Island of Misfit Toys


“Why am I such a misfit? I am not just a nitwit. Just because my nose glows, why don’t I fit in?”-  from Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer

We had my first Christmas when I was six: a tree, lights, and presents, the whole shebang. I asked for Christmas because Christmas was everywhere. At school we had a tree with pretend presents under it. We made ornaments out of paper. I colored mine and brought in a picture of me from home to put in the middle. Where would I hang my ornament if there was no tree at home?

Even our Indian friends had Christmas. For as long as I could remember we had spent Christmas day at Aunty and Uncle’s house. They were Christians, as were a majority of the Indians in our community.  As far as I knew we were the only ones who were not Christians, in the whole world even maybe. Why did we have to be so different from everyone else?  We didn’t celebrate any Hindu holidays.  Hinduism is a vast religion, practiced differently by different sects, casts, and states.  There were not enough Hindus in the community  from the same region of India, with the same holidays to gather together. Anyway, I wanted presents, and trees, and cookies, and milk. I wanted a stocking, and candy canes, and a My Little Pony doll.  I wanted Christmas!

That first Christmas, my dad and I sat together on the couch in the living room watching Christmas specials on TV.  The claymation Rudolph the Reidnosed Reindeer was my favorite.  In that one, Rudolph gets teased by the other reindeer and teams up with Hermey, an elf who wants to be a dentist. They run away from Christmas Town and end up on the Island of Misfit Toys. The toys there are sad because no one wants to play with them.

I thought they were beautiful and funny: a Jack in the Box named Charlie, a water gun that shoots jelly, a toy bird that swims! The Island is ruled by a beautiful lion with wings named King Moonracer.  Rudolph and Hermey want to stay on the Island  because they are also misfits. King Moonracer tells them that they are living things and cannot hide on an island like toys. In the end, Rudolph earns his place on Santa’s team and they take the toys from the Island to children who will love them.

That first Christmas Eve, I looked out of our front window, up through the big bare tree in our front yard. Through the branches I could just make out a flashing red light in the sky. It was Rudolph coming to bring my presents. In bed that night, I heard noises on the ceiling. Rudolph! Rudolph! I thought. I shut my eyes tight to try to bring on sleep. I didn’t care about Santa so much. He never seemed very nice in that Rudolph movie.  Rudolph would know what I wanted for Christmas. Maybe he would bring me that elephant with spots. He would understand that I just wanted to fit in too.

“We may be different from the rest. Who decides the test of what we think is best?  We’re a couple of misfits. We’re a couple of misfits. What’s a matter with misfits? That’s where we fit in!”  – from Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer

What have I learned since that first Christmas? I am still always searching for the Island of Misfit Toys.  I want to live there, even though King Moonracer says I can’t. Rudolph and Hermey were right -that’s where we fit in. My closest friends have often been misfits: the tomboy, the bi-racial girl, the not-quite-out-of-the-closet yet gay boy.  We misfits just seem to get each other, at least more than other people do.  We don’t quite belong anywhere, not even with each other,  but we can at least feel different together.


Soldier girl


When eyes open

when mind sees

that you and your kind

are under attack

what will you do?

Let yourself

be colonized?

Rise up

with sister soldiers

and brother allies.

Mother generals plot and plan.

But you are in the trenches.

This is your war now.



I am mad about gender

“So, what if she’s living in my house, and using my bathroom, and she’s naked in my shower, then can I rape her?”   – 13-year-old boy in a junior high violence prevention class

I am mad about gender. Biological sex is fine. Penises and vaginas exist.  People with vaginas sometimes carry babies. People with penises sometimes shoot semen into people with vaginas and make babies.   That stuff is there.  It’s true. But the rest of it, about what it all means, about who we are, and how we should behave, that’s just people collectively making shit up.

“I don’t care if someone hurts my mom. I just came out of her hole.”  – 13-year-old boy

I am sick of this gender bullshit. Gender is the original divide. The original act of othering.  We believe that we cannot understand each other and it is true because we made it that way.  Within every culture in this world,  there are two cultures embedded – man culture and woman culture, boy culture and girl culture.

“Baby, be sure to play nice with her. She’s just a girl.”  –  a mom on the playground

I have carried and birthed “girl” and I have carried and birthed “boy”.  From the moments of their births,  each one is wrapped in a different packaging.  Each one is told what s/he can and cannot do.  I do it to them as well.  I do it to them and I hate myself for it.  I hate myself because I know this is wrong.

