I grew up in New York City in the 1970s. Was it a racist place? Probably, but that is not what I experienced for the most part.
I’m not saying there wasn’t bigotry or misinformation. In fact, it was inevitable that there was.
My parents came to the United States from India early in that diaspora. We moved to Jackson Heights before it became a version of New Mumbai, complete with sari shops, Indian appliance stores and sweet vendors. When my parents lived in Queens, Jackson Heights still had a cosmopolitan European feel to it.
There was the Sicilian style pizzaria on the corner with just three stools at the counter and a delicious selection of Italian ices. There was the Chinese butcher on the corner with the ducks’ feet hanging in the window. There was the Greek bakery, several all-American dress shops, and a drug store.
I was the only Indian person in my grade school class. There was one girl from Pakistan. She and I became friends but we weren’t all that similar — our parents spoke different languages at home and she was a Muslim whereas my parents were Hindu.
So in some senses I was isolated, but I never really felt it. I was a child, and children easily assimilate unless there are strong reasons not to.
Friction between myself and other children was rooted in ignorance, not hostility. Most of the kids I interacted with were either children of immigrants themselves or, at most, second generation. So they still had their own ties to Greece or Italy or Taiwan or Poland or El Salvador.
My third grade class had a boy from Armenia as well as a boy from Turkey. There was a Chinese girl and one from Guyana. I had never heard of Guyana before, so that intrigued me.
In such an environment, India was no more exotic than anywhere else. People had misconceptions about my culture and would ask me odd questions, but it was an exercise in curiosity and I didn’t mind. I was happy to let people know, after the second Indiana Jones movie came out, that, no, we didn’t actually eat monkey brains.
“I’m a vegetarian, for God’s sake,” I said in exasperation to my blond haired German Jewish friend.
I lived in a happy bubble, to some extent. While I was different from my friends, they were also different from each other. So, in a sense, we all fit in.
As I grew older, however, and came into contact with Americans who had grown up in places that were not New York City, I came into contact with actual prejudice and sometimes outright racism.
It shocked me at first. Then it made me angry. However, the worst experiences were the ones that snuck up on you, that were couched at first in a veneer of friendliness and acceptance.
I learned that I preferred a more direct, outright racism to the subtle variety. Honest prejudice is easier to deal with. You know your enemy and you can more easily fight back if you want to. And there is actually a greater chance at eventual reconciliation because it’s based in honesty.
The subtle racism is harder to deal with. Fighting it is like fighting a shadow, a mirage. You know it exists but it’s just outside your line of sight. It’s in the boundaries. You sense it, but when you turn to look — it’s gone.
There are two incidents I’ll share. Of course, there were many more but these two stand out to me as among the first I experienced. They were therefore all the more painful to me.
The Girl from the Suburbs
When I was in high school, I took weekend classes at Columbia University. This was through a special program for gifted children. I really enjoyed it because I got to do cool things. One semester I learned how to write programs in Lisp. Another semester we got to play with multimeters and oscilloscopes and other cool devices while we built small circuits.
I really enjoyed these experiences.
Inevitably, I was one of the few girls in the class. So if I spotted another female, we’d naturally gravitate towards each other.
One semester, the only other girl was from out of the city. She was from some 97% white rich suburb. Her parents brought her into the city for these classes, however, because it was a great opportunity. It would definitely look good on the college resume and help her get into Stanford, which is where she wanted to go.
We bonded over our mutual geekiness and I thought she was my friend.
She’d mentioned to me that sometime she might like to see more of the City, since she seldom got a chance to do so. Since I lived there and my high school was Stuyvesant, I was quite familiar with much of Manhattan. I offered to take her to China Town sometime, if she liked.
She became quite enthusiastic about that.
“We can get sesame pancakes at Rosie’s,” I said. “And then after we can wander down to Forbidden Planet. It’s the best sci-fi bookstore in the world.”
She was all in.
We had a good time, until…
We were wandering down a side street in China Town, looking at cassette tapes for sale.
“It’s too bad I don’t speak Mandarin,” I said, sadly. “We’d get a better bargain if I did.”
She didn’t seem to be paying attention to what I was saying. Instead, her eyes were focused on me in a very serious way. It made me uncomfortable.
“I now know how you feel,” she said.
She said it like it was some grand discovery that she’d made. She gave a pregnant pause before she continued.
“Standing here… I’m the only white person I can see,” she said, waving towards the masses of mostly Chinese. “This is how you must feel all the time.”
Except… that is not how I ever felt at all. Standing in China Town, until she pointed out that I was different from everyone else — I hadn’t felt different. New York City was my home town. I belonged.
