008: Rani (she/her)
Rani shares how her access to education greatly impacted her life, encouraging others to push the boundaries and explore what they are passionate about. Reflecting on her own relationships and family, she discusses how issues of anti-black racism and gender expectations are pervasive in the Indo-Caribbean community.
Participant: Rani [R] & Interviewer [I]
Location: Bhuvaneshwar Mandir, Queens, NY
Interview Date: March 10, 2019
(00:00) I: Hey, this is [...]. I'm sitting here with [Rani]. We're about to do this interview, and we're here at Bhuvaneshwar Mandir on... what date? March 10th, 2019. So, well, I guess we'll start with the first question. Tell me a bit about yourself, your gender pronoun, how do you identify in terms of race, background, age, and where did you grow up?
(00:23) R: I identify like the chocolate, her and she. I identify myself brown, Indo-Caribbean, Guyanese, Indian, and American. I am 22 years old and I grew up in Miami. I was born in New York but most of my upbringing was in Miami.
(00:51) I: Cool. And, just a little bit more, is there a story from your life that you wish you could tell other Indo-Caribbean women, those who have come before you, or those who are in your life or in your future generations? Like, if you could just get into character, just tell me a story.
(01:07) R: So I think I would want to tell a story to those before me and I think I'd wanna tell them about education. I'd want those before me to know that not only did I graduate from my undergrad and earned a Bachelor's degree, but I kept going and that I got my Master's degree in social work. That it was possible, that it was hard at times, but I had the support of women around me to help me get through that. And for those before me, I feel like that was something that was never even possible, never dreamt of, because their only path was decided for them by their parents and that was marriage and kids. They were taken out of school really young, I know my mom was taken out of school really young, and I think for someone before me to see that I've accomplished so much in education would just be incredible. I don't think I'd have a story for those in my life now, but for the future generations...I think because I have no idea where the world is going to go or where things will take us, I would want them to know that nothing is set in stone and nothing has to be what anyone else says it has to be.
My little sister and her best friend have this thing they like to say all the time whenever they check in with each other. So her best friend will ask her, "How's [Rani] doing?" and she'll be like, "You know, sis is just living her best life." And her best friend texted me yesterday because they were talking last night and she asked like, "Oh, how's [Rani] doing?" Same thing, "Sis is living her best life." And her best friend texted me to tell me that she misses me and she loves me. And, in that moment I told her I was like, “Nothing is planned, nothing is set in stone.” You can literally do anything that you want to do, just don't get caught up in the routine of doing what it is you're doing now. Whether that's school, or a partner, or your family dynamics, don't get caught up in how comfortable and safe it feels, because there could be something out there waiting for you that you have no idea. Travel, go to school, do all these things that you want to do. Go eat that weird ice cream flavour, wherever it is that you want to do it. I think that's what I would tell future generations.
(03:27) I: Thank you, that was actually quite affirming to hear. You know, so you did tell someone in your present generation, so thank you. I'm just kind of curious, how do you think that your maternal and paternal great-grandfathers would have reacted to you?
(03:42) R: Oh man. So my maternal grandfather, we have a really crazy relationship because we're like best friends. His call-name is Waldo or Ivan, and I think ever since I was maybe fifteen, or probably younger, I've been calling him by Waldo. And then as I got older, we started calling each other. We would just make fun of each other. So now if I call him, he'll answer the phone, and he'll be like, "Ugly!" and I'm like, "Ugly!"
(04:19) I: (laughs) That's so cute.
