Essay: Actress Daya Vaidya on Love, Privilege and a ‘Pivotal Time in Our History’

 

 

Actress-Producer Daya Vaidya first made a name for herself as Nina Inara over two seasons of the television drama Unforgettable, from 2011-2012, and since 2016 has been a recurring character (Jen Kowski) on Amazon’s hit series Bosch. But her real life journey has instilled her with an especially uncommon perspective. Growing up mixed race in Nepal, she later moved to a “tough and dangerous” 1980s Oakland—and is now raising three children with her black, ex-boxer husband Don Wallace.

In light of the explosion of protests across the country and across the world in the wake of the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police (which, remarkably, seem to already be effecting policy in very real ways), we asked her to offer her unflinching view on the changing, and sadly unchanging realities of race relations in America.

 

A Commitment to Living For Peace and Justice

 

Daya means ‘mercy’ in Sanskrit (an ancient Indic language over 3,500 years old). I am mixed race…born in Kathmandu, Nepal, to an Indian (South Asian) father and an Italian/Latin mother who was searching to find herself at the foot of the Himalayas. These two unlikely travelers fell in love, created me and later, when I was three years old, moved away from their tiny village in Nepal, to Oakland, California.
My father was a force, a deeply spiritual man who raised his children with a sharp moral compass, fierce integrity and unbridled compassion. He did not suffer fools lightly; ignorance and hate were called out in every facet of our lives. He was brave and unapologetic in his convictions. I remember many dinner parties where the night erupted in my father giving one of his white friends a lecture on why their supposed innocuous statement was in fact racist. He’d say it to their face, he’d explain why and use his vast knowledge of history to give that person the social context necessary to penetrate their privilege. He was fierce, but fair. From the youngest age, he told my sister and I we were black. He was not confused. We knew we were Indian, he was proud and taught us our culture, but when it came to his little brown girls growing up in Oakland in the ’80s, we were black. He was black. In a city where the Black Panthers rose up and the fight for civil rights was a daily way of life, our identity and solidarity were with black people, period. Oakland was hard, tough and dangerous…a renaissance city, where black culture thrived and beautiful art was created.
We went to black schools and lived in a black neighborhood, their burden was ours. My father had no interest in simply assimilating to white culture. He understood we would eventually enter a world where we were the minority, experiencing the multiple stings of exclusion and systemic racism; he wanted us to have the tools to face that. Even my white brother was taught from that space, to understand his privilege and how to be an ally in his daily life, not only perform as one momentarily. And my mother, a product of the ’60s, was a force in her own right, fighting injustice at every turn.
My father understood oppression deeply. He watched his father get beaten by police, only to jump in to protect him and get severely beaten himself. He is lucky he survived. He also watched his fellow Indians get sorted and separated by caste and the color of their skin. His mother and father, along with other relatives, were freedom fighters who walked with Gandhi, preached nonviolence and fought for the rights of women, as well as Daltis (supposed “untouchable” Indians who were oppressed and usually had darker skin). He recognized the original sin of the caste system in India, as he recognized the original sin of slavery in America. My father was a successful journalist in his country, yet he could not get a job in the U.S. He was brilliant and gorgeous, yet all they saw was his dark skin and accent. He was angry and struggled with his temper, for inequality burned like a fire in his chest. My father passed away to cancer when he was only 57 and I was in my twenties. His death left me lost and distraught…but the fight never stopped burning inside of me as well.
It wasn’t until 2008, when I met my husband Don Wallace, an ex-pro boxer who also felt the rage of hundreds of years of persecution, which he channeled into boxing, art and activism, that my soul began to heal. A dark skinned black boy born to a Jamaican mom in London, who later moved to Hollis Queens, NY when he was 11, Don can count on more than two hands the times he and his friends were roughed up by police. He watched his neighbor get nearly beaten to death by police right in front of his door; and he watched the NYPD Police Department, under Mayor Rudy Giuliani, jail hundreds of young black boys for minor infractions, destroying generations of families for years to come.
That Jamaican boy from London and Queens, married this Indian girl from Oakland, creating 3 beautiful children: identical twin boys and an eleven year old girl – Leela, Jai and Dev. They have Indian names honoring my father, but they are black. They have more privilege and opportunity than my husband and I ever had, yet I witness how implicit bias plagues their daily interactions. They are too young to consciously notice, but I see it. I feel it. We have started the lessons early to inoculate them. My twins understand they are beautiful, smart and talented, but they aren’t allowed to play with toy guns, especially in public. They ask us why? The answer, along with the many lessons black boys have to be taught to keep them alive, will be explained as they get older…they are only eight. We spent three years teaching my daughter to love her hair. She was the only black girl in a predominantly white school and starting at three she wanted “Barbie hair.” From the moment she could talk we’ve had to counteract the unending images she saw of beauty being equated to white skin and Anglo features. These are only a few examples of what it means to raise black children in the United States of America…and the world.
As the country cries in universal pain over the nonstop murder of black men and women, I again find myself in a unique position. As many white people quiet themselves and reflect on a country where their privilege was often oblivious to them, I reflect on my own privilege. Where does my ‘Indian girl from the hood with a black husband and black children’ place me in all of this? Where do I fit in? I’m not one of my well-meaning white girlfriends who deeply want to be an ally: my skin and experiences have taken away that privilege. I am not a POC (person of color) woman who can slide by or “pass.” I am not “ethnic friendly,” the term I coined when my POC, but look totally white actor friends, would book jobs that check the diversity box, but remain visually acceptable to White America. No, I do not have that privilege. I get the stares, the looks and the ambivalence in accepting my existence because of the color of my skin.
However, I’m not my husband. I will never live through his pain and experiences. I worry about his life on a daily basis, but not my own. The systemic racism leveled at black men and women in this country is uniquely horrendous. I worry about my twin boys getting older and their lives being in jeopardy; and as all mothers understand, my children’s lives are more important than my own…so they are me and I am them. That is my truth and where my privilege begins and ends. The intersection of race, class, culture and privilege is complex and I do not have easy answers. I only know what my dad taught me from our little street in Oakland…I am Indian, I am a woman of color and I am the mother of black children and the wife of a black man. I flow between 3 different identities; and I will use that cross section of privilege and understanding oppression until the day I die, to fight for all marginalized people. This is not a fight when convenient, trendy or popular. It means fighting when everyone else has stopped; it means acting when everyone else is frozen, it means speaking when everyone has gone silent. Rising up is a way of life.
It is uncomfortable. It is painful. It is a deep commitment to living for peace and justice, seeing inequality and calling it out. And ultimately, it is about coming together, all races, all cultures, all genders, as one and building a movement of solidarity and love against tyranny and hate. That is not a passive platitude, but an active call to action. Love is active. Peace is active. Through nonviolent, active resistance, we will engage, educate and change our country. We are at a pivotal time in our history and it is the time to be brave, come together and unravel the racist fabric we all have been woven into.
See me. See us. See love. Black Lives Matter.
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