Supreet Kaur Thiara, Finance [Class of 2022]
Hi, I’m Supreet! I’m a rising junior at Purdue University studying Finance with a concentration in Marketing and a certificate in Acting. As you can probably guess from my name, I’m a Punjabi-Sikh. I grew up speaking Punjabi at home and picked up Hindi from watching Zee TV serials and Bollywood movies. Like a decent amount of the out-of-state population at Purdue, I’m from the SF Bay Area. All my life, I’ve lived in the bubble that is the Bay Area, so the transition to Purdue was quite the culture shock. My high school was predominantly Asian and Filipino and the demographics at Purdue were the opposite, to say the least. From the get-go, it was important for me to find a community that felt familiar and my love for Bhangra led me to audition for Boiler Bhangra. I, then, shortly became a part of the family.
If you’re on any South Asian dance team or organization at Purdue, you’re automatically a part of the Brown Town. But the thing is that even being in this “community” didn’t always mean that those people would be friendly with you. As a freshman, I noticed that the way you existed in Brown Town and the dynamic that you would become accustomed to depended on the organization that you joined. Being on Bhangra meant that I saw friendships with people on SASA and a rivalry with Raas and the American India Foundation (AIF). The Brown Town was not really a unified community because everyone was separated by the team or organization that they were on. And because of this, the cross-organizational friendships with Bhangra and Raas or SASA and AIF weren’t very common. Everyone was so set on their own groups and rarely made the effort to create new friendships with other organizations.
The whole brown town followed a sort of pyramid structure where Purdue SASA and Boiler Bhangra were sort of on the top, Beta Chi Theta, Purdue Raas, Purdue Aharya, and Purdue AIF came next, and then the last tier consisted of Boiler Baaz and Purdue Jazba. I knew that SASA and Bhangra were quite intertwined and people who were on our team were, more often than not, also on SASA. But it wasn’t just the matter of different friend groups, because this tiered-structure of Brown Town led to bashing other teams for absolutely no reason. Instead of creating a community that encouraged and supported one another, we created a culture where it was okay to judge and poke fun at other South Asian organizations at Purdue. And sadly, in Bhangra, this culture was being passed onto the newbies of the team. Now, I don’t know exactly why things were this way, but I’m glad that it is now changing.
The class of 2023 has brought such a well-needed change for Brown Town at Purdue. From what I saw, they came into Brown Town not really understanding this “rivalry” that existed between our different organizations, which was a good thing. Newbies on Bhangra were making friends with people on Beta Chi Theta and Raas, and the whole Brown Town dynamics were changing. It’s because of this that we have become more welcoming of one another and have become open to making friendships with those who were on “rival” organizations. It is absolutely amazing seeing all of our South Asian organizations coming together to make new friendships and also working together for other needed change within the Purdue community.
Some of the needed change that we have come together as a community to tackle has been the continued racism that happens on our campus and of which our community has been a part of the problem. A lot of the racism that occurs on our campus goes unnoticed and the Instagram account, @blackatpurdue, has done an incredible job at collecting and sharing stories of the microaggressions and racism that the Black community faces on our campus. It’s sad to see that as minorities, the South Asian community has been contributing to the problem, and that too that it is from organizations that represent the South Asian community as a whole at our school. Below are a few of the many statements released on this account that address the South Asian community as being discriminatory and unwelcoming.
In light of hearing all these stories, it brought the South Asian community together to address the changes that we need to make in order to support the Black community on campus and other minority organizations. Since then, the South Asian community has come together to run multiple fundraisers that support the Black Lives Matter movement which has also brought Brown Town closer together. Additionally, a South Asian Student Union Board is also in the works. This initiative will ensure that our South Asian organizations come together to tackle injustices on our campus and in our own greater communities.
Despite all the internal problems within Brown Town as well as the issues that affect other minority communities at Purdue, there has been a clear initiative and direction for change. Yes, a lot of what happened within our community has been problematic on so many levels, but it is also important to recognize how much that is changing, and that too, for the better. We are becoming more aware of our actions and how it affects those around us as we transform into a community that welcomes, values, and spreads love to all.