(04:20) R: Or I'll call him Waldo. I don't remember the last time I called him "Grandpa". It's just like, blech. So we have a good relationship, and he is the funniest man because I think with me...I'm one of four of his granddaughters, one of five granddaughters, but him and I have the closest relationship because I call him every day. He knows a lot about my life, and I think the reason that he is so open and receptive to what I do is because he was the exact opposite with my mom, and he saw what that did. And I think with him he realises now, things are so different, and things are changing. He's just supportive, which I feel so lucky to have, because I know that other Indo-Caribbean girls in their twenties don't have a grandfather who literally just wants to see them happy, doing whatever it is. Sometimes he'll call me, and the brown will come out in him where he'll be like, "What's for dinner?" and I'll be like "Oh, I'm making pasta," and he'll be like, "Pasta, pasta! Yuh dunno how te mek curry?!" and I'm just like "But, there's so much stuff in the pasta, it's so good!" and he's like "Pasta! Yuh eat pasta!" So he's funny in that way. I think also with him, I've checked off a lot of the boxes that he's wanted me to check off, and so I think that's another reason why he's so supportive of me doing whatever it is that I want to do. Because let's say for instance I was an artist and I didn't go to school and I just pursued my art, he might feel differently about that and me doing whatever I wanted, as opposed to now where it’s I have my Bachelor's and my Master's and I'm the only person in my family who's done that. So he's like, “Okay, you at least got your education, something that I couldn't do. Do whatever you want.” Then, you know my partner is brown, and he's happy about that, and he loves him. He loves him because his family's from Guyana, he can look at his grandparents and be like, "I know you from somewhere." And he doesn’t, but he can do that.
When I was in high school, I dated a half-Black, half-Guatemalan guy, and he was great—great relationship, everything—but he was half Black. So obviously we dated for probably a year-and-a-half when I was in high school and my grandparents never knew, because I knew that I was the favourite, but I also knew inside of me that I couldn't tell them that because then I would no longer be the favourite. It was this weird struggle between my partner at the time and my family. My parents even...I hope they never listen to this. This relationship happened after a very rocky, explosive relationship. When I got into this relationship and it’d been about six months or so and homecoming was coming round in high school and I wanted them to know. I wanted them to be a part of this relationship. I didn't want it to be like the last one. I remember telling them like, "Oh this guy wants to take me to homecoming." And mind you, he had been my boyfriend for six months at the time, but they didn't know that. He came to the house and I remember feeling so like, I liked this person a lot. He was already my boyfriend, so looking back I can reflect, but in the moment it wasn't, but I remember it was so weird when him and my dad were sitting across from each other at the table and my dad didn't feel comfortable talking to him about Guyana stories like he did with the last person or like he does now with my partner. I was like “Oh, I don't like that..but I'm gonna ignore it because I like this person.” Time passes and my parents, my mom specifically, sends the message that “We don't want you to go to homecoming with this person. What's going to happen? You're gonna like him, you're gonna fall in love with him, you're gonna get married? No, that's not gonna happen.” It was a big thing. My brother helped me convince them, let her go to homecoming with this guy, and after that they thought that we had stopped all communication. We didn't, he was my boyfriend and we continued to date for another year. I went to prom with him. My parents had no idea that I went to prom with this person. My brother did, so he had my back, but in the end, we ended up breaking up after high school. We were prepared to go into college long-distance. He was gonna be in Chicago, I was going to be in New York. My family moved out of Miami. My parents bought a house a few hours north and so we had this conversation about every time I came home, I'd have to lie to go down about why I was going to Miami and who I was seeing there. Yes, I saw friends there but he felt like he'd be a part of this lie. He was also thinking big picture like he wanted to be with me forever and all this. I couldn't tell him at that moment like, “Yes I'm gonna marry you and it's going to be perfect,” 'cause I knew it wouldn't be. You're half Black, and while that's not a problem for me, my grandfather will disown me.
