that has haunted me tells of meeting after meeting where my friend’s ideas and input were ignored, until she was finally physically excluded in a meeting room full of people. I wasn’t in these meetings, but I could have been much more aware of the power dynamics of race that were working so painfully against her. 

Finally, I can take action, especially as a business owner. What messages do I send by where I sit and whom I speak to at meetings and social events? How do I broaden my pool of potential clients and contractors to include ALL kinds of people? If I am helping make a hire, are there African-Americans in every pool of finalists?

I also find power in the prosaic: Where do I choose to eat ... do I seek out black-owned restaurants to try? What neighborhood might I explore on my way to an appointment to get a new look at my city? Whom should I call for coffee to find out how she’s feeling about things?

To admit privilege and complicity in racist systems and seek understanding and growth is difficult and uncomfortable. But the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King is fast approaching, and here I am in Memphis. 

I have a lot of work to do.