“There should be no discrimination against languages people speak, skin color, or religion.”– Malala Yousafzai
More often than not, I’m asked by ignorant people, “what are you?” The very first time it happened to me, when I was younger, it bothered me to no end. What did they mean? Did they want to know where I was born, my nationality according to my passport, my race, ethnicity, the language(s) I speak at home? As I got older though, I realized that the person who asked usually didn’t care. It was a subtle way of saying, “I know you don’t belong here” or “I can see that you look ‘ethnic.” Over the years, what I’ve noticed is that, regardless of the exact intention behind the question, it usually is meant to be demeaning.
So, in order to appease them, I’d usually give in. I had my answer ready. “I’m Indian,” I’d quickly say, fully aware that that doesn’t give up anywhere near the full picture of who I am or where I’m from. If I thought they actually cared about the answer, I would have said, “I am an American citizen, Singaporean through birth, and of Indian descent.” In my head though, I always imagined myself ending the fight with words, spitting out, “What are you?” and while they drop their mouths in awe, I’d simply remind them that we all have roots, and to go find theirs using ancestry.com or another method, that’ll show them that we’re all immigrants.
To my dismay, I always found myself backing down, because to some degree I believed them. My Mom’s words would always find themselves in my brain during the exact moment I’d have the impulse to speak my mind. She’s said on multiple occasions throughout my childhood, “Ramya, you may think you belong here in this country, but there will be those people who will never see you, or treat you like you do. You need to act accordingly; no arguing or getting into fights because it’s not worth it.” For the longest time, her advice made sense to me. Why ruin my chances of achieving the American Dream by pissing off the wrong person? The thing is, my line of thinking was naïve. I thought that if I just put my head down and did my work, that my work would speak for itself. I never imagined that my race can actually do me harm, because in a fair world, it wouldn’t.
The truth is though, that we don’t live in a completely fair world, and most people would agree with that statement. However, over the years, I found that those who don’t are essentially pretending our society is fair and equal to everyone by claiming to be “colorblind,” meaning not seeing color at all. This past semester in school, I studied this concept, which is actually a good one, but has a lot of holes in it. Having a truly colorblind society is wonderful, because then we’d all be equal; America would truly be a meritocracy. Currently, though, claiming you are colorblind is one of the many ways people seem to be sweeping these very real problems under the rug.
How can we really claim to be colorblind? Putting aside the good intentions of colorblindness, I urge you to look at the consequences of it. Look at the ratio of people of color being stopped and searched by police vs. that of White Americans. What about the percent of African Americans who have ever felt discriminated against because of their race (according to a Quinnipiac University Survey, 52%) versus 1 in 10 White Americans? Or the prison sentences for people of color vs. White Americans? The amount of POC (people of color) who are the “random security checks” at the airport every time. Unfortunately, the list of comparisons can go on, and they are most definitely not a sad ‘coincidence.’
While we are taking strides to equality by appreciating diversity, we are nowhere near equal. Differences in opportunities gained through social and cultural capital, the differences in socioeconomic status, increasing residential segregation, and educational inequity all need our attention to address. However, in order to address these problems, we need to admit that we aren’t truly a colorblind society, and that is okay as long as we continue to remedy the wrongs that have been done to certain groups of people years ago. We need to realize that it’s not enough to engage in Black History Month in schools, or have minority role models like Obama, Oprah, Priyanka Chopra, etc. It’s a step, but it proves that we aren’t colorblind. If we’re not colorblind, then we are inadvertently agreeing to seeing color which provides leeway to discriminate on the basis of color under the guise of being equal (colorblindness) and treating every individual the same.
So, to conclude, I urge whoever is reading this to have those uncomfortable conversations with people around you. Talk about inequities, and how to overcome them. Listen to your friends when they talk about discrimination; don’t tell them they are overreacting. Take a step, no matter how small, so that one day everyone can actually be equal, and have access to equal opportunities. So that one day, all kids can feel like they belong, and no one gets told that they are inferior because of their skin color. Let’s make America great by appreciating everyone and their differences enough to reduce the current inequities.