Linnea Berthelsen is in the spotlight right now thanks to her role on the Netflix hit series “Stranger Things.” Berthelsen plays Kali with such presence, it’s exciting to watch. What makes her character even more powerful is that the show gives an obvious nod to Hinduism and fierce Goddess culture with the use of the name Kali. A brown person playing a fierce woman with heightened powers while holding the name of divinity. It was all so unique, so badass.
She is now added to the pantheon of notable great actors, along with the likes of Dev Patel, Mindy Kaling, and Kumail Nanjiani. I just had to know, who was this actress? What type of desi was she? Berthelsen is being written about by major news outlets at this point, garnering praise for the electrifying performance. Yet, her ethnicity is never mentioned.
A quick Google search of the actress lead me down a path of epiphanies that even now, writing this, I’m not too comfortable in sharing. It seems the world wide web was only able to provide me with her nationality, not her ethnicity, a distinction that I continue to grapple with. Allow me to explain.
I remember the feeling of annoyance I’d experience when people would ask me where I’m “really” from. The college I attended had transplants from all over the country so, as is customary in any setting where people would ask the get-to-know-you questions, I both asked and answered the question where are you from. I’d soon learn that my response was never as simple enough as my white or African American counterparts.
Here’s how it would go: I would be asked where I grew up and I’d say Tennessee. Like clockwork, the person doing the questioning would look at me quizzically and redirect the question as “where are you really from though?” I took this as them actually asking what are you versus where I’m from. My brown skin color betrayed my origin story.
It’s not that I felt uncomfortable at explaining that I was Indian-American. It’s just I never quite understood why I had to explain my ethnicity in the same breadth as where I hailed from. I always considered myself American with an Indian upbringing; but always American first because this is where I was born, this is where I grew up, it’s factual.
Though I, on more occasions than not, refer to myself proudly as a South Asian-American or Indian-American, I don’t feel compelled to use this as my own only descriptor. I should simply be able to refer to myself as American and if you feel I have to qualify that Americanness to satisfy anything other than innocent curiosity well, you may be teetering on varying forms of isms, be it racism or elitism.
This is what I think, and rather passionately. Or so I thought, until much to my horror, I realize I subject others to explaining what they are. Allow me to dig further.
Last week, like many, I completed binge-watching the second season of “Stranger Things.” And like many in my (Indian-American) circle, one of the first comments I echoed was the collective excitement of seeing Berthelsen with a strong storyline in such a popular show.
Curious about her background, my colleagues and I decided it would be easy to find her ethnicity. Right off the bat, it was clear that her name did not provide us with immediate clues of what type of South Asian she is. We figured finding her ethnicity was nothing a simple Google search couldn’t produce.
We were wrong.
The obvious queries of “What is Linnea Berthelsen” and “Linnea Berthelsen’s ethnicity” are already popular questions on Google. We studied her IMDB and Wikipedia profiles. The vast interwebs make no mention of what kind of brown person she is.
We found in every bio that she’s a Danish actress. She grew up in Denmark and now attends acting school in London. But after going through pages and pages of Google, we still don’t know if she’s South Asian-Danish or even South Asian at all.
On the one hand, we agree that it’s cool that perhaps brown people are becoming so much more increasingly visible in the arts that their ethnicity isn’t the emphasis of their careers, either by themselves or the media. On the other hand, we felt like we didn’t know enough, it felt more so like we were making lemonade out of lemons. We grew cautious of having jumped to the conclusion that Berthelsen was South Asian simply because she’s brown and her character’s name is Kali.
What preoccupied me most and on a more personal level was the revelation that the stench of my own hypocrisy clung to me so blatantly. Didn’t I subscribe to the notion that I had the liberty to either address myself as Indian-American or as American? Why then was I lowkey annoyed that Berthelsen was allowing herself to be written simply as Danish? Didn’t she have the right to not have to announce her hyphenation?
I still feel curious to learn what Berthelsen is despite knowing she IS Danish and she IS a compelling actress. Shouldn’t that be enough? So what that she may or may not be a member of my desi community as well.
Maybe the point of all this is me trying to absolve myself of the guilt in realizing that I’m projecting on to Berthelsen what I have long complained I have experienced and it’s this: that when people asked me where I’m really from, what they were really asking was what are you so they could compartmentalize me based on the authenticity and even validity of my Americanness; essentially what I want Berthelsen to do with her Danishness.
Linnea Berthlesen’s presence in the public sphere has catapulted my own edification of the plurality of brownness and Americanness. Maybe then the next time a white person asks me where I’m really from/what I am, I won’t be so quick to conclude that they’re questioning my Americanness. Rather, they’re asking me to better understand the multiple versions of Americanness, just as I am learning about the plurality of brownness.
Maybe? Stranger things have happened.