Puja Maheshwari, Computer Science [Class of 2021]
Hi, I am Puja, an incoming senior at Purdue University majoring in Computer Science. I was born and raised in the Bay Area, California, yet somehow ended up in the middle of Indiana. Being South Asian means something different for everyone and over the past few years, I have witnessed and experienced what it means to be South Asian at Purdue University.
I grew up in a small town in the bay area, which is primarily made up of half whites and half asians. My high school was split into three main groups: the Indian group, the Asian group, and the White group. And, although I naturally fit into the Indian group, it was not rare for the three groups to intermingle and hang out with each other. I essentially grew up with this friendly dynamic between races and believed this kind of fraternization was a norm.
When I first arrived at Purdue, a predominantly white school, I was completely taken aback. In my first few weeks it became pretty clear to me that my experiences growing up were not the norm. From my first day at Purdue, I felt excluded by my white peers. I remember on the first day of freshman orientation, our dorm was gathered in our lobby and told to mingle before being taken elsewhere. I went downstairs with my roommate and the two girls across the hall from us, who were all Indian. As we stood in our little circle talking, I distinctly remember attempting to talk to a group of white girls next to me. They seemed to be very friendly to each other, but for some reason, I was unable to receive that same friendliness. I didn’t think much of the incident, but as orientation week went on, and we were split into small groups of 10-12 students (mostly white), I found myself feeling the same way as I did that first day in the lobby. After a couple days I ended up leaving my orientation group and joining my roommates’, and after another day we both stopped going to orientation all together.
After my first month at Purdue, I had formed a tight knit group with other freshmen, who were mostly Indian. A common conversation topic amongst us was the exclusiveness we felt from those of other skin colors. My roommate, who is from Indiana, expressed that this is nothing unusual, and she had similar experiences her whole life. On the other hand, many of my friends, who also grew up in the Bay Area, shared my sentiments of uncomfortableness and feeling like others didn’t want to be friends with us. The handful of us from the Bay Area bonded over this major culture shock and the differences in how we were treated in Indiana versus California. The differences were so apparent and difficult to navigate, that many of us considered transferring to California colleges after our first year, and a couple of my friends followed through with applying and heavily considering leaving Purdue. With the Black Lives Matter movement being stronger than ever and after hearing about the experiences of Black students at my university, I can’t help but think: If this is how I feel as a South Asian student, I can’t even imagine what it feels like to be a Black student at Purdue. I would like to emphasize that over the past few years, I have made some amazing friends of all skin colors who are inclusive and nice. But the overall sentiment stays the same – it’s pretty hard to fit in at a predominantly white school and state.
Upon arriving at Purdue, I not only noticed a divide between people of different skin colors, but also a divide between students of the same skin color, particularly South Asians. In the Indian community, there are 4 main organizations to join: our competitive bhangra team (Boiler Bhangra), our competitive raas team (Purdue Raas), our South Asian fraternity (Beta Chi Theta), and our South Asian Student Association. From my first few weeks at Purdue (and in the organization I decided to join – Boiler Bhangra) I noticed a not-so-friendly rivalry between the organizations. Students in SASA and Boiler Bhangra often got along, and students in BCT and Raas got along. If students from “rivalry” organizations intermingled, they were often made fun of by their own organization. Additionally, people of different organizations were often stereotyped. For instance, if a new freshman joined Raas, they were often immediately judged and ostracized by students in “rivalry” organizations who don’t even know that person personally. This kind of judgement was a norm, but looking back on it, I laugh and question why we were so set on excluding one another when we all felt that same exclusion from other types of students at Purdue. Luckily, over the years these stereotypes have been shrinking and broken down, and intermixing between organizations is no longer so looked down upon.
Just as we are quick to judge one another based on the organizations we join, the Indian community at Purdue has also been quick to judge those not in our direct community. While we like to think of ourselves as inclusive people, the reality is that we are exclusive to each other and to those around us. Through a @BlackatPurdue instagram account that was recently made to bring to light the experiences of Black students at Purdue, it was made clear that our community has made many mistakes over the years. These mistakes include cultural appropriation of Black culture, casually saying the N-word at parties or in conversations, or excluding and making Black students who come to our events feel unwelcome. As our community has reflected on our actions over the past months, it has become clear that there are a variety of changes we need to make in how we treat and look at one another before we can claim or attempt to be allies to our fellow Black students and peers.
