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Not Quite Not White: Losing and Finding Race in America
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Not Quite Not White: Losing and Finding Race in America

4.11  ·  Rating details ·  333 ratings  ·  60 reviews
A memoir manifesto about race, immigration and assimilation; how an Indian American woman navigated through her journey into the heart of "not whiteness"

When Sen emigrated from India to the U.S. in 1982 at the age of 12, she was asked to "self-report" her race. Never identifying with a race previously, she rejects her new "not quite white" designation, and spends much of h
Paperback, 224 pages
Published August 28th 2018 by Penguin Group
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Susie Dumond
Jun 08, 2018 rated it liked it
In this memoir, Sharmila Sen uses her experience of immigrating from India to the U.S. to explore notions of race and whiteness. The strongest part of the book is the last chapter, where she solidifies her argument and broadens the conversation. Prior to the last chapter, it lacks an engaging arc or argument for me. She introduces a lot of interesting ideas, like white men "going native" and American vs. Americanized. However, I wish her perspective had been a little more contextualized and her ...more
Oct 28, 2018 rated it it was amazing
A bold and candid 'immigrant manifesto'. Sen arrived the U.S. with her parents from India when she was twelve. Refused to be identified as a FOB, 'fresh off the boat', Sen cast off her Bengali self and immersed in striving to achieve 'whiteness'. She went to public school in Cambridge, Mass, aced it with much hard work and creative ways to learn American English, and was chosen class valedictorian the next year. Entered Harvard after high school, later got her PhD in English literature from Yale ...more
Nov 26, 2018 rated it really liked it
As a Bostonian, a light-skinned Middle Eastern American, a grandchild (and great-grandchild) of immigrants, someone who had to “tell [my] teacher the correct way to pronounce [my] name at the beginning of each school year,” and as someone who was “once ashamed to call [my] parents Mama and Baba” who later “outgrew [that] shame,” SO MUCH of this book resonated with me.

Additionally, it was very cool to read a narrative in the town it took place in.

Notable quotations on pages XII, 147 and 175 (if
Apr 15, 2020 rated it it was amazing
HIGHLY recommended

This memoir/manifesto about race identity and immigration is so good, and I'm so glad I read it. The author's story is incredibly interesting because when she immigrated at the age of 12, she went from being part of the dominant culture in India to being a minority in the United States, and she had to learn about race as part of her assimilation process. There is a lot in this slim volume about the author's growing up in India, and it's really helpful context for how she then t
Jul 19, 2020 rated it really liked it
This book really hit home. Sen's descriptions of the particularities and angst of being Not Quite Not White are sharp and astute, and compelled me to reconsider and reframe some of the experiences I've had growing up Indo-Canadian. Her argument resonates, and her theory about middle class attitudes in Indian society as predicated not on superiority but a deep-seated fear of sliding downwards, into the slums, is interesting. However, as someone who identifies more closely with being a second-ge ...more
Mar 31, 2019 rated it it was amazing
From the evocative memories of her genteel, bhadralok childhood in Calcutta, to each stage of navigating the model immigrant experience in the USA of the ‘80s, this is an insightful and moving memoir of a journey of discovery of self as much as culture and race.
Apr 03, 2021 rated it really liked it
Shelves: april
"Why do we only celebrate immigration as an arrival? Emigration is never really contemplated or made a subject in school. I suppose that is the privilege of rich nations-their children are never taught that one day they too might have to go learn a new language, eat new food, become a foreigner somewhere. Should we only teach our children to welcome strangers among us? Or should we also teach them that one day they too might be strangers in a strange land-pushed around the globe by forces of eco ...more
May 02, 2018 rated it really liked it
Sen narrates her journey from a very privileged life in India to that of a minority immigrant in Massachusetts. From the age of 12, race becomes a part of her life as she struggles to navigate the confusing journey to “becoming an American” with her foreign accent betraying her light skin. Not Quite, Not White is part personal history and part academic treatise, and while I wish it were a bit less academic, that doesn't diminish the importance of what Sen has to say.

