When Meryl Streep announced that after all, we’re all from Africa, in response to the lack of color in the Oscar nominating panel, she was being completely accurate, but not entirely truthful.

When it comes to questions of race, the best strategy often is to quibble, split hairs or dissemble. Streep was pushed to a corner to justify an all-white cast that picked an all-white cast for the Oscars. There can be no comfortable truth in that.

Meanwhile, #OscarsSoWhite 2016 went down in history as another racist experiment.

Therefore, I tell Meryl Streep that we might still be Africans if a group of intrepid people hadn’t decided to go exploring to far away lands for better game. We might still be Africans if the gentler sun hadn’t blanched our ancestors’ skins. We might still be Africans if our ancestors hadn’t created boundaries and walls and religions to keep neighbors away from their resources.

In a perfectly homogenous world of us people from Africa, we would be migrating in and out of countries, utterly confident in our ability to blend into one people, choosing the shine of the sun and its golden rays of opportunity as the reasons for our homesteading.

But that’s not how it is. We are now a people of divisions and classes.

And so it reminded me of the 2001 voter registration card on which South Carolina governor Nikki Haley checked “white” for her race classification. She’s been in the news lately, endorsing Marco Rubio, and giving the Republican response to the State of the Union. True, it’s a sleeping ghost and it’s about fifteen years since the incident, yet it still brings up important questions of how we see ourselves.

As much as Meryl Streep was right about us being black, so was Nikki Haley of being white.

It’s an if-then-else tautology. First, let’s understand the voter registration categories. There’s white, there’s black, there’s Asian/Pacific Islander, Hispanic, and Native American and there’s the catchall “other.” The first two are color groupings and the next three are immigrant divisions. So does “other” fall under color or immigrant or both? Since it is unclear, let’s allot it to the immigrant bucket.

If Nikki Haley is not an immediate immigrant, in the way her parents were, she couldn’t check any of the categories of immigrant heritage specified. And so she examined the color groupings. She could well have chosen black and this editorial would have been very different. Instead, she chose the color of privilege. Was she wrong? No, not really.

Sir William Flower, a 19th century anatomist and surgeon, once explained that “physical characters are the best, if not the only, true tests of race,” and Haley’s Indo-Aryan characters, on the spectrum, have more in common with Caucasoidal traits than with Mongoloid or Negroid.

Hence, Nikki Haley is white, by default, just as we are all Africans by default.
Confused? I am too, and that’s the point. Race, as we know it, is socially constructed and works for and against us in different ways.

While Streep and Haley would probably like to believe that they are beyond the categorizations of race, it determines much of our behavior and how we relate to each other. It certainly did in their cases. Streep became the voice of an all white panel. Nikki Haley, aka Nimrata Randhawa, carefully crafted a white description just so she would have a seat at the chosen table at a crucial time in her life.

Race assigns possibilities to our future.The possibility of being noticed by the police, of finding a job, of getting a promotion, and of being “on the finish line,” to quote actress Charlotte Rampling, who suggested that non-white movie professionals perhaps didn’t deserve the Oscar nod this year.

There’s just no indisputably correct answer to who we are, and how we see ourselves, racially. It’s a dilemma that often surfaces at key moments in our lives. I believe that it’s a question of being comfortable in the colors of our past and having the patience to wait it out. For sooner or later things will change. It did for our African ancestors.

Jaya Padmanabhan is editor emeritus, contributing writer, and board member of India Currents. She is a veteran journalist, essayist, and fiction writer with over 250 published articles and short stories....