Mindy recently published an article in Glamour called “Mindy Kaling’s Guide to Killer Confidence.” In the article she talks about an incident during a panel event in NYC where a young Indian girl asked her, “Mindy, where do you get your confidence? Because I feel like I used to have it when I was younger but now I don't.”
Feeling guilty that her response in the moment was lacking, Kaling wrote the article. Mindy Kaling has been asked questions about her confidence before, a lot. In an interview at Sundance 2015 she was asked, “Where do you get your confidence?”
Kaling’s response, while ironic, rang deeper for me: “My parents raised me with the entitlement of a tall, white blond man.”
So did mine.
Even before I knew what privilege or gendered discrimination was, I was raised by two Indian immigrants, academics, Type-A people - who always told me I deserved things I worked hard for and that there was never a reason to not ask for something.
“What’s the worst that could happen,” my dad would say, “They’ll say no and then what…the world won’t end.” While Mindy may have been making a quip, I see a resemblance in her experiences. She was raised in a family to believe that just because she was a woman and Indian that she deserved the same things that a “tall, blond white man did.” And I think that like Mindy, that is why I have never suffered from a lack of taking initiative, asking for what I want, and putting myself out there.
Growing up I inherently did not understand why people had issues of self-worth and confidence when it came down to the things like applying for internships, auditioning, or asking for things they wanted to pursue academically or personally.
I went to an Ivy League college (Dartmouth) where I never questioned that I belonged there or that I deserved to be there. Did I have self-doubts? Yes. Did people hurt my feelings? Yes. Was I harassed as a woman and as a person of color? Yes. But when it came down to asking for things that I wanted to pursue personally, professionally, or academically, I never backed down from asking, knowing that the worst that would happen would be a big fat, “No, we don’t want you.”
So before people reading this assume I am arrogant, privileged, or ignorant, I am not writing this to talk about my own confidence. I wanted to write this because I want everyone – especially those who are not tall, white men – to channel their inner entitlement.
Kaling, also a Dartmouth alumna, often uses witty cynicism to highlight racial and stereotypical issues both at our alma mater and in her professional and personal life. She uses many of her own lived experiences in her work and is often criticized for it. But I counter with the fact that maybe Mindy is channeling her inner white male – the one that has given her the confidence to forge ahead in a world where she is either lauded as the “first” or criticized for not shouldering the entirety of the [insert community - South Asian, woman of color, first-generation, femme, etc] in her actions.
When I first entered college, I emailed every professor who was doing research that I was interested in with a blurb about myself and a resume. I was 18 years old. I had some experience, but obviously not that much. So what? Maybe 5 out of 10 said they didn’t have a space or that I didn’t have the right background. But there were some that responded and one said she would love to meet with me. This professor eventually became my major advisor and a mentor throughout my time at Dartmouth. She helped me find my academic passions in anthropology.
I can give you 10 more examples of this happening in my life in different ways whether it was personal or professional. And it’s not because I am lucky or just unnaturally blessed. Trust me, I’m not. It’s because I put myself out there in a way that is often unexpected for me as a woman of color. Maybe it takes others by surprise or they are intrigued by my actions. I take up space, or at least ask to take up space, unapologetically because I was raised to believe I could and should if that meant reaching for the same opportunity as someone else.
So I was actually shocked my senior year of college when I was in a conversation in class with two friends of color, one female and the other male, who were shying away at emailing professors because they didn’t want to “waste their time.” I spent about an hour drafting emails with them, urging them to press send because "what’s the worst that could happen?"
Before you label me as a gunner, which maybe I am - I don’t label myself. I’m just Vaidehi. I’m curious, I like to explore new opportunities, and learn all the time. That is usually my impetus for “asking.” It has been other people who told me that my actions and personality did not match up with the petite, introverted, Indian woman who likes to wear bright colors and talk about reproductive health on first dates (true story).
Here’s the thing. There’s a fine line. You don’t want to raise a child who is so entitled that they believe that they are privileged because they deserve to be, or because they are better than other people. Rather, the understanding I was brought up with is that I as a person could attain opportunities that I wanted and worked hard to achieve. Asking, in my family, was never a bad thing.
However, my parents also made it clear that a lot of people also worked hard, took the “right” steps, and that they still did not have the privileges that I did. So while I was raised to be have self-worth and self-confidence, I never believed that having the things I did made me better than other people who did not or that I deserved them more. I simply believe that I deserve them just as much as anyone else.
It took me a long time to learn how to balance my confidence with an understanding of how my body, gender, skin color, and socio-economic place, and family structure greatly affected my ability to actually have the kind of entitlement Mindy describes.
The key here is that I don’t have all the privileges of a straight white man, because if you didn’t know already, I am a woman, I am an Indian immigrant turned US citizen raised in America, and because the world does not see me as a white man. So what if I see myself as having the opportunities as one? I deserve it (or so I believe) and that has opened up a lot of doors for me.
I also understand that there are complexities to this issue that I am not addressing because this piece could be unpacked into a long book if we went into things like the Diaspora creating disparate cultures, immigrants vs. resident populations, race, gender, education, and family.
But my main point here is that to a degree we should also espouse a sense of confidence that comes from what Mindy has essentially coined “white man entitlement” syndrome. So women, maybe you should take up more space and stop apologizing for doing so because you deserve that space as much as anyone else. As a student of color, you should definitely feel that it is your right to take advantage of opportunities that an institution offers.
I deeply enjoy being who I am with all the labels and I would never trade my lived experiences. However, I am keenly aware that my sense of “white man entitlement” has gotten me into places and opportunities that I would not have achieved had I really sat down and thought of all the inherent inequalities I face for being me. And without discounting the experiences of others that I cannot and do not understand intimately, I urge you to channel a little “white male entitlement” the next time you feel you can’t ask, don’t deserve it, or don’t think you’re good enough. Because you probably are, and even if you’re not “right” for the job, the team, or the show – taking the initiative is half the battle.
That may be the more important lesson to learn.
Image: Wikimedia Commons / CC