I was in the second grade—unassuming and unaware, removed from the cold grasp of reality. I sat on a blue table, sandwiched between two boys who happened to be best friends. One of them dropped a crayon, and startled by the prospect of anyone having to bear even a minor inconvenience, I dove to retrieve it, presenting its broken parts to him on my knees.
I had expected his lips to smile with gratitude, but my heart broke as I watched them curl into a bitter smirk as he sneered, “I don’t want them anymore. They have your dirty Indian diseases.”
I gawked at him.
Within a second, he transformed into one of his bygone ancestors, casting a shadow over my brown existence with his pale white skin. His lack of melanin granted him the weapon necessary to decry my flesh as sordid, my lived experience as worthless, and my existence a tired bromide once employed to champion “The White Man’s Burden.”
Horrified, I rushed to my teacher and retold her the words that had just pierced my 8-year-old self.
Tired and worn, she simply said to him, “Don’t say that.”
“Don’t say.” I heard portions of this phrase before. My mom uttered it to me when bits of ignorance and insolence spilled from my mouth, so I was placated by the fact that his racism was being addressed.
It was the last bit of my teacher’s sentence that perturbed me, the “that.” Her vocabulary, her side-facing stance, her fingers continuing to shuffle bits of colored paper, her downcast glance, all conveyed a singular message: what he did to me did not matter. My surging feelings of inferiority were invalid because the racism I just experienced was simply a “that,” something so worthless it could not be named.
Ever the perceptive child, I imbibed the same attitude. His actions did not merit my reaction, and I was to remain silent.
That’s why when he demanded that I throw away his trash or he would kill me, I obeyed.
That’s why when he demanded that I go and express his feelings to the apparent “love of his life,” or he would push me off a roof, I obeyed.
He was amused. I was terrified.
Years later, I would recount this experience that I remember so very vividly, recalling even the position of the desk we shared, to a white babysitter.
“You know, it would be a lot easier if you just didn’t get offended,” she commented. “That’s the problem these days with you people of color, you get too offended.”
Benumbed by this racism, I cocked my head to the right, mulling her proposition over for a second before deciding that this otherization of people of color must be normal, that our pain was indeed only a “that.” The problems I faced were my burden alone, a consequence of my living on others’ land. After all, she argued, her ancestors had been generous enough to open the enormous wealth of their country to us forlorn immigrants—the least I owed their descendants was tolerance.
And so from then on, I smiled.
I smiled when a classmate “complimented” the samosa I shared with him, marveling at how “the countries that had the best food keep their women in the kitchen.” I smiled when a friend expressed her concern of my going to hell because I was not Christian. I smiled when a stranger asked whether I had left my veil at home one morning.
I smiled because I believed that their ignorance was a coincidence, a sum total of the legalized racist legacy of Mississippi and a lack of exposure to those so different from their own selves.
I smiled because I did not realize that ignorance is not a coincidental compulsion, but a picked passion. My adopted approach of letting such comments ricochet off my rusted armor, worn by years of experiencing continuous bigotry, was to be lauded as one of maturity, not acknowledged as the coping mechanism that it truly was.
But for the first time in years this past week at the Distinguished Young Women of Mississippi Competition, I frowned.
I frowned because for the first time in my life, I was in an environment where no one questioned my existence. I melted into pictures without the origins of my tan skin tone being prodded. To my utter surprise, I was able to say my name without a chorus of voices attempting contorted pronunciations echoing afterwards, and again, I frowned.
I frowned because I realized that inclusion, not exclusion, was normal.
I frowned because I realized that it wasn’t my responsibility to show continuous grace to ignorance.
I frowned because I realized that racism was not my burden, but others’ problem.
Seventeen years after being born and brought up in this country, I learned a fundamental lesson: I am American enough.
My babysitter was not alone in suggesting that this nation is not mine. Growing up, I had come to understand from other Indian adults in my life that I live on borrowed land, that I breathe rented air, that I devour the fruits of an omniscient, omnipotent host. Thus, I deafened myself to the cries of my hurt pride when I was told that I was forever another. I adjusted and assimilated; I smiled and soothed.
But now when I hear such rhetoric, I turn to the words my founding fathers penned in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”
These words are my America—the America that remains a nation bound brokenly and beautifully, not by a shared identity, but by a shared ideology. Upon taking my very first breaths, I inherited this legacy defined by liberty, freedom and justice for all.
It remains my responsibility to protect this legacy when it is defiled by those decrying its sanctity by claiming that freedom is only the privilege of a select few. It remains my responsibility to speak up when the so-called defendants of democracy claim that I am not American enough to comment on the fault lines fracturing American society. It remains my responsibility to carry forth the American tradition of never settling for complacency.
Because our being Black or our being brown does not compromise our prospect of being American enough; our being a bigot, on the other hand, is the only evidence necessary to prove that we do indeed live on borrowed land.
So I call out to you—if you are American enough. Hold my hand and walk with me, a girl descendant from the likes of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, claiming to bear the secret of America’s true essence.
Hold my hand, and walk the flat lowlands of Mississippi. Walk up the blackened coasts of South Carolina until you behold the rusted Bell of Liberty. Walk to the Californian waters crashing against yellow sands, your fingers still interlocked with mine.
Because this land is your land.
This land is my land.
This land was made for you and me.
This MFP Voices essay does not necessarily represent the views of the Mississippi Free Press, its staff or board members. To submit an essay for the MFP Voices section, send up to 1,200 words and factcheck information to [email protected]. We welcome a wide variety of viewpoints.