This Land is Our Land
Updated: Aug 17, 2020
I voted for the first time in my life yesterday.
After two degrees in political science, and countless debates about mandatory voting, I'm really grateful for the opportunity to express my voice by participating in the political system. The experience also made me reflect on my American story mostly around my experiences and perceptions of race. I'll start with an intro of myself just for context.
I'm 30-years-old now. I was born in Kerala, India, a state that is famous for electing a communist government in 1957. This government operated under a liberal democracy, allowed other parties to co-exist unlike communist regimes in other parts of the world, and supported several reforms in the state. I never lived in Kerala for more than a year of my life though. We moved to England when I was fairly young for my Dad’s post graduate degree.
My early childhood memories center around Sheffield and Wales. I was enamored with Princess Diana and Mother Teresa as a child, and their deaths in 1997 had a significant impact on my life. After my Dad finished his degree, we moved back to India where I shuffled between three states until I moved to the USA in 2008. Between 1997 and 2008, I lived in America periodically during my Dad's sabbaticals.
This is why I say I'm nomadic at heart because my family and life has always been split across several time zones. In 2003, my parents decided boarding school would provide me a better education and stability. Kodaikanal was the first place in my life where I felt like I fit in - we were a group of staff and students from all over the world - somehow destined to spend time 2000 feet above sea level with intermittent electricity, no movie theater, and a 7 pm curfew.
My parent's professions and friends gave me an early introduction to inequality and ethics. My dad's students were frequently in my home discussing concepts well above my understanding. My life in India allowed me to have friends who were Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Atheist, Jain, Christian and Parsi.
I've never been a part of the majority group either. In India, I am in the minority because my heritage is Syrian Christian while a majority of the country is Hindu. In England, I was the brown kid with an English accent. In the States, I was some hybrid of the two. I say all this to explain that I think my views have always been fluid and open because I don't know what it is like to be in the majority, and have my views seconded by someone else.
My dad always encouraged us to read "fringe" literature. He recommended Pedagogy of the Oppressed during college. He also introduced me to the Apocrypha. My mum always cooked, and opened our home to students who needed a dose of family. I heard so many different opinions that I never took to one as the truth.
I'm not White. I'm not Black. Before I moved to the States, no one asked me to define myself by my race or my skin. In fact, I didn't know I had one. Indian is my former nationality not my race. I was raised to never refer to someone by the color of their skin. I didn't know whether it was appropriate to say Black or African-American or People of Color (I still don't). I don't know whether I'm supposed to say my husband is White or Caucasian. I'm awfully confused if my child should say he is American Indian or Indian American.
The most startling thing for me though was the narrative that the oppression of Black people in America ended many years ago. I lived in Anderson and Muncie from 2008 to 2017. Even though formal segregation ended many years ago, I still saw clear lines between where White people lived and where Black people lived. Businesses that are majority White are just called businesses, while those owned by other groups are “Black businesses” or “Asian owned”. The inequality in the education and healthcare systems also shocks me because it seems so obvious to me, as an outsider who had the perception that America is the greatest country in the world. That is the message perpetuated by Americans civilians, politicians, and the media.
The nomadic and no-labels part of my identity has afforded me the great privilege of not being an active participant of any oppressive system. I am visitor. I am simply observing. I'm taking notes, and I will move on the next place at some undetermined time in the future.
It's given me a sense of detachment.
I've cracked many "not my president" jokes in the last three years. I've ridiculed bi-partisanship because I think a multi-party parliamentary system is better. I've dealt with a few racist experiences of my own, sadly with family and friends more than strangers.
However, the belonging nowhere identity has somehow allowed me to belong anywhere. As an immigrant who experiences the majority and minority experience depending on who I am interacting with, I’m sharing some experiences and thoughts below primarily to release them from my brain. I am uncertain of the benefit to any reader.
When I was 19-years-old, I babysat a group of kids while the adults had a Bible study in the Noblesville area. A seven-year-old looked up at me, and said "Why are you brown?" I didn't know what to say at first because my initial thought was, am I the first Brown person you have met? My answer was simply “ I'm from a country called India. It's very hot there so I have more melanin, which makes me darker so that I can handle the sun better. There are 1 billion people like me.” I have no idea if this helped this kid understand the world is not full of White people.