Standing in China Town — until she pointed out that I looked different, I hadn’t felt different. I hadn’t felt that I didn’t belong.
The fact that she felt that way — it stunned and shocked me. I thought she was my friend and she accepted me. I didn’t think she saw me as something alien, but watching her face — it was obvious that she did.
And it really hurt to know that despite her outward acceptance and appreciation for me, despite our many similarities, she still saw me as “other”. In her attempt to empathize with me, she revealed her own racism.
Was I angry with her?
A little, but after I thought about it, later, I realized that she was just doing the best she could. She had been raised in an environment that probably had very fixed opinions about various races and yet she’d made an attempt to befriend someone who was so very different, in her eyes.
In my eyes, I’d never really seen much difference. I mean, we were both geeky girls who liked electronics and reading sci-fi and we both liked sesame pancakes. To me the similarities loomed much larger than differences in skin tone.
She saw things differently. As much as I resented the automatic assumptions she made, at the same time — I recognized her attempt to empathize. So while I could no longer consider her a friend because I could no longer feel that natural intimacy that we’d had, at the same time — I did appreciate that she wanted to understand where I was coming from.
The Man on the Plane
This second incident was much more egregious, to me.
I was traveling to Boston for college. I had been admitted to MIT, the most prestigious engineering school in the world. I was proud of myself and it probably showed.
On the plane from La Guardia to Logan, I found myself sitting next to an older gentleman.
We got into a very nice conversation. I found him friendly and funny and entertaining.
He talked about his daughter. He was a third generation Italian American and very proud of his heritage. I understood that. I was proud of my Indian heritage, too.
He mentioned that he daughter was a scientist. She had a PhD in biology and made six figures. He himself had only had a BA, so he was very proud of her.
“She makes six figures,” he bragged.
“Well,” I said. “I am going to be graduating from MIT with a degree in engineering. I’ll be making six figures too!”
The man got this look on his face.
“Well,” he said. “You’ll probably make five figures.”
I was surprised. I didn’t think there was that big a gap between salaries in engineering vs. the sciences. I wondering if he didn’t think I’d get an advanced degree, if that is why he thought I wouldn’t make as much money as his daughter?
And then I interpreted the look on his face. And I understood where his assumption came from. It had nothing to do with who I was, our conversation or my intended degree.
I was Indian. Therefore, he could not imagine I would make as much money as his white, Italian-American daughter.
Once I theorized this, I probed a bit. And yes, that was the root of it.
Again, this shocked me, because it was so unexpected. We’d been having such a pleasant conversation. I’d assumed he accepted me at face value, just as I accepted him.
I had been treating him the same way I would treat any older man — as a potential mentor or adviser, someone with wisdom to share. I never expected any sort of prejudice. I thought he liked me.
The reality is — he probably did like me well enough. But… he could not conceive of a non-white person making as much money.
Having white friends and staying anti-racist
The thing is, I have mostly white friends. It’s inevitable given my education level, the fact that I live in the suburbs and the demographics of the country.
For the most part, people I encounter are not racist. Sometimes they are ignorant, or they have small prejudices, but these are not racist. For example, some white people don’t like mariachi music. Heck, I don’t like it. That’s a taste issue, not a race one.
I love spicy Indian food but I’ve had friends who can’t stand it. Again, that’s nor racism. Some people erupt into flames at just the scent of a chile.
Every once in a while, though, I still encounter blatant racism. Sometimes I see it directed at someone else. I feel drawn to call it out when I see it, because it’s hurtful and it’s wrong.
I think we all have to stand up against evil, and I think racism, at its heart, is evil. Because it takes away from the intrinsic humanity of a fellow person. How can that be anything but evil?
Yet, believe it or not, a lot of the time these days I seem to be defending white people.
But… I think racism is wrong. And that means racism against white people as well as against any other group.
It might seem weird that I’ll stand up for white people when they encounter racism. But I’m not a “two wrongs make a right” person. I’m a “right is right, wrong is wrong” type of person and I will try to stand up for what I think is right.
And my white friends have stood up for me on many an occasion. They’ve been there for me. They have my back. We share true intimacy and acceptance. So do my black friends, my Latino friends, etc.
To me this is the inevitable truth. Either we are all human beings and we must work together to create a better world, a world where no one is treated differently due to the color of their skin, or we continue the horrible legacy of our ancestors. The legacy that gave us injustices such as the Tuskegee experiments and the Holocaust and the Armenian genocide and Jim Crow.
I remember reading a story about how Marilyn Monroe got a white nightclub to break down the color barrier so Ella Fitzgerald could perform. I thought — what a great woman. We should all do that, if we can.
Because no one should be excluded.
This post was previously published on Age of Awareness.
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