“The real issue is the security breach.  Was the president in danger. As for the other stuff, boys will be boys.”  – military official on NPR

I have a vision.  I have a vision of genderless world. In my new world, gender expression is just personal expression.  People with penises and people with vaginas can try on all different roles, styles, emotions, and relationships.  People can be mean, and hateful, and violent towards other people just because they hate those particular people.   I am not naive.  I understand that there will not be peace on earth.  I know that there will still be murder, and abuse, and yes, even rape.  But I also know that it will not be systematic, it will not be pervasive, and it will not be targeted at someone simply because of the genitals they were born with.

“I asked him why he beat me all those years. How could he treat me like that, like a dog?  He said, it was because he didn’t see me as separate from himself.” – survivor of  20 years of domestic violence

What would it be like?  Can we imagine it?  What would the world be like today if we had thousands of years of women and men inventing things, writing books, singing songs, leading nations, making discoveries, philosophizing, or nurturing children at about the same rate?   What would it be like if today all the governments and all the corporations were run about equally by men and women? What if there were equal numbers of male and female teachers, engineers, nurses, soldiers, writers, carpenters, dancers, computer programmers, and entrepreneurs? What kind of cool shit would we have that we’ve never even thought of?

Wow.  I can’t believe I got a 3 on the AP Calculus exam. It must have been a little math angel on my shoulder. I mean, I suck at math.  – me after getting mostly “A”s in math my entire life.

I am mad about gender because I don’t even know what that would be like.  I want to be able to look back on American history and know that half the presidents were men and half were women.  I want to have learned that, of the presidents who happened to have vaginas, some were good, some were bad, some were left, some were right, some were war mongers, some were capitalists, and some were peaceniks.

I am a Hilary supporter.  Why? Because it’s time for America to have a woman president, just so that we can have more women presidents. So that 200 years from now it might be possible to say, “Hilary was the first of  a dozen women presidents. She wasn’t the best and she wasn’t the worst.”  – what I told people when they asked me why I was a Hilary supporter

I am pained about gender because it is so very limiting.  I believe that human potential is limitless.  We are each born with all of ourselves to give. But the moment we are born, we are told that we can only access half of what it means to be human.  Only half.  We are half people, all of us.

My husband and I are walking down the street pushing the kids in our double stroller. We begin to cross a street.  A stopped car pulls forward and hits the stroller. The driver was not paying attention. My husband starts shouting and tells the driver to move back. He is angry and that spurs him into action.  I check to make sure the kids are ok.  I feel nothing.  I cannot get angry like that. I wish I could.  – recent memory

I am only half a person.  If I could be angry, if I could accept that I am good at math, if I could rough-house, and play video games, and know that I am supposed to be brave, if I could walk at night without fear of rape, if I could dress  in whatever felt best to me, what more could I do with my life?  I am working to access those things.  I worry it is too late for me.  I feel pain in my heart. I want to be whole.  I don’t care anymore who “she” is. I want to know who “me” is.


Author’s Note:  All of the quotes and italics are paraphrased rememberings of what was said or thought at the time.


Colorblind America: Where time becomes a loop. Where time becomes a loop.

Worf: There is the theory of the Moebius. Where time becomes a loop.
LaForge: When we reach that point, whatever happened will happen again.

(Lines from Star Trek the Next Generation, spoken by the show’s two Black actors. )

We are stuck in a Moebius.  The eerie deja vu of Trayvon and The Help calling forth Rodney King and Hattie McDaniels.  In Ward 8 here in D.C., Marion Barry calls Asian owned businesses dirty and I feel the heat of the L.A. riots.  History is repeating itself and has been since post Civil Rights America began taking shape.

In “By the Color of Our Skin: The Illusion of Integration and the Reality of Race” by Leonard Steinhorn and Barbara Diggs-Brown, the authors analyze the post Civil Rights era to assess the effort to integrate America. The authors argue that, since the civil rights movement, Black and White integration is more common in public spaces such as workplaces, schools, and shops.  They agree that this has an overall positive impact on the status of Blacks in America.

However, in private spaces, segregation is the norm.  People tend to associate with members of their own race. In many cases this is because Whites fear Blacks and  Blacks mistrust Whites because Whites fear Blacks.  Meanwhile, in TV and movies Blacks and Whites associate with each other far more than they do in the real world, giving our couch-potato society the impression that integration has been achieved. Where time becomes a loop.  Steinhorn and Diggs-Brown go on. They argue that Whites forget that the long history of White Supremacy and the legacy of Black enslavement taint many interactions that Whites deem “harmless”.  Misunderstandings abound. Distance increases. I argue that this is true for all non-Black people. Black people are isolated by anti-Black racism in America.

