White People, Please Stop Asking People of Color Dumb Questions

In her new collection of essays, writer Scaachi Koul doles out some free advice. It’s spot on and hilarious.

Picador Books; Barbara Simkova

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Scaachi Koul‘s writing has it all—a gut-busting sense of humor, clear-eyed honesty, and striking introspection that she jokes is a symptom of narcissism.

In her debut book, a collection of essays titled One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter, Koul, a culture writer for BuzzFeed, applies her sharp wit to tricky issues of race, culture and identity: what it means to be “lighter” than other Indians on a family trip to India, for example, and how she balances her life with her conservative South Asian parents’ expectations. I called Koul and we had entirely too much fun talking about women’s words, finding boldness, and pubic hair, of course.

“I have the unfortunate inability to be quiet, and it did not serve me very well when I was a kid.”

Mother Jones: Part of what you talk about in the book is existing in spaces where you feel unwelcome in. It seems like you manage to be really outspoken in those spaces—where do you find that sort of boldness?

Scaachi Koul: I have the unfortunate inability to be quiet, and it did not serve me very well when I was a kid. I used to get in trouble all the time for…actually, the same stuff I get in trouble for as an adult. In my later life, it’s been beneficial, but when I was younger I didn’t know how to control it or what to do with it. I’m not sure it’s so much about finding boldness as it is about retaining control at this point, because being mouthy has never been my problem. That’s very easy for me. But now I think a lot about when it’s worth it and what I’m doing it for. When you’re a kid, it’s really obnoxious because you’re just being a dick all the time. I think that’s probably the same case with being bold or bossy or mouthy. Those things are great to have, but if they are uncontrolled and wild, it can hurt you in the long term.

MJ: It must be kind of gratifying to be able to turn your obnoxious qualities from childhood into a way to make money as an adult.

SK: Yeah, why not, right? Listen, I would also like to buy a boat. So why not try to make a profit?

MJ: What made you decide to write the book?

SK: It’s a delicate balance of narcissism and self-interest and money and the hope that you can write something and other people understand it. I write for the internet all the time, but there is something very different about writing a book that you’re asking people to buy. It feels like a different beast. But you hope that you write this thing that appeals to people in this really meaningful way. I grew up on the internet, but the things that formed my understanding of the world and made me feel less isolated were books. That’s the altruistic answer, and then the other version is, “Oh, I’m obsessed with myself.”

MJ: I feel like I’ve been reading more and more books that are memoirs or essay collections from really incredible women—I don’t know if more are being produced or if it’s just what I’ve been hungry for, so it’s what I’ve been feeding myself. Have you been reading that sort of thing, or have you been feeling intimidated or empowered by those works?

SK: While I was writing the book I avoided other memoirs, because I don’t want to get distracted or pick up somebody else’s voice. So for the year that I was working on it really heavily, I didn’t read anything else, and that was actually around the time that Lena Dunham and Jessica Valenti’s books had come out. I know that right now it feels like there’s so many memoirs by young women in particular. I don’t know if it’s that there’s more—I think there’s just been a shift on the way we talk about them, and I think the internet has shaped that. I also find that for every dude who’s really dismissive of what I’ve written, there are five women who are like, “No, I get it. Don’t worry about it. It makes sense to me.”

“For every dude who’s really dismissive of what I’ve written, there are five women who are like, ‘No, I get it. Don’t worry about it. It makes sense to me.'”

MJ: The book is really vulnerable in places. Did you grapple with a lot of anxiety while you were writing it?

SK: I had some anxieties about my family reading it. For one, I don’t really want my parents to read about my weird, gross body. My brother read it and he immediately was like, “This is gross. There’s so much about your vagina in here.” I’m like, “Yeah, tough. Deal with it.”

MJ: Men have been writing like that for a long time.

SK: Exactly. I have had to listen to you talk about your penis for 30 years. Get over it.

MJ: I saw your tweet about your parents having read the book.

SK: My mom read it and she was appropriately sad and confused. We didn’t talk details or anything. She said she liked it, but she was clearly quite bummed out about portions of it. My dad hasn’t read it, because he knows that it’ll give him a heart attack, and I don’t think his body can take it. So he’s making a wise decision. I abide by that policy of writing about your family as if they’re all dead. So with the exception of changing some names, that’s pretty much how I handle things, in that I can’t control your perception of what you think happened. I only have my version. I’m sure there’s stuff in there that they disagree with, but I don’t think there’s anything in there that’s libelous. I don’t think they’re going to sue me.

MJ: You also write quite a bit about existing as a woman on the internet. Any advice for outspoken ladies who want to use Twitter without losing their minds?

