Coconut

Coconut

Coconut: the drupaceous fruit of the coconut palm whose outer fibrous husk yields coir and whose nut contains thick edible meat and, in the fresh fruit, a clear liquid.

Thank you, Merriam-Webster.

Also coconut: a person who is brown on the outside and white on the inside.

*****

I’m forty-six years old. I grew up in a non-diverse, small town in Georgia. I went to a predominantly white college in self-segregating Manhattan. I live in an on-the-cusp neighborhood in Jersey City. I’ve been called a lot of names during this lifetime. From my younger brother’s teasing “big nose” to random racists’ N-word to my corner bodega’s boriqua to a Manhattan sandwich-maker’s “stinking Indian.” I could go on. We could be here for a while. You get my drift.

None of it has ever stuck with me. Sure, there might have been a few seconds of contemplation, maybe even amusement, but never have I been incapable of moving past the words and getting on with my life.

Until this past Thanksgiving, when I attended the International Day feast at The Kid’s school, and the mother of one of his classmates called me a coconut.

She: What part of India are you from?
Me: Kerala. The southern tip.
She: Really? So am I. Where?
Me: My dad’s from Calicut and my mom is from Trivandrum.
She: A Malayali. You speak Malayalam?
Me: I don’t, but they do.
She: STARE AND A ONCE OVER, THEN Oh… you’re one of those.
Me: CONFUSED QUESTIONING LOOK
She: A coconut. Brown on the outside, white on the inside.

She said it with such authority, complete confidence. A smile on her face and a twinkle in her eye. She didn’t know me, had never met me, but from her perspective, the math was simple: I didn’t speak the language of my parents and their parents and their parents’ parents, therefore I was white. At least on the inside. At least according to her.

“Her” being a fellow Indian who much like myself, didn’t look Indian and was often mistaken for being all kinds of things non-Indian. But unlike myself, spoke Malayalam. And Telagu. And Hindi. And had done so for as long as she could recall.

In other words – or her words – 100% brown. Inside and out.

Nothing coconutty about her.

Last night my therapist and I discussed how for years I’ve felt as if I walked this fine line of being Indian, but not Indian enough for my people, and being American, but not white enough for my country. A no-man’s land of perpetual not-enoughness, a conundrum of dualities within which, after forty-something years, I’ve kind of made peace. A one-foot-in-one-foot-out state of being that others might notice, but none has ever called me out.

Until her.

And her nonchalant coconut.

Before sitting down to write this piece, I googled the term, not because I needed to know what it meant – she made clear of that – but to see what had been written by others. It has an Urban Dictionary and Wikipedia page. Plenty of blog posts and even a Guardian article discussing its use. Piece after piece by my brown brothers and sisters taking umbrage with the notion that speaking a certain way, or running in certain social circles, or holding oneself out in a specific manner, or being smart and eloquent and witty is somehow being white. As if certain personal decisions as a brown person about how you’re going to navigate your brown life is a denial of said brownness and makes you wannabe-white.

But nothing about whiteness being equated with an inability to speak one’s native tongue. No words about it being hoisted upon one by the decisions of others. And no where is coconut being tossed about by another brown person.

No brown on brown crime.

Don’t get me wrong, I know brown folks call other brown folks coconuts. I’m pretty sure it happens quite often. A girlfriend and I have joked about it and she’s embraced the title. Which is all to say that I’ve heard the word before, I just never expected anyone to turn it on me.

Mostly because I identify first and foremost as a woman of color. A proud woman of color. A woman of color who has spent a lifetime correcting people – no I’m not black, Dominican, Puerto Rican, anything-but-Indian, yes my parents are from India, yes both of them, South India to be exact – and has done so with a smile on her face because how amazing to be mistaken for a member of one of those beautiful communities and then, how much more amazing to claim my own?

Until her. And her coconut.

Brown on the outside, white on the inside.