Politicians from both parties, including Barack Obama, wax poetic about King’s dream of a colorblind society. They carefully ignore King’s belief that America would require a policy of reverse discrimination against White’s in order to correct for hundreds of years of slavery and oppression. Meanwhile, affirmative action opponents use King’s words to make sure this never happens. A colorblind society cannot, in the end, acknowledge the traumatic impact of slavery on Black people in America.  But the song goes on. Where time becomes a loop.

Anti-black racism in America is real, occurring now, and unique amongst oppressions experienced by people of color in America.  Tamara K. Nopper has a great piece on this in her blog :

As an Asian immigrant in America, I do not experience anti-black racism.  Nor do I know what it is like to be Black in America.  I do not share a history of slavery, and systematic degradation of my entire group. My people have not been called  animals or less than human. My people have not been marginalized from work.  My people have not been imprisoned en masse.  My people are not seen as lazy, or chronically poor.  I do not carry the weight of  these stereotypes  on my shoulders.  And when I behave in ways that counter these particular stereotypes I am not accused of acting White.

I have worked in coalition with Black women as part of women of color organizing. I have been enriched by these interactions and I hope I have been an ally to them.  But the truth is, our groups’ causes are not the same.  Unless I acknowledge this, I cannot be sure that I am being an ally to Black women.  Unless I truly get this,  the things I do in the name of racial justice for all may in fact be singing the same old colorblind song.  Where time becomes a loop.

How can America break free from this colorblind loop? How can America break free from this colorblind loop? How can America break free from this colorblind  loop. How can America break free from this colorblind loop?

By seeing the colors and knowing their stories. Steinhorn and Diggs-Brown offer a few ideas on how to do this as it applies to anti-Black racism in America:

1. Stop trying to achieve the integration gold star. Whites and Blacks don’t have to do everything together in order to peacefully coexist. In India we have 20 something states, each with its own language, culture, film industry, and food.   People still relate to each other enough that they can have a national government that functions.

2.  Do something to atone for slavery.  The playing field is in no way level after 400 years of systematic subjugation.  Acknowledge it. Make it a national priority.  Tell people who don’t like it to suck it up and move somewhere else.

3.  Put real race talk on TV everywhere. In shows. In public service announcements. We need some MadMen style campaigns to counter anti-Black bias in America.  End tokenism and increase the number of shows that reflect the real internal lives of different groups of people.

4.  This one is based on my own thinking and  is backed up by Tamara Nopper’s piece.  Stop lumping people of color together. And that means non-Black people of color need to get on board with acknowledging anti-Black racism as singular. We need to recognize that justice for Black people is at the core of achieveing justice for all people in America.  When Black  people talk about how something is racist like “The Help” (see another Tamara Nopper piece  we need to listen and  ground our own actions on analyses generated by Black folks.

That doesn’t mean the struggles of non-Black people of color are not important. Native people in America also experienced a singular oppression based on colonization and genocide.  The experience of immigrant people of color is another experience entirely. Chicanos who were crossed by the border fight another battle altogether. Muslims in America today are demonized in ways I can only sense from being mistaken for Muslim. We must see these differences clearly in order to strategize and support each other.   We don’t have to stay on the merry go around trying to make our horse go up while others go down.   If we do, “when we reach that point, whatever happened will happen again.” Where time becomes a loop. Where time becomes a loop.

Steinhorn, L. & Diggs-Brown, B. (2000). By the color of our skin: The illusion of integration and the reality of race. Plume. NY.

  Primary Impressions: Age 6-8 or so (Vol 4)

My bharatnatyam teacher’s name is Anuja Aunty.  Anuja Aunty is funny and pretty and she wears glasses. We have class in someone’s basement. It’s a nice basement with carpet and sofas. There is a  practice room with hard wood floors and mirrors too which is perfect for dancing.  I run into the practice room and pull out my ankle bells. They are heavy to lift and make ching-ching sounds when I move them.  I strap them to my ankles and buckle them by myself.  Anuja aunty presses play on the tape player.  “Everyone up!  Let’s start from the beginning. ”  The music plays “Sa. Reesa tha pa magga sari ma. Sari magga mapa reesa!” I sing along. My feet stomp. Ching-ching.  “Theya-theya dhi- dhit theya.” My hands flow around me. Closed flower. Open flower. My eyes look forward. “Good, Aarati, good!” Anuja Aunty’s hair swings back and forth in a long thick braid. My heart pounds. My feet stomp. My hands move. Ching-ching. I am me.

