Growing up in Mumbai — a city way more progressive than any other in India in terms of open-mindedness — I enjoyed a certain privilege that I did not realize how much I would appreciate until I came here. It was the feeling that everyone around me and who grew up with me was treated equally. The only discrimination I ever faced was something I would see on the internet. The only factors affecting how I was treated by society were based on my actions, behaviors and social status. Upon moving to the U.S., I was in for a rude awakening.
Coming here, I was faced with a role reversal that my parents (or any article or movie about American societal structure) never prepared me for. I still remember my first day entering the University of Miami. Moving into my dorm was already so nerve-racking, as I didn’t have my parents to help me settle in. That same day, the university organized a small meetup for all new freshman to get to know each other. My extroverted self was pretty excited to get to know people, so I headed down to meet everyone. But it all went downhill from there: I felt weak in the knees every time I put my hand forward to introduce myself, because everyone had the same response: “Sorry, what?” My Indian accent was thick, and my name was too different for people to pronounce correctly. As I paced around the room, Devarsh transformed into Dave, D, Dev … you name it! The fact that people had such difficulty understanding me and saying my name right made my heart beat so fast and my mind tangle with confusion. I felt like it was me against everyone. I had half a thought to just go back upstairs and take things slower and hope I would adjust eventually. But before that, I had another thought: “Hmm … let me talk to someone who’s also Indian!” That was the first time my brain consciously conceived race as a factor in approaching a stranger. And with how the night was going, I just thought talking to someone who I could relate to would make me feel better. I wound up chatting with an Indian-American who said he grew up somewhere in the U.S., and as soon as I said my name and mentioned that I was from India, he simply replied with, “oh, that’s cool.” This was his way to evade conversation with me. The fact that someone from my own cultural community didn’t really look forward to getting to know me then kind of sealed the blow. I was just so perplexed as to what happened that night. What did I do so wrong? Did the way I was speaking catch people off guard?
I felt so offended that night, not knowing what precisely was bad and what I could do to fix it. Was my behavior the issue? Was it an intrinsic part of me, like my name? Maybe the way I smiled? Over time, I did find some people who were more accepting and took time to understand me better, which was comforting to me. There were also some instances, however, in which people would start speaking in a characteristic “Indian” accent like Apu from the Simpsons or make such random curry jokes. Those was extremely cringeworthy! We made all kinds of jokes about our heritage back home, but it struck me differently here because back home everyone around me was the same and these jokes never personally attacked me. But on campus, they hit me like bricks.
That was the moment that I realized I was now not only a representation of myself, but also my country and skin color. There were much larger implications of my actions in general. My confidence took a hit reimagining myself as a figure of my home, my culture, my race. It just made me that much more conscious of myself around people, and I just no longer embraced myself. I would not attend classes and instead hide in my dorm in the company of people I knew. Even when I went to class, I chose to sit in the back and keep quiet, which was just so unlike me. I found it way harder to approach a girl I found cute because I feared rejection would mean more than rejecting just me or that I was conforming to some kind of stereotype (i.e. Indian guys are creepy). I also wanted to be rebellious because I hated the negative and positive labels I was associated with, especially when they were out of my control. For example, the fact that I was Indian often attracted racist comments: “Oh, you Indian, you must be hella smart.” To run away, I would procrastinate and study a day before my exam. I was in this mode where I wanted to show myself as this party boy. I consider myself to be a balance of the both, but the preconceived notions made me want to overcompensate. It was all just a domino effect and not a conscious choice. It all spiraled out unconsciously. For the longest time, I had this instinctive defense mechanism where I would tell myself to keep quiet and not say anything because these things were just tricks. I guess it was because I didn’t want to believe that our countries of birth or ethnicities affect how people view us. It’s how our brain protects our ego. Until recently, I didn’t comprehend how that was drastically impacting me. I do see the best in people, and I recognize that these comments were not intended to offend me, yet somehow they cause me to see myself smaller.
Time passed and I got better, at least in terms of how I reacted. It’s not like all the issues that impact me are non-existent, but I have since learned to become more aware of it and adapt. However, just because people adjust to not being affected by such words … does that make them still permissible to use?
Discrimination does not only have to be to the extent of the highly violent videos we see online or the discriminatory practices that constantly reign in social media attention. The smallest of micro-discriminations can influence people’s behaviors and the way they feel about themselves. It’s hard to accept that being a person of color lands you with certain assumptions, stereotypes and predictions about your personality without people even getting to know you.
Personally, I haven’t even faced something as brutal as the stories I have heard of, and I can’t even imagine how hard it is to be a person of color growing up in the U.S., where your own parents raise you to know that you will be judged on the basis of your flesh. The naïve children would never be able to understand why, and this differential treatment will always haunt them like a ghost following their lives, even if they aren’t directly harmed by discrimination. That is why it is instrumental that we as citizens of this new generation, continuously engaging in more open-minded learning, make it our duty to do away with any practices that could negatively impact someone. We need to be more conscious of what our actions do to others, because even after stopping it could still take decades for people of color to stop being affected by the harsh thoughts staining their personalities, mental processes and self-perceptions as an effect of racial discrimination. Meanwhile, as a person of color, I feel people like me need to accept our position right now. Accepting does not imply that we don’t wish to create change. Some of us might find it harder to get places, while others of us need to work harder. But that shouldn’t stop us from climbing higher toward ambitions we want to achieve.
words_devarsh desai illustration_jess morgan