After that, I like got pushed back into this idea of, “Okay, only like brown people. It's just easier for you.” Back to messages, I think that's another message that I would want to send to the future generations: Like whoever the hell you want. My little sister, we used to joke about it like, "She's not gonna bring home a brown guy, she's gonna bring home some Tommy or some Johnny, and we are going to make the most fun out of him." But now that I look back on it, I'm so happy that we made those jokes because she feels no restriction to like a brown person just because. And my parents are so open and different with her than they were with me and my brother, me specifically, that she just feels so much freedom to do whatever the heck it is she wants to do, which is awesome. My paternal grandfather, he passed away when I was twelve. So my dad is the youngest of seven, and he's the baby, and when his mom comes around you can see that he's the true baby. My dad's a strong person and he'll have a water bottle and he'll be like, “Mommy can you open this?” and we'll be like, “Are you five? Open your own damn water bottle.” So my paternal grandfather, I don't know how he would feel about a lot of the things that I currently do. One, I moved away from my family. I live with my partner. I am not married. I would wanna think that he would be supportive, because again, I ticked off a really big box but because my last memories of knowing who he was as a person, I was twelve, and at that time, my mentality was still largely impacted by the thoughts of my parents and my family, and I'm not that same person anymore, I don't really know. I would hope, but again, who knows. He might not be happy that I live with my boyfriend. (laughs)
(11:19) I: Thanks for sharing that. Just a side-note, my paternal grandfather, I called him Aja, but my mom's dad, I call him Gaga. That was his nickname. I would never call him grandpa. Up until the day he died, when I had to give his eulogy, I'd say Gaga. Everybody was just like, “Who the hell's Gaga?”
(11:42) R: I think I'm going to have to do the same thing whenever my mom's dad dies. I'm not gonna be like "Grandpa", I'm gonna be like "Ugly was so ugly!" (both laugh)
(11:52) I: So describe some messages that you learned or you were taught as a young person that no longer serve you now. And how did you resist, or how did you come to resist those messages?
(12:02) R: I think I'm going to answer the last part first because it's easier to answer. I think I came to resist a lot of the things that I had learned growing up when I was about the age of 15, 16. That was the time when I had a very explosive relationship, and I think right after that my parents, one, realized that I was going to do whatever the hell I wanted, and they could not control it the way that they wanted to. But also, at that point, a lot of what the community had said or had imposed on me, whether it was through mandir or just through family gatherings, a lot of that had stayed with me. But when I was 15 is when I started to be like, “Oh wait, Auntie so-and-so, I don't care!” And I think it was that age when I stepped out of those messages of “What will the community think? Hasan Minhaj! Log kya kahenge?” What will the community think? What will they say about your family? What will they think of how your parents raised you? I think I continued to stick with the idea of, those people that everyone's so worried about pleasing...one, when they aren't pleased what do they do? Nothing changes, they're still the same people. The way that they act towards you is still the same. When they're not pleased, are they fake towards you or are they just not communicating with you? And then it was also the idea of like, I don't live with you, I don't see you every day, I don't talk to you every day. It was different when it was coming from people who knew me and who cared about me truly, but from people like aunts, who I don't even know, just from mandir who were like, “Oh my gosh, you're dating that boy? He's so bad! Oh, you're so good!” And I was like, I don't care though! You don't know him, you don't know me that well! You just know us at surface level and I think one of the biggest messages was that one, like I don't really care what the community thinks. The only people whose opinion matters to me are mine at the top, and then the people who are always thinking of my best interests: my parents, my siblings, my partner, my grandparents. No one else really mattered. My best friends. So not thinking about the community and then not feeling like I had to be on this specific path.