One of these changes is making a premature judgement of one another. As with most brown communities, gossip and judginess are pretty prominent and contribute to our toxic environment. About a month ago I was talking to an Indian friend who has mostly white friends and is not part of the Indian community. I was expressing my disappointment over how South Asians on campus have made Black students feel. My friend responded saying he wasn’t surprised and that he, as an Indian, feels more comfortable around white people at school. He shared his stories of feeling uncomfortable when he goes to events with a lot of Indians because we stare and look at him weirdly and because people assume he is “whitewashed”. He even stated that he felt this way at a party at my own apartment with my friends. While his experiences disheartened me, they also showed me the reality of the fact that as a group, we are judgy and exclusive, even to those that look like us.
Another major issue which has recently been brought to light within the South Asian community at Purdue is colorism. Colorism is the “discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group.” From the Fair and Lovely skin whitening cream to our moms and grandmas lecturing us about sitting in the sun for too long, colorism is deeply embedded in Indian culture. Before coming to Purdue I had only experienced colorism within my own family, and that too rarely. Growing up, I never really looked or worried about the shade of my skin color. Purdue changed that. Within my first few months at Purdue, it became a norm for my North Indian friends to make fun of me for “being too dark to be North Indian” and therefore “less superior” to them. While these might have been just jokes, I had never heard anyone talk to me like this before and eventually the jokes became so normal and common that I truly started to believe there was something wrong with my skin color. These jokes were thrown around so casually, that (embarrassingly enough) I even started to joke about the color of my skin to these same people. Never in my life had I experienced associating skin color with a certain type of person so blatantly and directly. Some friends have shared similar stories at Purdue, and the harmful comments stuck with them so much that they felt the need to change the color of their skin by using lemon or bleach. After learning more about colorism and the racism rooted in it, I realized that my experiences were not normal, and that I need to stand up for myself and those around me who are victim to these kinds of comments.
I am so glad that our community at Purdue has been called out on various Instagram posts. In just the past month, I have noticed and taken part in so many open conversations regarding how we treat each other and those around us. While I wish I or other students didn’t go through some of our experiences, I find joy in the fact that the South Asian community is committed to making a change and fixing our wrongdoings so we can be more supportive and inclusive of each other and those around us. I am so excited to see where our community goes from here.
Jwala Aram Mitra, Computer Science [Class of 2023]
Bay Area to Purdue
My name is Jwala Aram Mitra and I’m a rising sophomore. I am a Telugu-South Indian and speak Telugu, despite my misleading Bengali last name. I’m from South San Jose in California and I’m majoring in Computer Science at Purdue University. I’m on Boiler Bhangra and in the Computer Science Women’s Network. In my free time, I dabble in singing, podcasting, and equestrian grooming. Nice to meet you all!
West Lafayette’s geography felt like home to me. The uninterrupted runs of the land on the edges of campus remind me of the acres of ranches I grew up around. I come from a unique location within the Bay Area, where our backyards are filled with cultivators and farm animals. The demographic at Purdue has felt slightly familiar to me—in comparison to my other friends from the Bay Area—since it matches that of my high school more closely in comparison. Playing an active part in Purdue’s South Asian community has been my first experience in Brown Town, so I have been able to witness various types of discrimination more heavily present within our community than I did in high school. I love our diversity but despise the judgment we give to one another.
Growing up, I was fortunate enough to be able to share my Indian culture with other Indians, South Asians, and non-Indians. I dressed my friends in pattu langas and plated their tables with rich South Indian food on holidays and they enjoyed the preview into my grand culture. And when I was met with deprecatory comments and glances from non-Indians, I would turn to my Indian community for support—both at home and at Purdue. It was difficult, however, when I realized that, in this grand war between global ethnicities, our own Indian community was full of its own battles. There is stigma around mental health; sexuality; a malignant divide between North, South, and East Indians; and many more issues.
Organization Segregation [New]
The judgement from organization to organization at Purdue was evident when I first came to campus. Prior to trying out for Boiler Bhangra, I mentioned to a friend that I was considering trying out for Purdue Raas, our competitive Garba-Raas team. She divulged her distaste for the Raas team and, from then on, my understanding, as well as that of most of our freshmen class, was that it was typical to hate Raas. During the year, the upperclassmen we knew threw out deprecative jokes about the Raas team. I was being trained to hate a team I did not entirely know—a team composed of my very own brothers and sisters. My negatively influenced opinion changed after I made friends with some of the Raas dancers.