SK: It’s so tricky. I don’t know of a social-media entity that’s really invested in how women and girls are treated. I can only speak to media Twitter, which is a very specific section of the internet. But for the women that I talk to who are in media and who use Twitter, I always hear from them that they have this anxiety about going private because they feel like it’s antithetical to the point of it. I don’t understand that at all. If you feel like you don’t want to play, don’t play. Go private. Don’t use it. You don’t need to really use it at any great capacity if you just want to tweet your work and go home, that’s fine. I like the format. I think it’s fun sometimes. But I also recognize that it can be deeply unfun, and I had a year of really not understanding why I was using it at all. I could not see any benefit. I was exclusively getting yelled at and I didn’t feel like my work was getting promoted in any way. It was just like people had access to me in this really awful way.

I have friends who do not really use the internet beyond like Google and recipes or sometimes they read the news on it and I guess they have Netflix. And that to me is so weird. Because I use it for everything. And they go to the bank. That’s crazy to me. They go to the bank? Adorable.

MJ: That’s quaint.

SK: It doesn’t make any sense. But you should have people like that in your life, because when you go to them and you’re like, “Oh my God. I just found out that there’s like some text thread going on about one bad tweet that I sent,” they look at you like you have landed from another planet. They will bring you a perspective that will give you some comfort. Which doesn’t mean that the abuse you’re dealing with isn’t real. And it doesn’t mean it’s not serious, but at the same time it can give you some comfort, because there are people everywhere who are not using the internet like we are using it.

MJ: I also really appreciate your style of clapping back at trolls.

“I would really love to stop explaining why it’s obnoxious when they ask me where I’m from and I say, ‘Calgary’ and they say, ‘No, where are you really from?'”

SK: That’s something else that like sometimes it’s funny and sometimes it’s really not. There are days where they say things and it cuts you to the quick and you don’t have anything funny or witty or cute to say in response. It took me a while to remember that I didn’t actually have to answer all of them. Sometimes when I have responded to them, I have felt myself starting to unravel. I’ve had friends send me notes being like, “Hey, you sound crazy.” This was like funny or whatever, but you sound insane.” And then I have to go back and I’ll read it again and be like, “Yeah, this is nuts.” Get off the internet. Leave your phone at home and go outside and go do something in the tangible world, where nobody knows what your Twitter handle is.

MJ: It’s a good friend that will tell you when you’re being crazy on Twitter, though.

SK: You need those people who tell you to like shut your pie hole.

MJ: Let’s talk about the things you wish you didn’t have to say to white people.

SK: Oh, god. I could write a second book about the things I wish I didn’t have to explain to white people. I wish I didn’t have to explain why they have to pronounce my name correctly or spell it correctly. I’m very tired of explaining that making jokes about my name sounding like Sriracha isn’t funny because it actually doesn’t. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s not funny. I don’t get it. I would really love to stop explaining why it’s obnoxious when they ask me where I’m from and I say, “Calgary” and they say, “No, where are you really from?” I would love to not have to explain where Kashmir is because they will press me and ask me again, and I’ll say that’s where my family’s from and that’s also not satisfying. I would love to stop explaining why I don’t really enjoy Indian weddings. I would like to not have to tell people that I don’t know how to thread eyebrows. They think all brown girls know how. By the way, I’ve never even gotten my eyebrows threaded. My mother went straight to waxing because my brows are formidable. There was no like, “Oh, we’ll use this gentle threading process.” No, no, no. We’ve got to use chemicals.

MJ: Your niece has such a major presence in the book. What do you hope she’ll gain from it if she reads it when she’s older?

SK: I signed it for her, assuming she will read it when she’s like 65. Her mother said she would give it to her when she’s 16, which is probably a better, more realistic age. But that’s only in 10 years. I hope she gets some context about our family that she won’t otherwise have. It feels so weird. I feel like I gave her my diary and I was like, “Good luck.” I don’t know how eager my 17-year-old niece will be to read about like my pussy hair, but I guess she should have that option.

MJ: I mean, presumably she’ll have some too.

SK: To be honest she’s seven and I’m already talking about my pubic hair with her, so at this point I don’t think it’s going to be that much of a shock. She asked when it came out if it was about her and I was like, “Yeah, pretty much.”

MJ: Smart kid.

SK: Well, she, like her aunt is a narcissist, so we’ve just got to make sure everything’s about us. I hope it gives her some understanding of a portion of her. I’m very curious about what her life is going to look like. I worry a lot about her growing up to be self-loathing the way I was. I was really self-loathing about being brown when I was a kid. I really resented it. And I hope that she doesn’t feel like that about herself as she gets older. My parents are there and they sort of pull her into this version of her identity. I hope she doesn’t hate that. And if she does, then hopefully the book will help reverse some of it or give her something to like.


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