By Maisha Khan
“Mom, my friend is coming over to work on a project!”
“Is she going to eat here?”
“No, why would she eat Indian food?”
I grabbed the Febreeze bottle and sprayed the odor mask throughout the house. I even cracked open a few windows to let the fresh air circulate, only to find my mom making idli sambhar in the kitchen.
“Mom, are you serious !? That’s going to smell so much!”
This is just one of the many incidents from my childhood where I tried to hide my culture. After moving to a new school when I was 8, all I ever wanted was to fit in. I wanted to blend in with the rest of the crowd; to dress, smell, talk like everyone else at my school. However, I could neither change my color nor background; and so as an 11 year old, I did everything in my power to act “American.” I switched my hair oils for sweet scented serums and started threading my upper lip/eyebrows. I bought lunch everyday too — all as just a mere 6th grader. I was one of only three POCs on my soccer team, which created an inferiority complex that had me convinced I was unwanted. Eventually, I quit. The only extra curricular activities I saw brown people participate in (as a majority) were orchestra, band and tennis. None of which really held my interest.
I had this idea that my whole personality and identity revolved around being brown; that when people saw me, they just saw a brown girl, nothing more. But in reality, this was all in my head. By trying so hard to run away from that piece of me, I had inadvertently made it my whole identity. While all this was happening, I was also growing to be very shy and quiet, too afraid people would not accept me for who I am. I was conscious of everything I said or did. All that shame grew into something bigger and affected me long term in various aspects of my life.
This is not to say every brown girl goes through these exact feelings. Some brown girls may feel accepted off the bat and others don’t even feel they’re any different from non-brown people. Every individual reacts to situations and experiences in their own way.
Fast forward to college: A whole new ball game. I graduated from Rutgers, a university that has a very high brown population. There I saw all sorts of brown people who fit into all categories: athletes, greek life, honor societies, party-goers and more. This might sound cheesy, but I realized that people will see me as how I see myself and if I’m proud of who I am, then others will be too. I started joining diverse organizations where I proudly showed off my culture instead of suppressing it. For example, organizations at my college held events to celebrate various Hindu holidays, which even people of other cultures partook in!
Being able to talk to others who shared similar backgrounds to me or spoke the same second language as me or ate the same foods as me helped me build different types of connections. I even found people who watched the same Hindi serials as me growing up and finally had the opportunity to discuss those characters and plots with someone besides my mom. I no longer had to try so hard to fit in and instead started gaining pride in my culture.
I also realized my experience wasn’t as unique as I had thought and that many others resonated with these feelings as well. The reason diversity is so overtly important is that it leads to higher inclusion which consequently leads to better performance. Having role models and peers who I related to encouraged me to reach for my dream and kept me from constantly doubting if I was good enough just because of the color of my skin.
Being brown is not an identity, it’s only a fraction of it. The rest of who I am is up to me!