I think one of the reasons that those relationships, when I was younger, were so hard to let go of was because my parents, my grandparents...they didn't have multiple relationships, right? They had like half a relationship and then they got married. So I was like, wait but I'm in this one relationship. I need this person. This is the person that I—agh! And I was like, hold on, you're not gonna die until you're 200 years old! You don't need to do this right now. Get outta here! Go do whatever you want! So I think those messages were so important to let go of because I know that my sister was watching me through all of that and I think that's a bigger reason that she feels like she is the strongest, most independent seventeen year old that anyone will ever meet. She'll hate me for saying this but, she recently had a best friend falling out, and I reflected on how if that happened to me when I was in high school, because of the mentality that I was in, I would've been begging for that friend to come back. I would've been like, “I need you!” For her, it was, “I don't need you though.” We had this fight and I don't need to exert all this energy when I feel like you've already given up, or that like the fight was over something big like trust. I have so many years left. I also have so many other friends, like okay, goodbye. That was one of her best friends for maybe four-ish years or so, so it was a big chunk of time. I think the family took it a lot harder than she did because we are so caught up in this like, when you start relationships, you give them your all and it's just how it is. But for her, I love that she has the mentality of, “Well, I gave it something but it didn't give me what I needed in return so it's not serving me and I'm gonna put it away now,” and I love it because I know that she's gonna be the same way with her relationships, and that makes me so proud because for me, that was so hard. Because my message was always, “You give it your all. You do whatever you can,” but then it also it was this idea of having to please the guy that you're with and having to do whatever made him (groan) happy and it was like oh, what about me? It was like, this thing happened, but it was like okay! Keep trying, keep going, keep giving it whatever it needs to be given until you're broken and dead.
She was talking to this guy last year or so and he moved to a different school and I was like “Oh, what happened?” She goes, "I just stopped liking him," and I was like "Oh, and then what happened?" She goes "We just stopped talking," and I was like, “Oh!” These concepts were just so funny to me. We're having lunch and I'm cracking up because I think about how different my life would have been if I had been as strong and as independent as she was. Because I was raised in such a dependent...I will never say that I am independent and I'll never say that I'm dependent at this point 'cause I'm interdependent. I can't sleep alone because I haven't slept alone. I've had roommates, and now I live with my partner, so it's like, one, I can't sleep alone. When I go home, if I'm in my room, I'll either have my dog or I'll be like, “Forget this, I'm going to sleep with [my sister],” and I'll just jump in her bed. She's like, “I need my space!” and I'm like, “I don't care, I can't sleep alone, I'm broken!” (both laugh) I think about how differently things may have shifted for me if I had that mentality of "Oh, this happened, and I don't need that, goodbye." I reflect on those relationships that really, really affected my life and how I can pinpoint a moment in that really explosive one where I should have just cut it at that point. But I didn't, right? I kept going because I was like, “Oh, I met your family, and I had been to your house, and your family loves me, and the community and everybody know—(groan). I think I saw something on Facebook or Instagram the other day, and not that any of those relationships were abusive, but it just spoke to me so much because it was so true. It was like, “Brown people don't understand that you should want to have a living daughter rather than a dead daughter, or a living daughter rather than a like—” It was something like, “You should have a divorced daughter rather than a dead daughter.” It was like, yeah. What's the point of your daughter being in a relationship that's not serving her if she's unhappy just because everybody knows, or just because they had sex, god forbid.
(19:03) I: Or they're so invested, yeah.
(19:04) R: Yeah. I've come to the realization that time does mean a lot, but there's still so much time. Yeah.
(19:12) I: That's one hell of a way of looking at it. Thanks for that. And are there any stereotypes or misrepresentations of women in your community that you think are important to challenge, given your own experiences or the experiences of women in your life?
(19:27) R: Sometimes I wonder if I challenge these stereotypes just to be rebellious. There are some stereotypes I think are stupid, right? Like women should clean the house, and women should cook, and to this point [my partner] does not. He can't cook, because he didn't have to learn, but then also he was away and he never learned to cook. So, he loves learning how to cook, and it's adorable, but I also can't fully trust him to just make a full meal in the kitchen, right? Pasta! It’s that I don't want my son to grow up that way. My son is going to be in that kitchen from two. He's going to be doing stuff because I want him to grow up knowing that he's gonna cook, but that like so is a daughter. I don't know if it was someone's birthday but we were by [my partner]'s mom's house and I was getting up to get food. I always have to think about these things, like is this the hostess in me that my mom taught me to be, like when you are at someone's house or when you're hosting something, always make sure everyone's taken care of, or if it was the brown in me. So I checked if anyone needed anything to drink, and then I asked if [my partner] was hungry and he was like, “Yeah,” and I was like okay, I can take out food for you. So I took out the food, 'cause I know how much he'd want, and then I brought it to him.