A highlight is the section in
Melissa McGowan
Jan 21, 2019 rated it really liked it
This was an enjoyable, interesting, and quick read. I loved the parts of her story based in Calcutta. I felt transported by her multi sensory descriptions of this part of her experience. Her assimilation references were a trip down memory lane for me, and it’s interesting to consider those pop culture experiences from a child’s anthropological point of view. I loved that she used Good Times, The Waltons, Three’s Company and Dynasty to make sense of her new country. The author is very honest abou ...more
Calleen Petersen
Sep 28, 2018 rated it really liked it
This was a fascinating book to me. I cannot pretend that I know what being an immigrant is like or someone who isn’t white. This book opens a window into that world.
There are a lot of parallels between Indian caste and American race, but it was interesting to learn that race isn’t something that really exists in India. Having grown up in the U.S., I had never thought of India being in Asia, but of course it is.
A thought provoking book.
Feb 24, 2019 rated it really liked it
Sharmila Sen's personal account of her discovery of race (and commitment to recognizing herself not as a POC, but as Not White) as a first-gen immigrant to the US. She takes us from her Bengali childhood through her American studenthood to her Not White parenthood, sharply observing the role of racial assignment. It's a little unfocused here and there, but overall a bright South Asian addition to a mostly binary racial dialogue. ...more
Jan 26, 2021 rated it liked it
I really wanted to love this book but unfortunately, this book didn’t meet my high expectations. The title and the preface really resonated with me considering I am a Middle Eastern Canadian and a child of immigrants. However, the rest of the book was a little too broad for me.

The author tackles really important issues such as racism, westernization, colonialism, and social status. But this book was lacking engagement. There were issues that I feel the author could have really went into detail a
Jan 22, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This was a really well-written memoir. I think the author did a great job explaining her discovery of the concept of "race" as a new immigrant to the US in the 1980s. As a somewhat privileged woman in India, the author was used to the divisions of her world. Most of the time, she came out on top. She was able to look past the "untouchables" and slum-dwellers in her community. She never thought of racial divisions, but then she couldn't avoid them once coming to the USA. Suddenly she is aware tha ...more
Amy Ingalls
Jul 21, 2019 rated it liked it
I won this book in a giveaway. It was interesting to read of Sharmila Sen's experience as a new immigrant to America, and how the concept of Race as a way to classify and divide people was different than had been her experience in India. Of course, India has its own way of classifying and dividing, because wherever you go, people are people. Her story of trying to figure out where she belonged, and to what group, were interesting. I taught middle school in an inner city (in Massachusetts, where ...more
Oct 31, 2019 rated it really liked it
Giving this book four stars instead of the three I had planned on because of the last two chapters. Totally redeemed by the end.

I had high hopes for this book when I borrowed it from the library. The title, concepts, and description on the back cover are all right up my alley. And the last two chapters totally delivered on this. Sen does a notable job parsing the nuances of race in America and why she considers herself “Not White”, rather than a person of color.

The first half of the book though
May 07, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites, sociology
I feel I need to qualify this 5-star rating. The author presents arguments in this book in a beautifully eloquent way. There were several lines and sections that I found myself re-reading, not as a result of a lack of comprehensive, but because I felt there was more to unpack behind these sentences than could be done in a single cursory read-through.

As I continued on, I confirmed my suspicion that this is not the kind of book I can read just once. Since the topic of race relations is complex, I
Laura Czypulovski
Mar 29, 2021 rated it really liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Dec 05, 2018 rated it it was ok
The title of the book intrigued me and it was interesting to see what the author was going to say about race relations, racism, immigration, etc. Author Sen talks bout her life and times discussing what it was like to move to the United States and suddenly be forced to see what it's like to be different in the US, what is to try to become "white," navigating white-majority spaces, etc.

Initially I thought it was great. Reading about her experiences, talking about what it's like to navigate and ad
Apr 02, 2021 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2021
This is a long personal essay examining Sen's experience with class and race consciousness as she makes her way to the American dream.
A newcomer's experience of being thrown into the American politics of race and passing as white and how whiteness has been established as the standard by which everything is judged. She acknowledges her parents' coming to this country as economic immigrants with some references to forced migration of slaves. She's acknowledged some of her own privilege and her abi
Elliot Ratzman
Mar 22, 2020 rated it liked it
Are there other memoirs about race and immigrant Indian identity in America? On the order of “Between the World and Me”? I’m not sure, but this one is surely a fine introduction to the topic informed by critical race theory and the history of the Indian diaspora. These four chapters/essays on Sharmila Sen’s journey from Calcutta to Cambridge, MA focus mostly on her youth, with chapter three—on passing—perhaps being the most assignable in a class on America and race. Sen punctuates her memoires o ...more
Mar 18, 2021 rated it really liked it
Shelves: own
As a second gen immigrant I couldn’t relate fully. But being a second gen mix of Filipino and white, there were parts that hit home. Seeing as I’ve quite literally been called both not quite white and not quite Asian I had to pick this up. The bits about shedding your culture to be as white as possible, to blend and become undetectable felt too personal. I do think I got lost in the anecdotes a bit and some were hyper specific that I simply didn’t understand. But most were enjoyable and insig
Dec 02, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: multicultural
“We smile because it is the only face we can show. If we stop smiling, they will see how angry we are. And no one likes an angry black man or an angry brown woman.”

