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Growing Up Brown in America: When Every Day is Halloween

For the marginalized, the journey to finding oneself is fraught and frightful.

Photograph by Rajesh Ashar

Sometimes, taking off the mask is what is really scary.

I’ve been working on that the past few years. I found myself struggling to process a personal loss, mainly because I was more worried about how others perceived my loss and my reaction to it than allowing myself to just feel what I felt and honor those feelings. I realized I had become so swift to gauge others’ needs and so preoccupied with telling them what they wanted to hear, that I had forgotten in some ways who I was. I had covered myself in a cloak of expectation, carefully crafted over four decades of my life, and it was suffocating me.

“How did I get here?” I wondered. I thought back to kindergarten, when I proudly raised my hand when the teacher asked who knew the alphabet. Upon her request, I began to recite it, but was brutally stopped at “H” by my classmates’ uproarious laughter. I couldn’t comprehend why they were laughing at me, which only added to my distress. Finally, someone explained to me that it was pronounced “aych,” not “etch,” as my mom had taught me through her Indian accent. From there sprouted a seed of self-consciousness, a ceaseless suspicion that there was the equivalent of a “Kick me” sign taped to my back, and the silencing shame of being different.

I started to adapt by downplaying my differences. I figured I had to try to be like them in order to be with them, and I had to say what they wanted to hear so they would listen to me. And thus, I gathered the fabric of fitting-in and the string of assimilation, and I began to assemble my costume.

Once I had a passable prototype, I began to perfect it with the right props. For me, one such prop was the simple fork. In my Indian-American family, I remember from early childhood eating with our hands. My mom and grandmother would use their hands to carefully and evenly work warm jaggery into crumbled wheat rotis to create glistening spheres of goodness, which they would lovingly pop into my mouth. Even in the moments we resorted to silverware, we went straight for the spoons, effectively cutting food by forcefully and frantically sawing with the spoon’s side. When invited to a white friend’s home for a meal, I initially feared the fork. I would meticulously study how my friend’s family ate, marveling at their mastery of interchangeably using three utensils in one meal, and I would bring home with me those lessons in “civility, normalcy, and good manners.”

In middle school, I was thrilled to discover another useful prop: Lip gloss in the perfect shimmery shade of frosty pink. It made all the white girls look so shiny-sparkly-good, and that’s what I needed to be! But with my darker lips asserting themselves from beneath the cotton candy sheen, I couldn’t quite achieve the desired effect. Yet, there was no room in my world for the question my mom gently proffered as to what was the right shade of lip gloss for me, so I persisted with the pink.

Thankfully, we all grew out of the Bonne Bell stage. But for many of us brown folks, that just meant our costumes needed to be updated. I observed with an eagle-eye every expression, every choice, every quiet movement made by my white counterparts, and I plotted how I could improve my costume to make it more real and more believable. I started to become more accustomed to wearing the costume and, soon enough, was rarely taking it off. In the safe space at home with my Indian-American friends, I thought I was taking the costume off, but I realize now that remnants of the deception remained: an expression, a choice, a quiet movement.

All of this seemed to work well enough for me as I graduated from my educational endeavors and entered the professional world. I knew how to dress like a white girl, talk like a white girl, and for the most part, act enough like a white girl to get by. And trust me when I tell you that this is what it takes to get by in many professions. Even worse is that in most professions, mimicking a white girl isn’t even enough to excel, due to a cultural bias against women leaders.

In spite of this set-up, I took some risks. Once, when I was a summer intern at a law firm, I asked my assigned mentor attorney if I could wear an Indian outfit to an off-the-clock gathering at a law firm partner’s house. My mentor shook her head incredulously and issued a resounding “Noooooo!” Curiously and quite distressingly, despite my consistently well-received work product, I later was denied a position with the firm for reason of “not being a good fit.” It doesn’t take more than one or two outcomes like that to shake your confidence and chase you right back into your costume, which then is what begins to feel like the safe space.

Without even consciously realizing it, my M.O. became more and more about flying under the radar. If they didn’t notice me, it meant that I was fitting in. That my disguise was working.

Eventually, my costume started to fray from overuse, and the seams started to split to reveal more of my true personality, which, as it turns out, does not want to fly under the radar. I want to do something big and important! I’m tired of the same ineffective solutions to the same problems in business and society, particularly when it comes to diversity. And I’m tired of listening to people tell me their stories and then walk away before hearing mine.

I’ve tried to share with some people how much I was bullied as a child because I was different, but I often find they start to get visibly uncomfortable or try to tell me that my race may not have been a reason, for they, too, were bullied for being nerdy or not wearing the right clothes. I’ve learned through my now well-honed observational skills that people don’t really want to hear me talk about how I was called a “sand nigger” by my elementary school classmates. Or how, even after being the last one picked in 6th grade gym class, my square dance partner considered my brown skin too dirty to even touch, and we both miserably do-si-doed with a deep, dark chasm between our outstretched hands. Or how my high school English teacher told my mom that my potential was less than that of my white classmates since I was “English as a second language.” All of those stories make people break eye contact with me, wriggle in their seats, and try to change the subject.

