Updated: Apr 2, 2021
Author: Anika Kapoor
Content warning: Mentions of mass shooting and racism.
It was a normal afternoon in early March, and I rushed into my eighth grade art class, thankful to leave the chilly winter breeze behind me. It was my last period. I was always so glad to end the long school day in the company of my friends as we worked on our various art projects. That day was no different. I sat down in my usual seat, last to arrive thanks to the long trek across campus. Anticipating my late arrival, one of my friends had set out my project for me, as she always did. I quickly got to work, sweeping my paintbrush haphazardly across the page. I had never been a good artist or even enjoyed art, but my friends had made the class one I was eager to attend. I enjoyed their company, and our different kinds of conversations.
Over the past few weeks, these conversations had taken a darker tone due to the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School which had claimed the lives of 17 students and administrators. As students in America, whenever a school shooting happened, we became hyper aware of our own vulnerabilities. We spent our lunch periods nervously searching for the nearest exit. We spent every lock down in fear of the horrific possibility that our school was next. This was an issue that we, as the student body, took to heart. So when one of my friends brought up the topic of school security, it didn’t surprise me. We had been talking about it ever since the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School had happened. She was talking about whether we should carry clear bags as opposed to regular bags. This had been a topic of great debate during this time, with some believing the transparent material was an invasion of privacy. I expressed my neutral stance on the topic — I was not entirely informed on the issue at the time — which prompted her to ask whether I would use a transparent bag. I said that I would, for the sake of security. She nodded, looked me straight in the eye, and said, “Yeah — you wouldn’t want anyone to think you were a school shooter, right?” I stopped, just for a second, trying to process what she had said. Just for a second, I was still, silent. And then I laughed. I rationalized that I must have misinterpreted her comment. Again and again, I tried to convince myself that she had been kidding. She must’ve been. I was just reading into it.
But there was something about the way she had looked at me — I knew it wasn’t a joke. It was the way her smile had faltered, the way her eyes scanned my face. When I got home that afternoon, I looked at myself in the mirror. I saw my brown skin and thick, dark hair. I racked my brain wondering what had prompted her to say that to me. I thought about it for a little bit, and then, for years, dismissed it as “just a joke.” I’d been told my entire life that I was overly sensitive, emotional, and self-critical. I figured that I had simply made a mountain out of a molehill. Not until years later, after another racist encounter, did I analyze the incident from a more mature perspective. The numerous instances of casual racism I’ve experienced have ultimately affected how I live my life and view my culture; unlearning these habits has been a struggle, a conflict between how I’d always seen myself and what I knew was right.
In my southern New Jersey elementary school, it wasn’t uncommon to be one of the only Indian-American kids in class. There were few kids who looked like me, and it was clear that those who did look like me were often ostracized for being “too weird.” I would just sit there as kids mocked my heritage and culture. I would just sit there and listen. With every word, I felt an even deeper resentment towards my Indian roots. I longed for acceptance among my peers, and had I the choice to erase my Indian side altogether, I would have. In middle school, I went so far as to dye my hair, hoping that the caramel highlights would fill the void that my shame had created. Oddly enough, I never looked at my extreme reaction as a product of racism. I never thought that what they said could even be considered racism. I was always hyperaware of discrimination against other marginalized communities, but never once did I acknowledge the way racism affected my own life. I knew that those who said the n-word were racist. I knew that those who mocked Indigenous people were racist. I knew that those who mocked Jewish people were antisemitic. But I saw attacks on my culture and race as normal. As me being too sensitive. I was ashamed of myself. Ashamed to look different. To speak differently. To see life differently. Looking back now, I am ashamed that I could never see the blatant racism for what it was.
When I started high school, I made myself a promise. I promised to challenge my narrow view of my culture. I made friends, who, despite their similar experiences, tried their best to embrace their Indian heritage. After years of resenting myself for what I couldn’t change, my perspective started to shift. We talked for hours about our shared experiences as first generation Indian-Americans. We talked about the hardships our families had faced. Similar to me, my friends thought little of the racist encounters they had had throughout their lives. They dismissed stereotypical comments as “nothing” and as “funny jokes.” They, like me, revelled in being known as one of the “good” Indians. One of the “cool” ones. We wanted our peers to see us as smart, but not nerdy. Proud, but not stuck up. Pretty, but not prudes. We wanted them to see us as they saw everyone else. I did my makeup every morning, consciously putting on foundation one shade too light. I straightened my hair, destroying my textured waves. I did what I thought would make me blend in. My happiness, my self worth, depended on this. Despite our attempts to embrace our culture on the surface, my friends and I fed off of each other’s internalized racism, fueled by years and years of dismissal. I thought that it was normal to feel this way. I thought it was normal to want to be somebody else.
Only when my circle began to diversify did I feel more comfortable in my skin. As my interest in social justice and politics grew, so did my perspective on how racism had affected my life. I decided to look into myself for the root of my shame. The more I looked, the more I recognized that the issue was closer than it had seemed. I realized that it wasn’t just those who didn’t share my Indian background that made these casually racist comments; the same issues existed within my own community. Growing up, it had been normal for me to look at other South Asian people and compare them to myself: whether they had thick or thin hair, or lighter or darker skin. It had never been something I consciously did, rather it was something I picked up from seeing others do it. It had been normal for me to have people within my own community comment on my skin color or my weight. I was praised for having what they saw as a socially acceptable complexion. I was made to think that it was these individual qualities that would bring me success in life. As I got older and met more people, I completely rejected this idea. I encouraged my friends to evolve their way of thinking; however, they, too, had been plagued by these harmful misconceptions. It was normal to hear them discussing the way other South Asian girls dressed and their skin color. Every time, I reminded them of the harm such words can cause even though I knew that they hadn’t intended it to be construed that way. This was the culture in which they had been raised. This was the culture in which I had been raised. Unlearning what had been burned into our brains from a young age was difficult, but it was so incredibly liberating.
I find myself reflecting back on that day in March quite often, wishing that I could have seen that girl’s comment for what it really was: racism. I wish that I had been able to recognize the inflection in her voice and the way she looked at me, her easy stare indicating that she had done this before and didn’t see anything wrong with it. I wish that I had been able to see a reason to stand up for myself. My entire life has been formed around stereotypes, some harmful and others simply untrue. I find myself in a constant battle to break free of them. It has taken me longer to understand that not everyone who perpetuated these stereotypes was actively trying to cause harm — they had grown up thinking it was normal. Just as I had grown up thinking it was normal. The moment I decided to break free of this, to stop my culture from being the butt of every joke, I finally felt that it was I who had control over my future, rather than the casual racism that it was built around.