“Not whiteness dares to name whiteness. It refuses to fly the flag of color while allowing the dominant culture to retain its powerful invisibility.”

“I became a brown woman mimicking a white man pretending to be a brown man.”

"The greatest division in a society is one that makes an entire group of humans simply invisible to us."

"Real p
Matt Sautman
Jul 05, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Sharmila Shan’s background as executive editor -at-large at Harvard University Press may be a root of Not Quite Not White’s main flaw: overly-long chapters that occasionally slow down reading that seems intended for general audiences. However, what is here is a fantastic memoir-theory hybrid that interrogates the forces that compels immigrants to adopt white face as well as the silences that enable classist systems to exist. As an immigration story, Not Quite Not White shows readers what life ca ...more
Jun 16, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I read some negative reviews so I had relatively low expectations, but this was a wonderful, incisive memoir. I loved reading her memories of growing up Calcutta in the 1970s and about Bengali social divisions. Unlike other immigrant memoirs I’ve read, her analysis of “assimilation” is so strong because it was really an excavation of whiteness and how whiteness (violently) reproduces itself. I flinched at times in recognition of a white world I recognize - a marker of how truthful this memoir is ...more
Aug 23, 2019 rated it liked it
I liked reading about Sharmila Sen’s experience in immigrating from India to the US, and how she tried to find her place. I never thought about other countries not using race as a classification; however, Sen does compare and contrast it in ways to all the categories India has. I would have liked to hear more about her experiences.

*I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review*
Aug 23, 2019 rated it really liked it
This book was around 3.5 stars for me.

Sen shares an interesting perspective about race in her memoir about her experiences as an immigrant.

While she makes some valid and important points, it felt like they got a bit lost in anecdotes sometimes. I feel like the book could have been more concise or more clear up front where the book is going. That being said it's interesting to hear about a perspective on race that isn't common in North America.
Jan 22, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: giveways-won
Read. This. Book. Wow. What a thought provoking, challenging, interesting, phenomenal read. I received this book for free from a giveaway and I am so glad I did. I highly recommend you get a copy as soon as you can and see for yourself. I’m not writing anymore because Ms. Sen does a job that I could never do justice in a review. This book will sit with me for the rest of my life and completely change how I view race.
Lauren Stewart
*Received as a Goodreads Giveaway* Sharmila Sen describes her childhood growing up in India, her efforts to assimilate after moving to America as an adolescent, and her struggle to find her identity as an adult. While the book is brief, it raises excellent questions about the dominance of white culture and the pressure for people of color to assimilate.
Dushyant chipalkatty
Fantastic read for an Indian Immigrant.

This book is about me and for me! The thoughts are shocking for a white man but they get it. In India, I am now aware when I visit, status of untouchables and other religious minorities is always in question. The formation of Pakistan is now understandable but still a bitter truth.
Mar 01, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
A wry, erudite, and trenchant memoir of a young immigrant from Calcutta who first aspires to assimilate into white America, and finally reclaims the power of naming whiteness while being not-white. I kept turning the pages far into the night, propelled by a growing sense of total kinship with Ms. Sen. A phenomenal read! ‬
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“We were making a historic leap from one continent to another, yet we were an extremely risk-averse family. Many immigrants carry these twin traits within themselves and some even pass them on to the next generation. As risk takers we leap far from the safety of home. Having left the comforts of home we know all too well that there is no safety net of kinship or citizenship to catch us should we topple. This makes us cautious. We check the lock on the door three times before going out. We save more than we spend. We collect sugar and ketchup packets from McDonald’s and cannot throw anything away. At work, we beat every deadline in the office and never pass up a second gig to make extra money. We tell our children to keep their heads down, study hard, and always look for a bargain. As risk-averse immigrants, we do not rock the boat. If you were a trapeze artist without a net below you, wouldn’t you act the same way? Anything else would be irrational.” 1 likes
“And anger is no longer a heroic emotion. The age of Achilles is over. Gods and heroes no longer rage as the topless towers of Ilium burn. Now anger is a Third World emotion. Anger is a militant black. Anger is a shrill woman. Anger is a jihadi. Because we know this, many of us also hide our anger behind elaborate masks of comedy.” 0 likes
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