One of the themes in Mississippi Massala is that the ties of ethnicity trump the ties of nationality. Within the first five minutes, we find out that “Africa is for Africans- black Africans,” which means that Africa is not for those who have African nationality, but only for those who are ethnically African. This statement illustrates the complex distinction between ethnicity and nationality as a well as a simple truth- not all Africans are black, and not all blacks are African (this statement works with any combination of ethnicity and nationality).
My ethnicity is the very generic “white” or Caucasian (although for the sake of this class I think I will take to referring to myself as caucASIAN-American, you know, just to belong). I do not identify (nor am I identified by others) as being of Northwestern European descent (although the blond hair and blue eyes give away the Scandinavian part of my ancestry); I’m just white. And I was born and currently reside in America, which makes my ethnic and national identification pretty straight ahead – I am a white American. Which really is one adjective too many. I could just as easily say that I am American, and since it lacks a hyphen, it is assumed that I am white. But that is a whole other topic, so let me move on and say that to be American as a nationality is fairly easy to understand: someone either born in America or that has lived there long enough to identify it as home. But only Native Americans can claim to be ethnically American, and that is not the same thing as what people mean when they say that someone is American. Thus, the term “American” is understood to singularly refer to nationality.
But a place like India has a far more complicated relationship between ethnicity and nationality. The term “Indian” has more definitions than the term “American” does. When Mina (who, by the way, is so good-looking that she looks “like side of ‘Lord have mercy’ wrapped up in some ‘Help me Jesus’”) says she’s Indian, she could be speaking about her ethnicity, her nationality, or both. It is quite obvious that she is ethnically Indian (except to Tyrone, who initially thinks she is Mexican), but by nationality she can only claim Uganda (her place of birth) or American (her current place of residence); she has never been to India. So when Mina tells Demetrius’ grandfather that she is Indian, she is referring to ethnicity and not nationality, something that cannot be done with “American.”
“Africa is for Africans- black Africans.” Despite being born in Uganda, Mina cannot claim to be wholly Ugandan because she is of a different ethnicity; she is not a black African. Part of her identity may be Ugandan, but another part is Indian, and someone could argue, if they were so inclined, that the film is about trying to reconcile those two different parts and finding a way for them to co-exist while making room for yet another part of Mina’s identity, as an American, and that part is gaining on the others quickly. She is “d. all of the above.”
There is a wholeness of belonging that having a complicated identity prevents that is behind the racial hierarchy in Mississippi that Deborah explained in her blog, as well as the ethnic nationalism of Idi Amin. In Mississippi, the whites belong most wholly, with the blacks and the Indians (“If you’re not white, you’re colored”) brawling it out for second place, while in Amin’s Uganda, blacks belong most fully, and everyone else just has to get out. In both places that Mina has lived, she has not fully belonged due to her differing ethnicity and nationality.
It is important to understand that these terms like “Indian,” “African,” and “American” are not nice and tidy; they are messy. If we do not accept how complicated and resistant to clearly-defined labels identity is, then we accept and reinforce stereotyping that paints people with only the broadest possible strokes. And if you are content to do that, then what are you doing reading a blog from a class about Asian-American literature anyway?