During my first semester at grad school, I hardly said a word.
It was part imposter syndrome and part a life-long belief that my opinion wouldn’t matter, that I shouldn’t speak until I could contribute something important or couldn’t bear bottling it in anymore. I was also acutely conscious of having studied in a government school in India and here I was among the best and the brightest, some with more experience than I had, others recently graduated from elite American schools. Why would they ever be interested in what I knew, what I thought, what I had experienced?
Turned out, they were.
I cannot recall any one specific incident when my professors and peers made me feel that my voice, my experience, my thoughts mattered. It was just a collection of encouraging nods from the back of the class during shaky presentations, genuinely interested questions, and most of all attention — without any intent to attack me or to say I am lying or denying my truth.
I was treated with respect and dignity — not looked down upon, and I was never excluded.
Earlier this year, I was working on a story on international students facing discrimination in the U.S. I came across an outspoken Indian student at an elite law school that had been shaken by a dog-whistle incident directed at immigrants and students of color. This student—a champion of free speech—was personally offended. Among other things, he told me how he felt while being at the receiving end of majority bullying.
“I am an upper caste male from India and for the first time, I felt like a Muslim Indian or a Dalit or a woman. That’s how I felt,” *Rakesh said.
He also mentioned another incident of discrimination which he experienced off-campus.
“Once I went to a pub with a Pakistani friend and we had every form of ID with us but we were still denied entry. I was humiliated,” he said. “I am a self-respecting Indian and when people ask me if I could choose a different religion or nationality, I always say I am very proud of who I am. For the first time, I felt brown.”
It dawned on me that he was facing discrimination for the first time in his life and had to adapt fast, and in that process, he found empathy for the minorities in India. I also realized why, as an Indian Muslim, I have had it much easier fitting into the fabric of today’s America, I have been trained for it all my life.
My parents, like most minority parents in India, had to anticipate discrimination we would face growing up and prepare us, sometimes protect us, from it. While this precaution seemed normal then (as we didn’t know any better), looking back now, I can see that none of it was normal.
Once when I was about 10 or 11-years-old, I missed an Independence Day celebration because I was ill. My father got a phone call from the headmaster of my school who told him, “We very well know why you didn’t send her. Why would you celebrate 15th August?”
My father told my mother to always send us to such events without fail, come hell or high water. Things apparently haven’t changed at all since then.
In her remarkable 2018 book, Mothering a Muslim, Nazia Erum interviewed over 145 Muslim school-going children across 12 cities in India who were bullied in the name of their religion. Muslim parents are proactively preparing their children, at a very young age, to deal with religious bullying. Erum finds it very disturbing.
“It’s psychological inoculation,” Erum said, “Can there be a best way to tell a three-year-old that she will be questioned on her love for her country [when] she’s only beginning to grasp the meaning of love and loyalty? And yes, this preparation needs to set in at three because kids as young as four come home and ask, ‘Mamma, am I a Pakistani?’”
My siblings and I were raised to not mess with those privileged enough to belong to the majority. My father often told us, “Work hard and be true to yourself. And keep your head down.”
“Keep your head down,” by which he meant don’t mess with the majority, don’t confront them. (Why? Because we are easy to trample. Because we don’t have the same rights). Growing up, I gave up eating meat for a significant number of years and, if I allow myself to be honest to myself, one major reason was that my minced meat and parathe or my omelet rolls would make my (upper caste) vegetarian friends uncomfortable. When you are a kid, you just want to belong. Editing my plate seemed like an easy thing to do for a seat at the table.
I never questioned why I was behaving like a polite guest in my own country. Today it makes me terribly sad for my younger, patriotic self. It makes me pity myself that I am always surprised when I am treated with courtesy in America. I don’t think I will get used to the fact that I can be treated with dignity without me fighting for it, working hard for it, demanding and defending my right for it.
I had to train myself to calmly validate my existence by explaining my religion, my festivals, and my food while fielding sharp questions about these from people we considered our own. I never questioned why those who were questioning me felt they were on a higher ground, why they were uncomfortable with my religion, why they were surprised by my “normality”, why they were shocked by my knowledge, and what gave them the absolutely misplaced confidence to question their friend, their fellow citizen like that?
It isn’t that I haven’t faced discrimination in the US. With skin like mine, with a name like mine, that is to be expected. It is humiliating and always hurts but not as much as it did in my own country.
I knew what was coming to the US — at the societal level — after the 2016 election. I had seen it after the 2014 election in India. I had seen the uptick in hate crimes against minorities and immigrants in India and anticipated the same in the US. I had seen families in deep conflict in India and expected the same in the US I had seen the mainstreaming of bold “fringe” groups in India and feared the same in the US. But even when you are expecting a punch to the gut, it hurts and creates fear when the fist lands. For a long time, I was scared all the time. When I was done being scared on Eastern Standard Time, I would start being scared on Indian Standard Time. I was squeezed between two countries—two countries that seemingly didn’t want me.[/perfectpullquote]
One year ago, I attended a Pen America event on the role of journalists and public figures when their communities are under attack. The event started with a reading by Afaq Mahmoud—a poet with roots in Sudan and Yemen—and sitting in the audience, I nodded and hugged these lines:
“I have yet to love a country that did not try to kill me,
which is to say I have learned to plant roots in all these soils,
even when they won’t have you,
because when grief makes a home out of you,
you learn to make a home out of everything else.”
It has taken me a lifetime and some distance from the homeland to realize that when our parents told us to forgive, forget and move on from everyday bigotry with a tired shrug of “that’s how it is” for everyone, they were not talking about everyone. They were talking about us, just us — the minority Indians.
I have seen a different kind of confidence (until it’s shaken by jarring experiences of discrimination) in immigrants to the US who hail from privileged majorities in their home countries. They carry it everywhere with a sass that makes me envious. When I first came here, I would often catch my own reflection in sidewalk mirrors on bustling streets and mumble to myself, “What am I doing here? I am not even supposed to be here.” I once mentioned it to an upper caste Ivy leaguer and asked if he ever thought the same, “No,” he said absolutely offended as if I was insulting him.
I once read how Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie had to learn how to be black in the US and all the pitfalls of it. I understood what she meant. It’s because back in her home in Nigeria, she never stood out. She was part of the majority. She belonged.
Not everyone can transition from living in a safe bubble to suddenly be lumped together with less fortunate minorities. Especially when it means struggling to rescue your voice while losing your privilege and relevance.
An upper caste Hindu and fiery right-wing acquaintance of mine had a job, which a lot of Americans would have been grateful for and lived in one of the most diverse cities in the country and yet, couldn’t settle down here. I observed a change in him when he came to the US. He was suddenly reading and discussing articles about marginalised minorities. It seemed to me that he was trying to understand how an under-siege minority’s struggle to belong somewhere has its roots in being outsiders in their own countries. Last year he decided he had enough of America, left his job and moved back to India. There were a lot of reasons for his decision. But, I believe one that he didn’t accept, one that was so clear to me was that he, for the first time in his life, had found himself to be part of a marginalised minority. He had lost his voice, his relevance and chose to leave.
I am close to finding mine, so I don’t need to.
*Name has been changed on request to protect privacy.
First published in NewsCentral24x7 on May 23, 2018: