It’s hard to fathom how much a person’s words stick with you and shape how you see yourself in the world. I’ve known for a long time that the world sees me differently than my white friends and colleagues. I’m the one who gets followed around the store or ignored completely by salespeople. I’m the one who is looked at with suspicion while out for a stroll or yelled at by a neighbor because of my vicious dog (a well-behaved bulldog with his tongue hanging out).
When I moved to Canada from Trinidad, I was the only Indian kid in our second grade class. But at that age, it didn’t seem to matter. All my teachers and classmates quickly learned how to pronounce my name (Nan-DIH-nee; rhymes with Anthony; not Nan-dee-nee.) I remember going on field trips with parent chaperones and sleepovers with my friends and how some of these moms and dads even wanted me to date their sons. They thought I was smart and pretty and liked me for me.
Things started to change in high school. When I was 13, I remember going to a public pool with my friends. We had been in the water for hours and were getting ready to head home. I was the first one to finish getting changed and went outside to wait for my friends. Two men in their 20s were sitting nearby. One of them wondered aloud what time it was and saw that I was wearing a watch. Before I could say anything, his friend piped up and said “she probably doesn’t speak English.” They both laughed and carried on with their conversation.
It was one of those moments when you wonder if you should speak up and say something. But I knew I couldn’t. When my friends came out, I looked around at their white faces and bodies and knew I couldn’t tell them either. They wouldn’t understand. The next time something like this happened, it hit a little closer to home. A classmate told me in front of our friends that a guy I liked had confided to her that he liked me but would never date me because I’m black. It wasn’t so much that they had mischaracterized my ethnicity but that she would use my race and skin color as a means to humiliate me. And this time it was me who laughed it off. It was just easier that way.
In university, my name became even more of an issue. It’s an “unusual name” I’d been told. I had professors and supervisors mispronounce my name or avoid saying it altogether. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been at a meeting and a teammate or colleague will say, “Someone made a good point earlier about X.” That someone whose name is left unsaid is me. And I’ve realized it’s not always about my name. Some can pronounce it just fine. Instead, they are choosing not to say my name because it serves their purpose which is to exclude me and to silence my voice.
When I got a new job last year, my supervisor who wasn’t involved in the interviewing process recounted how she came to learn about me and my work. She had asked the hiring manager if I was white and said she was relieved to hear that I was a person of color. “That isn’t why we hired you, of course” she assured me. The reality is I will never know if someone wants to hire me because of my qualifications or because my intersectional identity adds to the diversity of their team.
I have learned from these experiences how much I try, especially at work, to fit in and not offend my white colleagues. I smile when people ask what kind of curry I’m cooking or if I’m celebrating a Sikh tradition (I was raised in the Hindu faith). I don’t speak up at meetings even when I have something to say. I allow people to take credit for my ideas.
In a recent role, I encountered a colleague who demeaned me and excluded me in whatever way they could and didn’t treat anyone else this way. With the exception of this person, all of the encounters I mentioned above involved white people. White people aren’t the only ones who are guilty of racial prejudice. It’s just that they are often the ones whose prejudices count and profoundly impact the lives of people like me.