Book Review: Not Quite Not White by Sharmila Sen

Today’s book review is about NOT QUITE NOT WHITE by Sharmila Sen. This memoir recounts Sen’s experience of race in the United States after emigrating from India. She also shares her musings about what it means to be white and feeling “not quite” white, Black, or Asian enough.

Author: Sharmila Sen
Series: None
Age Category: Adult
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publish Date: August 18, 2018
Print Length: 224

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Official Synopsis

A first-generation immigrant’s intimate, passionate look at race in America (Viet Thanh Nguyen), an American’s journey into the heart of not-whiteness.

At the age of 12, Sharmila Sen emigrated from India to the U.S. The year was 1982, and everywhere she turned, she was asked to self-report her race – on INS forms, at the doctor’s office, in middle school. Never identifying with a race in the India of her childhood, she rejects her new not quite designation – not quite white, not quite black, not quite Asian — and spends much of her life attempting to blend into American whiteness. But after her teen years trying to assimilate–watching shows like General Hospital and The Jeffersons, dancing to Duran Duran and Prince, and perfecting the art of Jell-O no-bake desserts–she is forced to reckon with the hard questions: What does it mean to be white, why does whiteness retain the magic cloak of invisibility while other colors are made hypervisible, and how much does whiteness figure into Americanness?

Part memoir, part manifesto, Not Quite Not White is a searing appraisal of race and a path forward for the next not quite not white generation –a witty and sharply honest story of discovering that not-whiteness can be the very thing that makes us American.

My Review

Not Quite Not White: Losing and Finding Race in America by Sharmila Sen is a memoir of her childhood in India and of her experience with race after she immigrated to the United States in 1982. The first chapter mainly describes how she grew up for the first 12 years of her life in India without race. Race hadn’t been part of India’s census since 1951. Instead, in Calcutta people are categorized by a different set of labels. She describes how people identify each other’s religion, caste, and ethnic group by language spoken, gods worshipped, surname, food eaten, or whether someone is vegetarian. Colorism exists, but because skin tone varies greatly among family members it isn’t used to mark racial boundaries.

When her family began to struggle financially, they decided to emigrate from India to the U.S. During this process she realized she had been designated a race, which was a wholly unfamiliar concept. She began to realize that not all races are equal in America. So she spent the rest of her youth trying to blend into whiteness, to assimilate into white American culture.

But as she grew older she began to question: what does means to be white? Why is non-whiteness visible and whiteness invisible? Does being American also mean being white? She acknowledges feeling “not quite” white, Black, or Asian enough. She observes how she feels pressure to represent all of and be an unofficial ambassador for her culture. At the same time, she must be careful not to make white America feel uncomfortable with her not quite whiteness.

“Looking back to 1982, I now realize that race was the immigrant and I was the homeland where it came to rest.”

I thought the best parts of this book were the first and the last chapters. I particularly liked the last chapter because Sen goes from memoir to part manifesto. She claims her self-designation of Not White because it “dares to name whiteness. It refuses to fly the flag of color while allowing the dominant culture to retain its powerful invisibility.” Sen no longer wants to smile and be the entertainer or storyteller. By naming whiteness, she makes it “come down from its high perch of normativity and assume its rightful place among all the other colors.

There’s so much content in this memoir to reflect on that I fear I’m not describing it nearly as well as it deserves. It’s a complex topic (hello, Captain Obvious), but I personally find that reading memoirs helps me to understand different perspectives and experiences. It’s also important to keep in mind that one person’s experience doesn’t define the experience of an entire culture of people.

I feel Sen does a great job exploring the complexities of race from her own experiences. She does her best to recognize different viewpoints. Sen acknowledges that she lived a life of privilege in India; she uses that to highlight how people categorize each other in India vs. the U.S. Her prose is a delight to read and I found myself taking my time with it. If you’re looking for a good memoir and/or work written by an Asian American or Pacific Islander (AAPI), I highly recommend this.

Rating: 4
Content warnings: racism
Reading format: Library paperback

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