When I was in the first grade, my parents sent me to a new Catholic school and on the first day during recess a girl in my class came up to me and said, “You don’t belong here, you’re not white.” She was black. I was brown. I was confused. It took me forever to understand the forces at play in that early interaction. It wasn’t until later that I had a realization: she and I had both internalized racism at several points in our lives, and I needed to start owning my brown body.
It would be easy to say that my journey with my racial identity began there, but there’s really no singular moment I can point to as a starting point. Race is omnipresent for me; no matter how hard I tried to hide from it, it’s always been there and always will be. I grew up in predominantly white settings with immigrant parents who were trying to navigate this foreign country just as much as my brother and I were. There were no signposts from them in terms of how to navigate racial issues and our identities as brown, well-educated people. They were focused on making sure we had food on the table and a roof over our heads. So I took cues from my classmates. I stopped speaking Malayalam, yelled at my mom to stop packing me Indian food for lunch, and felt really self-conscious wearing Indian clothes—all things that bring me to tears when I think about them because I’m ashamed of the way I treated my culture. I just wanted to fit in, but I wish so dearly that I had understood the value of my heritage.
All of these nudges away from my culture only served to distance me from a racial identity that I really couldn’t shake. Eventually I would “pass” and people would think of me as the “white Indian,” and I remember wearing that as a badge of pride. I went so far as to make jokes about Indian culture that make me cringe today. I went along with my white friends, who thought it was cool to make fun of my skin that was “the color of shit haha” and tell me that at least I smelled better than Indians but I always had this sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. One day I’d had enough, so I picked up my lunch tray the next day and left. I went off into high school surrounded by Asian people, which was great but also meant that I never really had to confront my status as an Indian woman. I was comfortable and I didn’t feel different.
Then I came to SMU, where all of a sudden I was thrown into a very white space, and I just slipped back into passing mode. However, something was different this time around. I had been involved in debate during high school, and therefore exposed to literature and discussions on race, feminism, and sexual minorities. This exposure gave me the language necessary to express my frustrations, as well as the knowledge to pinpoint issues I had in my interactions with the world. However, it was easier to talk about race in Austin and at SMU I was far from home. There wasn’t a place for me to touch base with my identity here. It wasn’t until I started dating this guy that I really began to confront my need to accept and own my identity. We would go out to events or to grab food, and I started noticing that I was the only person of color in the room or one of three in the general vicinity. I would point it out, and it wasn’t until the third or fourth time that I became conscious of this that I fully understood and felt that I was a minority. However, I trudged on. I met his friends, who slowly came to be my friends, and I grew closer with all of them, but something was missing and I couldn’t put my finger on it.
I am so thankful for this individual because he has been integral to my blossoming as a woman of color. We had conversations about our respective racial identities (he is half-Asian) and he provided a safe space for me to explain my frustration with being an Indian woman. He would say things about his experience and I would point and say “I feel the same way!” relieved that I wasn’t just going crazy. He introduced me to literature about racial tensions in the United States and he held me while I cried for hours after reading Just Mercy. His father called me “Ms. Chapati,” and it took forever for me to help him realize why that was wrong. Likewise, I would make jokes about him being half-Asian and it took forever for me to fully understand the weight of what I was saying. Years ago I would have just let the comments slide, but with him I felt comfortable enough to stand up for myself. We created a sacred space of trust and comfort that made it okay for me to be a woman of color. A space that still endures, even as the nature of our relationship has transitioned into the best of friendships.
However, even with that space, I still wasn’t comfortable with most other people and my race. When a couple of my friends made comments about Indian graduate students and how they just “come and take our free food, even though they’re not going to join our organization and that’s annoying,” it took me forever to speak up. It took me a while to understand what was wrong. Another time, my friends and I were in the middle of Iowa, where we walked into a fast food place and immediately realized there were no people of color. I felt very uncomfortable and I remember one of my friends making a joke about how it was a ‘sea of white.’ We walked away from the Culver’s and conversation moved onto other topics, but I kept thinking about that incident. After the election of Donald Trump, I was surrounded with messages of concern and support; however, none of this support was from my main group of friends—they just kept going on with their lives. We would talk about race sometimes but it was always a surface level discussion. That’s when I realized why I was so upset. My friends all identified as white. They were able to walk away from any discussion about race without being personally perturbed and go about their daily lives without thinking about racial issues. This realization dovetailed with a crisis of identity. Black Lives Matter was gaining a lot of steam and I had been reading a lot of literature about mass incarceration. My heart wept, but I was also confused as to the part I played in all of it.