I don’t like Indian Sunday School.  I don’t know any of the kids and the teachers are mean.  Some of my school friends go to Sunday school so I thought it would be fun, but it’s not.  We have to drive a  long way to get here.  The teacher is an Indian man with glasses and he talks with a thick accent. He stands in front of the chalkboard.   He has a long stick that he uses to point at the letters on the board.  “Ah-aah. E-eeee. U-uuuu. Aha.”  The letters are squiggly and hard to write. I am sleepy. I am bored. I fold my arms on my desk and lay my head down. I want to go home.  “Aarati! Pay attention please,” he says.  I sit up, and think about what kind of ice cream I will ask for on the way home.

We are having a pageant today. Parents are coming. I am wearing my Indian dance clothes and waiting on stage for someone to come help me.  This aunty has made  a picture of ten arms on a big cardboard cut-out.  The arms are all holding different things.  She is taping it to my back. In my real hands I have a cardboard sword in one and a cardboard axe in the other. I climb up on a small stool.  In front of the stool there is a big lion picture made out of cardboard too.  The other kids get into position but I can’t see them because we are all in a row.  I hold my real arms up and out under the cardboard arms. The aunty says, “Aarati, you look beautiful. Your long hair is perfect for this.”  The curtain opens.  Lots of moms and dads are sitting in the seats.  I can’t see mine.  My teacher walks over to me with his microphone. “This is goddess Durga. She is a fierce warrior who has vanquished many demons. She is brave and strong. She rides a lion”  My face feels hot because I am so happy.

Body song

My body is not White, or

thin, or tall. My body

is not tight.


It is not male.

It is not saved.

My body is not

American made.


My body is well used.

Two souls

came through it.


It is able and stabilized

by access to money,

and care, and



This is my body.

The place where “I”



It will have to do.

Primary Impressions: Age 6-8 or so (Vol 3)

I like most of the kids at school, but some of them are mean.  Most of the kids in my class are White.  But me, Marvel Waits, and Asha Desai all have brown skin.  I think we are like a team.  Marvel is big and wears glasses. He looks kind of like Fat Albert from TV.  Asha is Indian like me. She is my first Indian school friend.  She is quiet. She never says anything and she doesn’t play with the other kids.  She is so pretty and small and her eyes are very big and sad.  One day, when I am a mommy I will have a baby and name her Asha.  Sometimes I play with Asha because I know she feels scared.  I want to take care of her. Marvel takes care of me.  He reaches things that are high up. He stands next to me when other kids are being mean.  We don’t play together but he is there with me. Me, and Marvel Waits, and Asha Desai are a team.  The Brown Team.

On the playground there is a concrete barrel turned on its side. Its a good place to hide during recess.  I am new at this school and I don’t have many friends.  I am in the barrel sitting and singing to myself. A girl peeps her head in. She has dark skin and kinky hair pulled tightly into two braids on either side of her head.  She looks at me with a smile on her face.  “Hi.” she says.  I say, “Hi.”  She says, “Are you pregnant? Cause my mom told me that Indian people have babies when they are really young.”  My face gets hot. “No.” I say.  I am just fat.

Jeni is my best friend.  I think she is the most beautiful girl in the world. She has white skin and long brown curly hair.  She has cute freckles and big eyes. She is short like me. I think she looks like a princess. We laugh a lot together. She is very funny and she thinks I am very funny too.  On the playground, Jeni comes running up to me. I am waiting for her on the hopscotch drawing on the black top. I am saving it for us today. She is crying and snot is running down her beautiful freckled nose.  “What’s wrong Jeni?,” I say.  She says, “Yesterday, at church, my pastor said that you are gonna go to Hell.”  She’s crying more now and hugs me tight. “I don’t want you to go to Hell!”  I hug her tight and rub her hair like mommy does when I am sad. Poor Jeni. I don’t want her to feel so bad, so I say, “No I am not. We don’t have Hell in my religion.” She  breathes heavy, and  calms down. “Really? Oh good!” she says.  I throw the stone I’ve been holding in my hand and hop on one foot all the way to the end.

Primary Impressions: Age 6-8 or so (Vol 2)

My neighborhood has lots of different kids in it, but they are all a little older than me.  We live in a row house. Ours is the one sort of on the end with an alley in between us and the next house. It’s fun to go back and forth in the alley from the front yards, to the back driveways. Different worlds.  My world is in the alley.  Most of the time I play alone. But there are three kids I know.

