Off-Centre | Society

What does Black Lives Matter have to do with the Indian matchmaking industry? A lot

Leah and Kendall Cliatt   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

At first, New York-based Angelica Razack wouldn’t allow herself to fall in love with the handsome law student she had just met. John Francis was black and she did not want to ‘disrespect’ her parents. Angelica is a second-generation South Asian American law student with roots in Guyana.

Leah Cliatt, a Gujarati who lives in Philadelphia, kept Kendall Cliatt, her African-American boyfriend, a secret from her parents for as long as possible.

That South Asian parents are deeply involved in the love lives of their adult children is a bankable cultural trait of great interest to the world. It’s the reason why global audiences have binge-watched Netflix reality show Indian Matchmaking, unleashing a meme fest in its wake. Hidden inside the storyline of matchmaker Sima Taparia’s diaspora clients — desi parents looking for desi partners for their children — is another untold story.

While the show suggests that second- and third-generation Indian-American children have imbibed their parents’ point of view totally, knocking it back like a round of shots at a bachelor party, what happens if you’re not that desi American? When you have not swallowed whole and entire your parents’ training to fall in love only with a culturally appropriate person? And what if the person of your choice is black?

Vicious backlash

The joy with which Indians back home recently appropriated U.S. Democratic VP nominee Kamala Harris as their ‘own’ ebbed when they learnt of her Jamaican-American father. And not so long ago, a famous Carnatic singer was trolled viciously on social media because her daughter had married an African-American. So what does Black Lives Matter have to do with the Indian matchmaking industry? A lot.

 

Leah and Angelica tell me their story of being part of a black-Indian or ‘Blindian’ couple in the U.S. at a time when white Americans are struggling to come to terms with the structured racism prevalent in their country to this day. And when many Indian Americans are finally looking their parents in the eye and asking them to rethink their stereotypes. Gen Y of Indians, long known as the model minority, is finally done being ‘model’. Speaking out for the rights of black Americans, they are challenging the tired living-room rhetoric of ‘We are also a minority but we worked hard, Barack Obama became President, how can you say there is discrimination?’

While in some families, dinner table confrontations can get heated, in others it goes beyond that. It is about love, their future, and sometimes a tough choice between their partner and their family. For Leah, a Gujarati-Christian American, and Angelica, an Indo-Caribbean American, it has meant that things might never be the same again between them and their families. But it’s a chance they were willing to take.

Angelica blushes on our Zoom call and laughs as John Francis, her lawyer fiancé, describes how they first met. “She is one of those nerds that sits in the front of the class and I am one of the cool people that sits at the back of the class. She is what we call a gunner, always raising her hand. She was very smart, very intelligent, had a lot of smart intelligent answers so I was like, you know, I need to get to know that girl…”

“Looking back, I came to the uncomfortable realisation that my dating preferences were anti-black,” says Angelica. “And while anti-blackness is something that is learned, I can still either perpetuate this sentiment, or challenge and unlearn it. There was a period of my life when I chose to perpetuate it. I actively sought out Indo-Caribbean or South Asian men through my 20s because I wanted to please my parents. I never thought about challenging their anti-blackness.”

Matchmaker Sima Taparia from ‘Indian matchmaking’

Matchmaker Sima Taparia from ‘Indian matchmaking’   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Filmy love

Leah and Kendall are now newlyweds — he, a doctor, and she, a medical student. Their love story has a filmy twist. He ‘swooped in’ and saved her from an arranged marriage. “She wasn’t supposed to be with me, she was supposed to be with a neurologist in Michigan,” says Kendall. “I kind of swooped in and ruined that.”

Says Leah, “My mother always talked about her grandparents, her parents and what was expected and how notions of family honour and respectability are very hard to break out of. I didn’t tell them for about a year. I knew how (my mom) felt about American culture and Americans, particularly black people, so I didn’t want to tell her about it until we knew we were getting married… until we were financially stable.”

Then, this year, the U.S. was torn by the Black Lives Matter protests, in which Americans, with several South Asians among them, took to the streets or to social media demanding justice for black Americans, protesting police brutality, exposing power structures and biases. How did this impact their family conversations?

“I was hoping that when I married Kendall, they would see the other side because racism is really ingrained in Indian culture,” says Leah. “I was hoping they would get rid of the stereotypes in their thinking. But there was no opportunity or curiosity on their side.”

And what about Kendall? Was he surprised, I ask. His answer was moving. Raised from boyhood to be the bigger person, his future mother-in-law’s reaction represented a childhood ‘lesson’ he had learnt early on from his own mom — that things aren’t going to fair.

“I remember when I was eight, being told how to act, how to be less threatening, how to be less scary, what to do when stopped by cops. I remember it started very early and made the world scary. At first you don’t want to believe that the world is like that. As you get older, the talk changes. Don’t get in trouble. When you go into a store, don’t put your hands in your pockets. They may think you’re stealing,” says Kendall.

Angelica Razack and John Francis

Angelica Razack and John Francis   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Escaping the box

Kendall is a doctor, the only reason Leah’s father, also a doctor, accepted him more readily. How will this young couple’s conversations with their future children change? “We want our children to grow up in a world where you don’t have to worry about the colour of your skin and where you don’t have to play by a different set of rules,” says Leah.

“We have to be there for each other,” says Kendall. “That is the only way we will be free. Otherwise if you get into this model minority thing, then you get propped up but not for the right reasons…”

John agrees. “Until the Civil Rights Act was passed, no non-white person was allowed to attend college,” he says. “Letting them put you in a box like ‘model minority’ places you in a trap because it makes you feel you have to do everything right and not end up like ‘those black people over there’. There needs to be some commonality.”

‘Blindian Project’ is an Instagram group that celebrates this commonality. It features new black-South Asian couples every day, who share their story of finding love in modern America.

The Netflix series might make you think that young Indians in America seem to be only on the lookout for desis like them, but while it’s good for South Asians to get more visibility and ‘own’ their culture, I like that Sima Aunty suggests that desi kids think a little out of the box even while within the box. While we wait for Season 2, one can only hope that Sima Aunty’s own desi-meet-desi rolodex will also change a little. And that she will include a more diverse set of prospective partners for her desis looking for love. After all, most of them didn’t find it in Season 1.

The writer is a lifestyle TV host and video content creator.

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Printable version | Apr 17, 2021 8:55:07 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/what-does-black-lives-matter-have-to-do-with-the-indian-matchmaking-industry-a-lot/article32522371.ece

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