The color of one’s skin does not offer grounds for questioning one’s legitimacy.
I’ve been meaning to speak up about the Kansas shooting for the past week. But, every time I try to do so, I fail to articulate my emotions — my mind just stops formulating sentences mid-way and my eyes blur out my computer screen with tears of fear.
I was born in Hyderabad, India and immigrated to America with my mom 17 years ago.
For as long as I can remember, the word “home” evoked the images of the neighborhoods I grew up in, in central New Jersey — never India. Growing up, I never saw differences in who I was in the two places. I guess this was because my family always lived in predominantly South Asian towns. I had the privilege to unapologetically be myself: speak my mother tongue, wear the types of clothes my mom grew up wearing, eat the food my parents grew up eating, and celebrate the holidays my parents looked forward to as children. But, while doing all of this, I still pledged allegiance to the American flag every day of elementary school; my passport claims that I’m an American citizen; and, if you didn’t know my name, couldn’t see the color of my skin, and only heard me speak, you would think that I was an American. In my eyes, I wasn’t the hyphen that most people place between the Indian and American when describing me. Rather, I was, and still consider myself to be an Indian American. I’m not a fusion. Everything that I am, stems from the fact that I am Indian, and embracing that fact in this country — that I adore — is exactly what makes me American. I’m an Indian American.
At least, in my eyes I am.
For a while, I didn’t think Trump supporters existed. This was pre-election, of course. I mean, I knew that they were there…somewhere, but my naiveté, if you will, kept me in my liberal bubble. But then, I began to see MAGA bumper stickers, and merchandise in my home town, and my bubble burst.
The story I’m about to tell you may seem stupid. But, please, don’t question the validity of my fears.
This past summer, my family was entertaining an old friend of my dad’s. I was all dressed up — in a kurta, with gold jhumkas, and a bindi on my forehead — when my mom asked me to pick up drinks from Shoprite. Excited to be able to drive, I hopped in the car and drove to the shopping center. I remember feeling my heart drop the second I parked. Here I was, in the parking lot of Shoprite, a store I frequented, a store I’ve shopped at wearing Indian clothes on multiple occasions prior, realizing how blatantly Indian I looked. I shook away any feeling of discomfort I had, and reassured myself that embracing my heritage is exactly what made me an American. I used to appreciate the attention my Indian clothes got me. When I noticed people’s eyes, I saw admiration, curiosity, and an appreciation for my culture. But, I remember walking towards the entrance of the store that day feeling eyes pierce through me. These eyes didn’t seem to hold any sort of admiration, curiosity, or appreciation. Rather, I felt anger, irritation, and annoyance. I remember walking through the aisles of the store fearing that someone from somewhere would pop out and yell at me to go back to my country. I began to wonder if the admiration, curiosity, and appreciation I used to see were just figments of my imagination.
Was I that naïve?
The clothes on my back and the accent through which I speak won’t change the color of my skin. While what I wear and the way I speak say American, the color of my skin seems to scream my story a little differently.
To some, I’m a hyphen. To others, I’m an outsider.
My family never feared death or racism, at least not overtly, not like they do now. This was a great privilege, because I know that this is not something many people of color can say. My mother, the symbol of tradition in my family, someone I define as fearless and confident, taught me to be the same. She taught me to unapologetically be myself. She gave me the strength to have courage in my convictions. She ensured that my sister and I would embrace our heritage, and know what it meant to be Indian. The ability to speak my language, Telugu, connects me to the country my parents and I left behind. My mother enforced strict rules when I was younger: I was to only speak to her in Telugu. If I spoke in English, she wouldn’t respond. And because of her, I can speak the language fluently.
But the same woman, who would encourage me to speak in my mother tongue, called me the other day to tell me to not speak in Indian languages in public. The same woman who raised me telling me to go out and be outspoken and confident, is now telling me to remain inside and to stay quiet. Because at the end of the day, my safety is what’s important.
When I read about the shooting, and saw that I shared a birthplace with two of the victims, I thought about my family in America.
In Kuchibhotla, I saw my father, and in his wife, Sunayana, I saw my mother. And I cried.
This past week, I spent a lot of time wondering why the South Asian community isn’t responding to the shooting in Kansas the way I’ve seen members of other marginalized groups respond to hate crimes within their own communities.
Is it that we don’t care? It can’t be. Right? We care. Right?
I’ve seen the GoFundMe page that’s raised over a million dollars. So, we obviously care.
But, is money enough? By silently solving our problems internally, are we dismissing the greater issue?
Why is it that we don’t demand answers?
Is it because we care too much about reputation?
Is it because we fear that speaking up and finally having our voices heard and demanding our deserved respect could threaten all that we’ve achieved?
What is it that we as a community have achieved? The money in our pockets? The degrees on our walls?
Why don’t we define our achievements by our ability to speak up for what we believe in?
Why are we so concerned with outward perception that we constantly agree to put our heads down?
Why is it that we don’t see that we can no longer dismiss injustices and tuck things under the rug?
I understand that there is a greater pain that comes with being deprived of something we believe we deserve than of something we tell ourselves we don’t.
But, this isn’t okay, and it no longer makes things easier.
The excuse that this is not our country is outdated.
Silence is acceptance.
(The writer, Tanvi Kodali, is a student at Wellesley College, Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts, USA)