Because what could I say? I couldn’t deny it – the fact is my parents, for whatever reason, did not teach any of us Malayalam. I know a few words, my brother and sister know nothing. So when she called me a coconut upon discovering Malayalam was as foreign to me as Chinese, I could only shrug my shoulders and fake-laugh in agreement.

I didn’t even bother trying to explain that it wasn’t my fault I couldn’t speak my native tongue, that fact mattered little to her. It was a zero-sum game where no Malayalam = white. She sized me up in seconds, then moved on.

Funny thing is, I didn’t. I still haven’t.

I think about it almost everyday. At Christmas, I tried to discuss it with my mom, casually bring it up while we all helped cook Christmas dinner. How someone called me a coconut because she and dad never taught me Malayalam. My mom listened without looking up from whatever she was stirring on the stove, and when I was done turned to my cousin and talked about bananas and oreos, and anything but my coconut.

The classic, very Indian way of brushing it under the rug.

Thing is, my rug already has too much dirt underneath. There’s no room for coconut under there, so I’m left walking around with coconut everyday, holding it in my purse, banging it around in my brain, bringing it with me to yoga class, wanting to rid myself of it, knowing I cannot.

Then again…

I do believe I saw an ad for online Malayalam classes.

*UPDATE 3.23.18: I’ve gotten many comments about the bizarre, adult bullying of the “coconut” woman. Thank you so much – I’m thrilled the piece moved folks so much they took time to leave me some kind words and encouragement. And do not worry – my forties self would never let another force me into something I have neither the time nor the inclination to do. In all honesty, I needed to tie up the piece and it seemed a witty way to achieve closure.

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9 thoughts on “Coconut

  1. What a hurtful thing for her to say. You are wonderfully talented and eloquent, qualities that aren’t owned or defined by “whiteness.” How shallow minded for her to reduce her cultural identity to one skill – the ability to speak the local language. Thank you your braving your pain with the internet beast. I hope that having done so, you’ll find a small measure of healing. This woman doesn’t deserve an ounce of space in your brain until she’s paying rent.

  2. Coconut has an East Asian cousin, banana. It’s really harmful using these terms when people largely don’t have control over their circumstances.
    And how does language = whiteness?
    I am aware of the feelings of so many 2nd genimmigrants who catch flack both here and back to their family’s country as they are never really accepted in either place. Instead of embracing the identity, there is this ‘clubhouse’ feeling you get where you’re only allowed in if you tick off so many points.

    I’m curious as to where in Georgia you grew up; I was in Savannah, then ended up north near Chattanooga, TN.

    I’m studying Malayalam online with a tutor on a page called iTalki. It’s helped a lot. But you should only do it if you want to, not because you feel shamed.

    Lastly, doesn’t Kerala mean the land of coconuts? 😉 They need a better insult.

  3. Sad, Madhuri—sad—that’s what I feel to hear you attacked in this way and angered too…what the hell do you have to do to get respect…go to a great college…become a lawyer…get your independence from a bad marriage—be a great mother…be a great writer and an incredible role model for anyone (I look up to you a lot, admire you a lot)…such rot, as the English would say—patriarchal non-sense, tribe fighting tribe…coconut, oreo—-hell, my cream-colored skin is hardly white (the color of the page I write this on) and we know how many shades of brown there are in India—from the south of your parents way up to the north—this is racist—there are no black people, brown people—you know that—it’s the colonial white people’s attempts to separate themselves, as elite, that make other colors less than—you know that—this is just one hurtful bad woman and I’ll join in and say fuck her—she can go fuck off—and I wouldn’t bother learning any new languages, you are a master of the language you use…and I love you for just the way you are and there is nothing to change…and I hope this doesn’t seem like just a lot of mansplaining here, because I really want to just say how wonderful I think you are, and how much you are cared for and not to let one mean, unhappy, angry woman get under your beautiful skin, dear Madhuri…..(Daniel B)

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