Growing up as one of four brown-skinned kids in my elementary school grade, I considered myself something of an authority on racism. Racism, I would have told you then, was when my best friend looked over at me halfway through a doll game and asked me if Indian music ever used ‘real words’. Racism, I would have said, was when I had to waste all of recess explaining to some white kids that some people weren’t Christian or Jewish. Racism was when a white friend’s mother assumed upon meeting me that my favorite subject was math. You heard talk of hatred and prejudice on the news, but ten-year-old me could’ve told you that this big “racial disparity” thing everyone seemed so worked up about was really just a bunch of minor inconveniences, a few ignorant questions that white people were forever asking and people of color were forever being irritated by. She could’ve told you that real racism, the kind that snatched lives and violated bodies, may as well have gone out of existence with the dinosaurs hundreds of years ago.
In between construction paper crafts and lessons on three-digit addition, my teachers taught me that America was a pretty incredible place to live, no matter what color your skin was. I learned to see the face of racism as a caricature, an old, balding white man who smoked lots of cigars, mumbled slurs under his breath, and spat at people of color when they passed him in the street. Looking back, I think I expected all racists to wear some sort of badge, to wave around Confederate flags or tattoo the words “proud KKK member” across their foreheads. They were rare monsters who hid out on the edges of society, leftovers from a bygone era, an ancient species on the verge of total extinction. I’d certainly never met a racist myself— and, I thought, I probably never would.
Looking back, plenty of my own childhood memories poke holes in that theory. Like finding out over a bowl of cereal that one of my father’s cousins chose to marry his wife because she was the lightest-skinned out of all the women he and his family met during the search process. Or taking visiting relatives into the city, and hearing my jethu wonder, loudly, how America kept its crime rates down with “so many blacks all around." That last line was tough to write—looking back, I’m appalled at those words, and I’m even more appalled at my own inaction in the face of them. I felt uncomfortable and guilty and ashamed, and I stood there silently and shuffled in the heat and waited for someone else to inform him what was and wasn’t okay to say in America.
I lay awake for hours that night after my mom tucked me in. I watched the glow-in-the-dark stars on my ceiling fan spin around in circles, and I wondered what it meant that racism, that distant thing that I was so sure had disappeared decades ago, had made an appearance in my own life—in my own family. Did that make my jethu evil? Was he just that old, white caricature in disguise? Was I?
I cut the thought off there, assuring myself with a fervor that there was no reason to feel guilty. Inaction was my right. Speaking up was a decision, not a duty. After all, I was a minority in this country. I carried no burden of historical shame. My ancestors had never enslaved or owned Black people, never taken Black lives, never benefited from the era of Jim Crow segregation. If racism was mostly ancient history, and my family’s ancient history was halfway around the globe, then I was free of responsibility here, a step removed from the whole sticky situation. I had nothing to atone for.
A few years later, at a late-night Bengali get-together in Plainfield, thirteen-year-old me sat fidgeting on someone else’s couch, listening as the aunties and uncles talked about politics and real estate and their children.
“Aaryan’s girlfriend came over yesterday,” Rohit Uncle said. “She’s a lovely girl. Chinese, very bright.”
“You know,” Sharanya Auntie chimed in, “Shruti’s decided to go around with some African American.” She said African American with a certain inflection, like it was a code word that we were supposed to understand, and pursed her lips. “I don’t know why she can’t see a good Indian boy, but she’s so stubborn.”
By that point, I understood that racism wasn’t always as explicit as a KKK rally—and I knew that this was it, plain and simple. It checked all the boxes, sent all the red flags flying. I expected to hear a chorus of shock and outrage and indignation, but the other aunties and uncles didn’t say anything. Some chuckled or nodded sympathetically. Rohit Uncle leaned forward, concerned.
“You are sure he’s not a drug dealer?”
I said nothing. I stared down at my plate, I stirred my half-eaten rasgulla around in its bowl, and I said nothing.
I wish I could tell you that I had an epiphany later that night, that I suddenly understood everything that there was to know about racism and prejudice. It would make a much better story than the truth. But I was quiet for the rest of the evening, and quiet on the car ride home, and quiet that night as I watched the glow-in-the-dark stars spin around on the ceiling fan. I couldn’t make sense of it, couldn’t figure out why the real world didn’t match up with everything I thought I knew. Here was racism right in front of me, again. And it wasn’t a caricature. And it wasn’t innocuous. And it had come from an Indian person— from several Indian people, actually—which meant that I could be guilty of it, too.
That evening didn’t give me the answers, but it did make me start looking for them. I turned to the internet and read articles about the history of immigration and the purpose behind the supposedly anti-Asian Affirmative Action programs that I’d heard so much about. I learned about the model minority myth for the first time, and I started to piece together where I stood in this nation’s racial hierarchy. My six-year-old self was right on one count: what we do in modern America is incredible, in the sense that it’s nearly impossible to believe. The way we manipulate history to suit our needs, the way we claim that murder is a personal freedom, the way the same news outlets that promise truth deliberately stir up the same old lies and the same old hatred.
Honestly, I’m still trying to figure out what happened that evening. I just keep thinking myself in circles, trying to make sense of everything I’ve learned and everything I think I’ve learned. I keep wondering what kept me silent that evening, whether it’s still inside of me—how many myths are still simmering inside of me, informing and manipulating everything I do.
It’s not that they were bad people, and it’s not that they didn’t get it— most of those aunties and uncles had been brown-skinned in America in the weeks after 9/11, understood what it’s like to fear for their lives, understood hatred and prejudice and fear better than I could even try to. So why was it so easy for them to turn against someone else? It makes me wonder if prejudice is inevitable—will we ever be rid of the lies, or will we just keep building new myths out of the ruins of the old ones?
I’m only just realizing that I can’t pick and choose which parts of America I want to take on. Though my roots may not be in this country, I certainly am. And though I may not benefit from white privilege, I do benefit from the privilege of not being Black every single day. I’m realizing that there’s no neutral ground—silence is complicity, and speaking up is a duty, not a favor. I’m realizing that racism never calls itself by that name, that it hides behind legal loopholes and doctored justifications and manipulated statistics made to look like truth. Racism is my shame, my guilt, my problem just as much as it’s anyone else’s.
I wish I could bring this to some sort of conclusion, say something definitive and groundbreaking and tie a pretty bow around the whole essay, but the truth is that I’m sitting here at my desk in the early hours of the morning, and I’m still trying to figure it out. A pandemic is raging outside, and protests are breaking out across the nation, and I’ve been sitting in quarantine for the past few months with lots of questions and lots of fear and more time on my hands than I’ve had in years. And the same old quotes keep on taking on new meanings, and the same old patterns keep playing out around me, and I’m only just realizing how much time I’ve wasted trying to pretend that I’m not a part of them.