Hearing the upperclassmen’s stories from years before on when the segregation between teams grew put me in shock. However, in our Class of 2023, I have noticed a positive change in dynamic between teams. We seem to be far more connected across organizations than our upperclassmen.
North vs. South Indian Dynamic / Dialogues of Desi Women
We are told life is like a game but this is not the one many of us signed up to play. The game, so far, has not been accepting of all its players. The old rules and backwards mentality embedded in our culture have followed generations and created divides within our own community. One of the most prominent divides I have observed is between North and South Indians.
I have personally witnessed the lack of knowledge North Indians have about their Southern counterparts. At Purdue, I have been faced with North Indians that did not know there were various types of South Indians, multiple South Indian languages, and—the worst one yet— that South Indians even existed. All of my South Indian friends’ experiences match mine; we have been told our skin is too dark to be beautiful and that our food is eccentric. As vulnerable youngsters, this has caused us to question the beauty of our own Southern culture. The @brownandboujeeproject on Instagram advocates against oppression within the Indian community and allows ABCD’s to share their struggles. One student from Purdue writes “I’ve been discriminated against by my North Indian friends in the past which made me really hate being South Indian for the longest time. Whenever people assumed I was North Indian, I would take it as a compliment, because I was accustomed to thinking being South Indian was weird and ugly and North Indians were cool. There were other instances where they made fun of South Indian languages, people, and dark skin, but said I was an “exception””(Anonymous). On campus, I too have personally experienced the way North Indians degrade us when we speak in our native South Indian language or do not know the lyrics to all the Hindi songs. In the first few weeks of school, I attempted to make friends with South Asian international students. But one of my first experiences in this attempt was struggling with a group of North Indians that grew up in India that would snicker around me in Hindi when they knew I did not understand the language. The same goes for my North Indian ABCDs—their ignorance towards my South Indian culture is obvious. I’m not asking anyone to know everything about our culture, but I am asking them to not unfairly hate on the very little they do.
Who is anyone to negatively judge another being for the color of their skin or the region they are from? This is not a game of chess in which we pit lights against darks. This should be more like a game of Chinese Checkers, constructed in such a manner where we can celebrate within ourselves yet also mingle with and appreciate one another’s micro-communities. Is it so hard to include another player? Rather than isolating someone who looks different or is from another region than us, we should embrace the diversity we are blessed to be around. This is just one of the many acute experiences South Indians undergo in the South Asian community especially, and it is unfortunate to say that the students at Purdue sometimes discriminate in these ways.
This Instagram page (@brownandboujeeproject), as well as many others newly created in the past few months, has been uncovering the gashes in our community. Another page, Dialogues of Desi Women @ddesiwomen, created by two Purdue Alumni, has been supporting Desi women in wondrous ways. They share accounts of sexual misconduct within our community anonymously and have provided a safe space for our women to vocalize their malexperiences.
I am glad to see that Purdue students are being forced to read about the injustices various groups face in our community. The healing is finally beginning.
Yes, being discriminated against for my dark skin and being questioned whether South Indians even existed was difficult. But being asked by my North Indian friend to show her the map of South Indian states and educate her on their culture felt like the beginning of the treatment to one of our many wounds.
It is heartbreaking to know that our South Asian youth preserves the very behaviors we hate in our culture. It is important to acknowledge that nobody chose the regional cultures they were born into, their gender, their natural sexuality, and many other factors—but we can choose to embrace one another. There is beauty in diversity and even more beauty in the inclusivity of that diversity.
Continuing to educate and correct one another is necessary for our coexistence. Organizations on social media, some of them created by our loved Indian Purdue students, are fostering a new culture of inclusivity and it is magical to finally witness our youth striving to heal the untreated wounds within our community. Rather than covering our scars with bandaids like we have been so accustomed to, we are opening our wounds up to the world and letting them heal naturally through our efforts of embracement. We are changing the game we have been forcibly playing for years. We are rewriting the rules. And, in this version, all players are welcome.