When I was 20-years-old, someone wrote a negative comment about Muslims in the college newspaper. I was pretty angry. I still don’t understand how you can hate a group of people without knowing anyone from that group. So, I organized trips to different places of worship for other students over the course of the year. We also attended an event called Abraham’s Table. Christians, Jews, and Muslims from different cities in Indiana gathered at a church in Meridian Hills. When we arrived, we were randomly assigned to a table so that there was representation from each religious group. It was at this event that I learned that there were Black people who were Muslim. My whole life I assumed Islam was a Brown person’s religion. It is possible to feel righteous about your world view, and be humbled by experiences. I just hope that everyone can learn to open up their minds rather than assume we already have our biases figured out.
When I was 24-years-old, one of my co-workers applauded my English. My other co-workers mouthed the words, I'm sorry, because they had more experience with this co-worker's causal racism. They didn't condone it at the same time. I was confused though. Why was my ability to speak English fluently surprising? I've heard a few Black friends say they experience this comment frequently too. This unnamed co-worker never remembered my name, and rotated between a short list of the other South Asian folks in the company.
I’ve met so many people who enjoy mission trips to different countries in Africa. They negate the unique identity of each region and treat the continent like a homogeneous country. I do not understand how these people can then ignore the experiences of Black people in their own country. It’s odd to me that you can pity people who have less benefits than you far away but blame those who share your nationality. The lazy, aggressive narrative needs to change.
Corporate displays of affection are easy in our age. Please move beyond this, and examine your role in systematic racism. If you are a majority White company, please evaluate your employee referral and culture fit programs. They can perpetuate the hiring of people who look and think like you, and disadvantage minorities. If you have a women’s group, please evaluate whether it mainly advocates for the views of White, straight women rather than being intersectional. I think this article is a good starting point. Look at your turnover, and see if it has disproportionately affected minorities.
It is easy to point out blatant racism that other members of your race commit but harder to identify the casual racism you may practice regularly. I used to do this myself until I realized that I've probably done a few things that are racist too. Virtue signaling every time a Black person dies isn't enough if you're not advocating for peace and justice regularly. If your friends crack an insensitive joke, call them out. If your family holds some racist view, however subtle, please have that uncomfortable conversation around Thanksgiving instead of avoiding it.
Lately I’ve been thinking about the concept of compounded grief. The first time someone told me to act more American or go back to my country, I was affected by their insensitivity for days. Centuries of oppression impacts our collective psyche. Telling people how they must behave now is not appropriate. Telling people they must be gentle in how they deliver their pleas of equality for your comfort is insensitive. Please move beyond a singular identity of race, and imagine what it must feel to see someone who looks like you die frequently and worry about the loved ones in your home who may have similar experiences.
We all have a lot to learn. I am frequently reminded that I am probably guilty of racism myself even though I’m not White. It’s easy to externalize guilt. Last year, I went to physical therapy. My therapist was Black. During my sessions, we talked about our experiences in college. I talked about feeling in-between all the time while she talked about her trip to Nepal. She had a positive experience overall, but she narrated incidents where she was treated less than her White college mates. I told her South Asians are guilty of racism towards people that are darker than them too. Neither of us knew what to do apart from educate people through our interactions with them. However, this can be tiring. When you’re often the only person who looks like you in a group, it’s tiring to be expected to educate the majority constantly. I’ve moved to a point of recommending films, books, and travel instead.
Last week, I got a spot bonus. I actually had to look up what that meant. It definitely made me feel appreciated. I told R, felt guilty for a bit because it seemed like the world was falling apart between a pandemic and police aggression, and then I decided to make a mental list of the other reasons I was grateful for my employment right now. Money is appreciated. Don’t get me wrong. It’s just that I actually appreciate how open everyone has been to my work at odd hours, and the fact that my child is often in the background. I appreciate executives and peers telling me to relax a bit, and get some sleep. A big one time act is helpful, but the daily doses of appreciation and solidarity are far more important to me. Perhaps that is what this nation needs. Less reactionary policy and policing, and more daily empathy.
I’m still grateful for the ability to participate in the system now but I’m not proud of where we are as a society. Before the right to own property is the right to breathe.
If you know me, you know I could talk for four hours straight if given the opportunity. This is a long piece. I’ll leave you with one last thought.
Hospitality to and from strangers has been the way I have learned to break down my own barriers and fears. For most of my White friends, I’m the only non-American by birth they know well. Break out of your usual cycle, and befriend someone who doesn’t look like you, share a meal, ask them about their experience, and do not be defensive in your responses.
Supporting organizations with money is helpful, but understand that this is a daily battle internally and externally. I hope we do not need to react to another death before we are a more conscious society.