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.”