A few hours later, I think we were talking and someone said, "Yeah, I saw [Rani] took out your food,” and I was like, "I know, I'm so brown." In my head I was like, I don't mind taking out his food, and then I was like, but do I do it because I don't mind, or do I do it because I feel like I have to do it? Then I was like, I think it's the first one, because sometimes I make him take my food out. It was little things like that, where, because of our stereotypes of the woman has to do this, the woman has to serve her husband, the woman has to do this, and sometimes I find myself catching myself and being like, “I'm not gonna take out this food because that's what they want me to do! They want me to take out the food!” It's just like little things like that. I can't think of big stereotypes off the top of my head that I feel like I fall into, or that I don't combat, 'cause I feel pretty much everything, especially these big ones of the ones that are religious. I remember last year, I had a full conversation with my mom about...my sister was on her period, and I was telling my mom like, "Who cares if she's on her period! Let her light a damn diya!" and she was like, "Oh but it's unclean." I was like, "Why is it unclean!? Why!?" and she goes, "Because!" And I was like, "Don't because! It's just unclean because that's what you think. That's what people told you. Shut up. She's gonna light a diya." I was just like, that idea of, you can't do it because you're unclean and because someone two million years ago said that. Maybe they were unclean two million years ago 'cause they didn't have pads, or underwear, and you were bleeding out all over the floor. Okay, I get it, don't bleed in the mandir like that, don't drop your blood. But we have pads now, we have tampons. Should we go back and tell them that? We have to shift things to accommodate what we have. We have period underwear! It's just so much and it's just harder to convince my mom and dad of those things.
(22:40) I: Are there ways that you've seen or experienced discrimination against women and girls in your family or in your community? And do you believe that change is possible?
(22:50) R: I do believe change is possible. I think it's just a matter of women literally realizing that they don't need to do what other people are telling them they need to do. Sometimes when we have our Jahajee circles too and we have older generations of women come in—let's say we have ten women at a time, I've heard nine of them say, "I'm happy to be here. I just come to listen. I just come to sit. I just come to—"
(23:18) I: “Wah fine out wah gwan here.”
(23:19) R: Yes. Sometimes I wanna be like, “You're not allowed to do that. I wanna hear what you have to say, I wanna hear your stories. I don't want you to just sit and listen because that's how our stories get erased.” We're not talking about them. We're just going through them. We're struggling through them, and then we die and no one ever hears the story. Even my grandma, I've had conversations with her where I learned so much about her story and I'm like, I would have never guessed that because you never talk about that kind of stuff. I feel like coolie people are so easily just going about their days that no one talks about the struggles that they endured, or no one talks about their stories 'cause they feel like they don't mean anything or they feel like they're not important, or they're just like this little gap. But then I think about indentureship and how I didn't even know that that was a part of our family's history until I was older. No one told me that when I was little, like, “Oh yeah, we came on boats to Guyana. We didn't fly to Guyana.” In my mind, I don't even know how I thought about it, you just plopped up there. You came from India, then you went to Guyana. You just teleported, there was no how, or why we got there. Then you think about how Guyanese people are so resilient and strong to have survived that trip and then gotten there and worked, and that's just crazy to me.
Aja / Aaja: Your father’s father (roots can be traced to Bhojpuri)
Coolie: a term originally used by the British to describe indentured laborers from South and East Asia. It is considered a sensitive or pejorative word by some, while used colloquially or reclaimed by others.
Jahajee Sisters: a movement-building organization in New York led by Indo-Caribbean women and focused on gender equity.