John’s grandma takes care of me after school so we have to play together a lot.  They are White. They have those cookies that look like doilies and the house is covered in doilies and all the furniture is covered in plastic. We watch tv and have snacks.  He’s like 11 or something.  He likes to play with his Star Wars figures and he makes me play with him. They are fun. Except, when we have pretend battles he says, “Girls can’t win Star Wars battles.” Then he takes his figures away.  Sometimes he and his friend from a few blocks away throw rocks up at our kitchen window from the back alley. When I come to the window, they pull their pants down.  That makes my face get all hot. I try to tell my dad but they are already gone.

Sarita lives  four houses down the street. Her family is Black and they have lots of  framed cloth paintings with Black people on them. She has two older sisters.  Her sister Star is deaf and talks with her hands.  Her oldest sister is a teenager and she has a boyfriend. At their house, Sarita and I peek through the keyhole of her sister’s bedroom door.  I  hear noises coming from  the room. I move my eye around until I can see. The boy is lying on top. I can see his dark brown back, butt, and legs.  Sarita’s sister is naked too. They are rubbing and grunting.  My face is all hot again, but I don’t stop looking.

Valerie is White but I’ve never seen her house. She seems a lot older than me. She never really plays with me, but I see her on the street with the other kids. She’s very pretty with freckles and dark brown hair.  She has cool clothes too.  I want her to be my friend but she usually doesn’t talk to me. One day, she says, “Hi” to me and asks if she can see my house.  Now my face is hot because I am so excited. I take her in the house.  My mom is in the kitchen cooking.  We go upstairs. She wants to see my parent’s room.  We go in and I am sitting on the bed. She looks at all the stuff on my mom’s dresser. She picks up a necklace and puts it on.  Then she starts to walk out. “Hey, that’s my mom’s necklace. Give it back!” I say. She says, “No!”  I say, “I’m gonna tell my mom.”  She takes the necklace off and throws it on the bed next to me.  “Be quiet you little nigger. ” She walks down the stairs. I sit on the bed. My face is hot. I don’t know what nigger means. I don’t ask.

I don’t know what it means.

Primary Impressions: Age 6-8 or so (Vol 1)

Swollen feet pinched by tight fancy Rajasthani shoes that point at the toes.  Been on the plane for 8 hours. This nice old man next to me in the turban keeps giving me candies. They are gross.  They taste like flowers or soap.  I am alone, chaperoned by airline hostesses.  Almost home. Excited to show off my outfit to mommy and daddy. Off the plane now. Waiting in long lines.  My feet hurt!

Up to the counter now.  Airline hostess left to go back to work because I am, “pretty much out now.”  Man asks for my passport and green card. I have my passport, but I don’t know anything about a green card.  My face feels hot. My feet hurt.  My stomach is buggy.  A lady comes over in a suit. “Come with me honey.”

Inside an office. Sitting at a seat.  Man behind the desk asks me question:

Him: “What’s the name of your school?”

Me:  “Jennie Smith.”

Him: “Where do you live?”

Me: “1955 Lakeview Drive.”

Him: “Where are your parents?”

Me: “Waiting for me out there!”

Tears form but I squeeze them back. I am a good girl.  The lady who brought me in says, “Are you sure you don’t have a little plastic card with your picture on it?:

“You mean this one in my pocket? But it’s not green. It’s pink.”

I don’t tell my parents what happened. I am too embarrassed.

Exotic (a silly-sad song)

If you can say my name,

I’ll give you 50 dollars.

And if you spell it right

then you deserve a billion more.

That’s one for every person

in the country that i come from.

No, I don’t know them all,

or your friends in California.



Oh I’m exotic

I guess there’s no denying

I’m so exotic

sometimes it leaves me crying

Yes, I’m exotic

That’s why I’m always flying home

To bring you presents from the Taj Mahal


I ride an elephant

Yeah, all my cows are holy

And I’ve got monkeys all around me

everywhere I go

And when I leave the house

I always take my cobras with me

It never hurts to be this charming

when you’re on your own


Well I’m exotic

I guess there’s no denying

And my food’s exotic

sometimes it leaves you crying

I am exotic

That’s why I’m always flying home

to bring you peacock feathers for your wall.


Well that red dot I wear

Means I’m feeling homesick

I lost my identity

Can’t tell you why or when or where

I’ve got a feeling

that it happened when I was a baby

On flight 291

from New Delhi to Delaware

Yeah, I grew up in Delaware.


That’s not exotic

I guess there’s no denying

I’m not exotic

Sometimes it leaves me crying.

So un-exotic

That’s why I’m always flying home…

to bring you presents from the Taj Mahal.

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