Asians are the model minority in the United States. They are seen as hard-working and are touted as an example for all minorities, which means we’re often used as a tool to justify certain types of oppression against other minorities (“if the Asians can work hard and be successful, why can’t black people?”). As a result of this status, we’re often left out of discussions on race. Most people think of race as simply black and white, when in reality there are many other racial identities that are not included in the conversation. This is not to take away from the experience of other races, but simply to acknowledge that the black community is eons ahead of other communities, including the Asian community, in terms of organizing against forms of oppression, most likely because the need to do so has been very pressing. It doesn’t mean all Asian families are privileged, but being Asian in the United States can be slightly confusing when you enter into discourse about race.
In this greater context and against the backdrop of violence against black people and Native Americans, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I didn’t know, and to some extent still struggle with, how to properly ally with my black friends and still also speak out about my struggles without sounding like someone who is discounting their experience. On top of that, it was hard balancing my parent’s cultural experiences back in India and my identity growing up in the United States. A quote by Ijeoma Umebinyuo popped up on my newsfeed that put it so perfectly:
“So, here you are
too foreign for home
too foreign for here.
Never enough for both.”
This sense of limbo overwhelmed me and completely consumed me. I woke up every morning thinking that the rest of my life was going to be like this—never enough for both, always being “too much” for my white friends, always feeling just a bit left out. Due to this stress (on top of simply burning out academically) I quickly stopped eating many meals, I would set my alarm thirty minutes earlier to give myself time to pump myself up in order to get out of bed, I would be with my friends and then just withdraw—I was depressed. I felt alone. The guy and I had broken up; we were navigating how to be friends and it took us a while to settle into just being best friends, and I didn’t want to rely on him too much. I didn’t feel safe talking to my friends and my brother was back home with a wife and a job. So I made two decisions: I rushed an MGC and I started going to CAPS.
I thought CAPS and my sorority would be a saving grace, which was so wrong because I didn’t need to be saved—I just needed a space to be myself in full form. Through CAPS, I was able to finally say out loud all the thoughts I had been holding in. I was able to work through the issues I had with my friends, from a fundamental and racial perspective. From my sorority I found a place where being loud was just fine and where I wasn’t “too much.” I found a place where I could talk about issues that I was going through, but where race didn’t have to be brought up all the time in a formal conversation. I was also exposed to a lot of perspectives on race, religion, politics, and other issues that I didn’t agree with half the time. Although sometimes I feel like an outsider, I gained a semblance of home and learned that comfort doesn’t mean everyone always agrees with everything you say, but rather that they give you the chance to say it and engage in conversation because they care. I found inner strength that I never thought I was capable of, which allowed me to have a conversation with my other friends about race and the nature of our friendship. It taught me the importance of having spaces for all minorities to feel comfortable with their bodies and identities. Let me be clear though, having support and safe spaces doesn’t make everything else go away.
I was talking to my friends about being a racial minority and asked why certain people in the group never spoke up when we talked about race and just looked bored. One answer they gave was that they just felt that when it comes to race, they were brought up to treat everyone the same way and so that’s just what they’re going to do. It wasn’t an easy thing to hear and I don’t think they really understand that treating me the same way they treat everyone else in the group is what has led to me feeling like I can’t have discussions about race. I’m not white. I didn’t grow up in a white household. I should be treated with the same respect as everyone else, but saying that I’m the same as everyone else is erasing a fundamental part of my identity. A part that I have not brought forward as much as I should have, but something that is so integral to who I am and impacts how I go through the world. Something that I tried to cut away when I was a kid, but am suddenly realizing is so important to who I am.
I don’t think they’ll ever fully understand the trauma of having wished yourself into another body because of the color of your skin; the shame when I look back and ask how I could have ever thought that the aromatic spices of my mother’s cooking were inferior and stinky, or how I could have been embarrassed by the lilt of my parents’ English that reminds me of Kerala and the summers we spent there. I think about how when we all go out, excitedly, for Indian food, they taste the same morsels but view the experience as merely a foray into spicy food. What they don’t realize is that my excitement is about so much more than that. For them it’s food; for me it’s peace, a state of self-love and self-understanding. It’s coming home to the comfort of your mother’s cooking after being away for so long. I’ve been wandering a lot for the past 20 years, but I’m finally ready. I’m coming home.
This article was written by Terisha Kolencherry. Click here to see more of Terisha’s work.