What Are You?

Today, I attended the Women of Color Institute conference at my school. While this conference was very inspirational and empowering, I couldn’t help but feel a bit frustrated by my awkward position as biracial. Most of the speakers and attendees were African-American, with a few Latina and Asian-American participants. And then there was me, half Indian and half White. I don’t believe that I was the only biracial or mixed race woman there, but if there were others present, I wasn’t able to distinguish them from the group. Most of time this doesn’t bother me, but I quickly grow silent when the topics such as African-American hair care come up (and it always comes up). I don’t quite fit in.

Most people who are biracial choose to favor one part of their identity over the other in order to participate fully in that race or ethnic culture. I don’t have that ability. Sure, technically I’m Asian-American, but no one thinks of India when someone says “Asia”. You’d be surprised how many people don’t know that India is part of Asia. Even some Asian-American people I have met look confused when I try to identify myself as Asian. Then, when I say I’m Indian, people ask me what tribe I’m in and I have to further clarify my racial identity.

Trying to pass as White was never really an option for me either. Living in the US, it’s easier to identify more with the majority culture, but no one ever looks at me and thinks, “That girl is white.” I’m not white, I’m half white; historically and culturally, there’s a huge difference. I can’t ignore the Indian part of me and I don’t want to. Nor would White people accept me if I tried.

Coming to a predominantly white institution really emphasizes my otherness, so I never felt comfortable hanging out with huge groups of white students. Nor did I feel welcome in the small Black community on campus. Even though I’m a woman of color and feel some affiliation with Black culture, when it comes down to it, I am not Black and I will never know what it’s like to be a Black woman in the US. And while I do look Hispanic, I’m not, so it’s not as though I could insert myself into their organizations or social groups either. In fact, it bothers me when people mislabel me as Hispanic, because it emphasizes the fact that I don’t really look Indian, even though I am.

I know what you’re thinking, “Why aren’t you making friends with the Indian students?” Well, reader, I cannot participate in the Indian culture completely for two reasons: I don’t know Hindi, and I’m a Christian. Knowing the language would open up new opportunities to participate in the shared stories, songs, and traditions of India. Because I have not yet learned the language, participation in these aspects of culture, shallow though they are, is more difficult. I listen to and sing Hindi songs and I watch Hindi films, but my understanding of them will always be through a Western and English filter. Much of Indian culture, values, and traditions also come from a shared participation of Hinduism. I’m not Hindu, so many of those aspects of Indian culture are lost to me. So yes, I am Indian, but only half Indian, and other Indian people tend to ignore me because I cannot participate in their culture fully.

So, where does that leave me? Nowhere and everywhere. I don’t fit into the ineffective and over-simplified categories of race in the US. But, this is what sometimes makes me feel frustrated and sometimes fortunate. I have a double consciousness and I can code switch really well. I know what it is like to be a minority in the US. I also know what it is like to not be a minority in the US. As a racially ambiguous person on the surface, I am faced with discrimination and racism. However, because I am not a part of a historically marginalized group, the stereotype threat I face is not as well-defined as that of African-American or Hispanic people. In other words, people are racist, but they’re not sure what I am, so they can’t make specific negative assumptions about who I am. This is good because it gives me more opportunities to define myself before others try to define me. This is also frustrating on days like today, when I wish I could identify easily with one race or another in order to feel a stronger sense of community and sisterhood. I love being biracial because I am proud of both sides of my racial identity, but if you don’t learn how to navigate around racial barriers and code switch, it is a lonely existence.

Beck

Intersect Diversity and Leadership Conference

My college hosts an annual conference called the Intersect Diversity and Leadership Conference. This conference combines all my favorite things, diversity, leadership, and plastic name tags. Okay, I’m not that excited about the name tags, but I am excited about what this conference does. It brings people together from colleges around the region and creates a space for dialogue about diversity and social justice issues. I know what some of you are thinking; “That’s just an opportunity for minorities to vent their frustration about their supposed oppression.” To which I would reply, “It’s so much more than that.” The pillars of this year’s conference are Social Change, Oppression, Power and Privilege, and Organization Change. Yes, we talk about the minority experience in the US, after all, that’s what got many of us interested in this subject. However, we also talk about diversity of religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, language, geographic location, experience, and much more. We do critical self-reflection to better understand our identities and how they shape our lives and interactions with others. We talk about what brings about successful and sustainable social and organizational change. We discuss issues such as minority education, same sex marriage, and immigration.

One of the main concerns of this conference, and one of the reasons I love it so much, is because we talk about talking. Communicating, really communicating, about important things and not being ashamed of our unique perspectives and ideas. Our speaker tonight was a professor in the Communications school. His speech, which was very interactive, was about how to communicate effectively so that we can talk about these tough issues. It was about paying attention to the small details in order to become better listeners, about the tone and attitude with which you say something, and how that can inspire someone to action or turn someone away from your message. It was about humbling yourself and valuing everyone, no matter how insignificant they may seem in the grand scheme of things.

At the end of the speech, he had everyone write down a word or phrase that represents what they stand for, what inspires them to action, or what they strive for. I wrote, “Let all voices be heard.” I told you, I’m passionate about stories, especially those stories that are usually silenced or ignored, because I believe that everyone deserves to be heard. That’s how we as humans are vulnerable with each other, that’s how we make connections and recognize ourselves in others. Stories carry all our pain and joy. They are both a lament and a celebration. Stories make the world go around. (Go ahead, ask me which story I think is the most important.)

All those words were just day one.

Beck