Beyond Ethnic Loneliness – Prasanta Verma

Beyond Ethnic Loneliness: The Pain of Marginalization and the Path to Belonging by Prasanta Verma
Published by IVP on April 16, 2024
Genres: Non-Fiction, Christian Life, Racial Reconciliation
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"So what are you? Go back where you belong!" Majority white American culture has historically marginalized people of color, who at times feel invisible and alienated and at other times are traumatized by oppression and public discrimination. This reality leads to a particular kind of ethnic and racial loneliness. An Indian American immigrant who grew up in white Southern culture, Prasanta Verma names and sheds light on the realities of ethnic loneliness. She unpacks the exhausting effects of cultural isolation, the dynamics of marginalization, and the weight of being other. In the midst of disconnection and erasure, she points to the longing to belong, the need to share our stories, and the hope of finding safe friendships and community. Our places of exile can become places where we find belonging―to ourselves, to others, and to God.

I grew up in a small, rural town in Indiana. I remember once my mom saying that she thought it was a small town without much racism when she was growing up: “We all loved [the only non-white person in her high school]. He was the class president!” My life was one of being firmly in the majority—to the point that diversity really wasn’t much of a thing. Then I grew up and became a pastor at a Chinese Church. Suddenly, I was the minority. And wow could it be lonely.

Now, let’s be clear: My experience as a majority culture person in a minority culture space is not comparable to the opposite. What I experienced within my church was the experience of many of my church’s members at every hour of their public lives except for the ones spent within the church. I always had the privilege of walking outside of my church and being in the majority culture once again. While my experience was in no way comparable to that of those in my church, it opened my eyes to the reality of ethnic loneliness. And the thought became if this is how I feel with all of the privileges I retain, how must it be for those who are navigating a completely new culture and language as a person of color?

In Beyond Ethnic Loneliness, Prasanta Verma accomplishes something similar. She uses her own story to make readers—of both majority and minority cultures—aware of ethnic loneliness and give language to the often-nebulous feelings that can arise from such loneliness. She pinpoints ethnic loneliness as a result of cultural isolation, a conflict with or loss of cultural identity, marginalization and assimilation, or language barriers. Minority culture peoples are often told—implicitly or explicitly—that they need to fit into the majority culture. Majority cultural wants diversity, but not multiculturalism. To be included, to be part of the majority community, to alleviate loneliness, one must lay aside their cultural values—the way they look, the foods they eat, the values they hold.

Beyond Ethnic Loneliness has two audiences and it reaches each one magnificently: To the majority culture individual, Verma’s poetic and compelling narrative is one of education and realization. She places readers in the shoes of a young woman born in India and speaks of the world through her experience, giving readers a perspective they might not otherwise ever see. To the minority culture individual, Verma’s writing is one of solidarity and encouragement: you are not alone in these feelings, you can find belonging without sacrificing your identity, there is a path beyond this ethnic loneliness.

I was especially moved by a story she told about her parents returning to India to visit family after several years away. When visiting the Taj Mahal, they were told to pay the tourist price rather than the price for Indian citizens, as they held a US passport. Too Indian to fully belong in the US, but too American to fully belong in India. A perpetual foreigner. That can be the experience of many, particularly second-generation immigrants who struggle with where they fit in—with the answer often feeling like they don’t firmly fit in either place.

The final chapters of the Beyond Ethnic Loneliness take us toward a solution. This solution isn’t easy. It requires boldness. But a truly inclusive community is possible. The marginalized do not need to assimilate into toxic cultures that refuse to recognize their identity; rather, they must seek out or create inclusive, multicultural communities that do the difficult work of creating belonging for all. Near the end, she writes “if loneliness is the condition of our modern age, then we can follow it back to God, back to each other, and ourselves.” In other words, our loneliness is indicative of a craving for community. It is a calling back to the acceptance of our true selves and the true selves of others

Beyond Ethnic Loneliness is a magnificent work. With passion and clarity, Verma gives voice to a quieted minority. As a pastor, reading this in light of what this might mean for a church community, I see a clear and compelling way forward to a truly inviting, inclusive community. To those unaware (or avoiding), Verma removes the blinders and lovingly reveals to us the harm that has been done. To those aware (or experiencing), she offers community and companionship. To both, she offers a hand-in-hand path forward out of loneliness and towards a togetherness that values the experiences and identities of all people.