I have this friend who is Jewish. She and I often have connected over some of the similar traits of our cultures. She is a gifted storyteller who doesn’t shy away from questions that help her understand others’ experiences, and I accordingly have found her to be compassionately and sincerely open to my stories. I recently relayed to her a detailed version of the story about my request to wear Indian clothes to the law firm gathering. Her eyes welled up as I related the events that led to me being dinged from the firm. I could see that it was hard for her to hear. As it should be, because it was hard for me to tell and even harder to experience. In fact, there was a new pain I felt in relating that experience. It was the pain of knowing better. It was the ache of wisdom telling me that I shouldn’t have put up with that and regretting that, as a young, female law student of color eager to make a good impression, I felt disempowered and showed up to that event costumed up, asking them to drop a treat in my bag.

Unfortunately, yet understandably, this form of disempowerment is common among minorities and women. In the 1960’s, sociologist Erving Goffman coined as “covering” this behavior of a known stigmatized individual attempting to mitigate the obtrusiveness of the stigma. It is difficult to metrically ascertain the impact of covering, when it includes lost professional opportunities, decreased confidence, identity and self-worth, and a whole lot of cognitive dissonance. But as law professor Kenji Yoshino recognized, “covering” amounts to a civil rights issue: African-Americans have lost their jobs over wearing their hair in cornrows; Women have been demoted for choosing to become mothers; and Jews have been terminated from the military for wearing yarmulkes. Professor Yoshino explains that courts are willing to protect immutable traits such as the color of one’s skin and one’s sex, but “will not protect mutable traits, because individuals can alter them to fade into the mainstream…If individuals choose not to engage in that form of self-help, they must suffer the consequences.” Such consequences are too often dire in these days of rampant racial profiling, especially for our African-American brothers and sisters who might wear a dark hoody on a candy run. And so, as incentivized by some of our classmates, teachers, neighbors, mentors, and bosses, and also by the law of the land, we cover, hiding our true selves behind masks of the majority and resigning our society to a persistent and oppressive homogeneity.

Abby Norman, in her article about liberal progressives not enrolling their children in her predominantly black neighborhood school, asks, “Really, if we are experiencing diversity on white terms, what good is that diversity anyway?” I’d guess that Ms. Norman and I would agree that the answer is, “not very good at all,” but you don’t have to take our word for it; the data speaks loudly and clearly. In spite of ongoing claims of diversity as a top value and mission of many organizations, African-Americans and Latina/o-Americans remain significantly underrepresented in many industries, even more so in senior leadership roles. Even in a legal profession charged with upholding justice, barely modest strides have been made in diversity metrics.

Clearly, “success” needs to be redefined when it comes to diversity, and innovative and diverse approaches must be welcomed, supported, and earnestly attempted to reap the many benefits of diversity and inclusion. To genuinely engage our underrepresented brothers and sisters, we all must battle our own implicit biases, in part by expanding our own social networks to be genuinely inclusive of others who have different backgrounds and experiences from us. If organizations truly seek diversity and inclusion (and that is a question meriting candid organizational introspection), they must make space for everyone, especially minorities and women, to bring their true selves to the table. Most, like me, have learned the art of “covering” to survive in organizations because that is what our society has required of us. It is now on our society and our organizational leaders to undo that to allow minorities and women to thrive and offer their unique perspectives and ideas for assured organizational and societal improvements. Seats at the table aren’t enough; organizational leaders must warmly and earnestly ask minorities and women to share their stories and then must listen, especially when it is painful and uncomfortable.

At the same time, we minorities and women must be more aware of and intentional about when we put on our costumes. There always will be some amount of care and strategy we employ in determining with whom, in what scenarios, and to what extent we show our true colors. However, it is important that we not be scared by past risks that didn’t pay off and continue to share our stories with the people in our lives who will be moved and impacted, and who will remind us of the power of our true narratives.

For me, that means remembering the way food always tasted better to me as a child when it was fed to me by my mom’s or grandmother’s hand instead of a cold-clawed fork. And it means acknowledging that the pretty pink lip gloss made me look like the living dead.

I’ll save that costume for Halloween.

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Neha Sampat is founder, consultant, trainer, and coach at GenLead|BelongLab, where she collaborates with clients through consulting, training, and individual coaching to innovate approaches to leadership, inclusion, and professional development that are both data-driven and grounded in the subjective experience. Her best Halloween costume to date was Buffila Slayerjee (the South Asian vampire slayer), and when she wears lip gloss, it is in the shade of coco plum. Find her on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter (@nehamsampat and @BelongLab).

Originally published at www.newsindiatimes.com

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