I am standing in line at the Chicago airport waiting for coffee. I have missed a connecting flight and I am tired and disheveled. The lady behind the counter tells me, “I love your nose ring.”
“Oh, thanks,” I say to her and touch it self-consciously.
She then asks me, “Are you Muslim?”
I look up at her startled. Invasion happens in many ways, some gentle and some pre-announced and as a woman of color in America, it happens frequently enough that I should be used to it—but I am not.
I nod my head vaguely, not a yes, not a no. I take my coffee and I walk away from her.
There it is again, the question most Americans who are not white are asked, the question about origins, a question that tells you that you are here but you are not from here.
I pass a newsstand. Donald Trump looks at me from the cover of almost every magazine. “I am not an outsider,” I think as I pass him by.
Feelings of being an outsider can stem from direct questions such as, “Where are you from?” (India, Morocco, Jamaica, Britain?) to the more inane ones that reveal your ignorance in the immense varieties of coffee or leaves in a salad not available in the country I immigrated from: “What type of coffee do you want?” (Macchiato, Cappuccino, Latte, Americano?) “What do you want in your salad?” (Romaine or Iceberg, arugula, spinach?)
I remember pulling into a parking spot outside Costco, a spot I had been signaling for, for a while. A car from the opposite side rushed in and took it. I leaned out the window. I yelled, “Hey there…” The driver, an aged Asian man, leaned out and yelled back, “Hey there. Go back to where you belong.” For years, I recounted the story to friends not just as a personal experience of racism but also one that reveals the deeper dilemma of belonging in America.
Fear of Foreigners
Xenophobia comes from the Greek xenos, meaning “strange” or “foreigner”, and phobos, meaning “fear.” Fear of strangeness is an unsatisfying definition for racism, for the cruelties that one class of people has inflicted over another. Yet, it would seem, it is this very fear of what, or in this case, who we do not know or understand that leads to a willingness to persecute and even destroy when possible.
We see this from the Nazi treatment of Jews to the Indian caste system, from the Ku Klux Klan to the genocide in Rwanda, from slavery and treatment of Africans in America to apartheid and as well incidents of gentrification in cities like San Francisco where the local populations are being pushed out by more affluent tech workers. The precise causes of racism are still debated by social scientists but many factors—such as the need to feel superior as displayed in playground bullying, to feeling unworthy or undermined—can lead to it.
In recent times, this fear of “foreigners” is reflected in the rise of Muslim phobia: one mosque defiled by feces, another by graffiti, death threats via email. That strain of intolerance is like a rising crescendo with the treatment of black men by the police, and the call for banning of Muslims and the deportation of illegal immigrants …
When I think of violence in America, I think of guns and the shootings in schools and colleges. I think of the horrific Orlando tragedy.
When I think of racism against Indians, I think of the grandfather assaulted by cops during his morning walk, of the Muslim cab driver shot to death, of the Sikh man killed because he was mistaken for a member of the Taliban.
When I think of discrimination, I think of the young black men and boys shot by police.
I am in downtown Palo Alto, where I live, writing in a coffee shop, when a lady pulls over on the street and begins to get her children out of the car. She is wearing a dark headscarf and is dressed in jeans and a jacket. She works efficiently to set up her stroller. I sit watching her. I wonder how she lives her difference in attire, which is a statement she makes about herself every day in this country where such a statement could be misconstrued. What does she feel in the current political scenario? Is a woman like her aware that she could be used as a symbol for the violence that extremists around the world are unleashing? I mark the confidence in her gait. She wears her headgear with pride, with pride in her difference.
Several hours later, we find ourselves on opposite sides of the sidewalk waiting for the walk signal. Our eyes meet, we stare and then we smile as we cross each other by. We are part of the same text.
Seeing the Different
At a workshop and Q&A led by a prominent African American gay poet, I listen keenly to his stories of growing up as the odd kid, the young man who was an outcast both for his color and his sexual preferences. I have read his poetry, his interviews, his essays. I appreciate his strength: his voice is unafraid and unwilling to be apologetic for his difference; it is a voice that speaks of past injustices. I listen and I identify. Difference is in the air that we breathe, we the minority populations.
I raise my hand hesitantly during his Q&A, hesitant because I am still shy of my voice. I tell the poet, “I want to ask you about the experience of being different. I have often felt when I have to tried to make connections that there is still this sense of us as separate entities among the differentiated, as in: “we the African Americans,” “we the Latinos,” “You don’t know what that is like, you don’t have that shared history, we cannot have this conversation.” I am wondering if you have any ideas as to how we can bridge that gap and about your own experience with this?” The poet looks at me and he asks me to “listen.” That is the gist of his reply to me. “Listen because that is what people need, to be able to speak and to have others listen. Let there be the safe space.”
In his gentle advice for me to “listen,” I feel some of the same rejection I did in the Costco parking lot. To be asked to “listen” when I want to speak holds for me the unspoken command to stay silent. And silence has been my story of social and personal oppression in America.
History matters. In my case, a kind and probably wise advice to “listen” was received by me with dejection because of my history of having to listen too much, because of my history of being misunderstood when I spoke, of being silenced by the difference I lived and felt every day.
During the course of writing this piece, I started to speak with people from different backgrounds, hoping to glean some insight into these issues of racism and discrimination and, in particular, the Trump phenomenon.
I was in a bank in downtown Palo Alto being helped by a personal banker and we started to talk about racism. She is African American and she told me that all the things that I heard about racism were true. That this branch of the bank where she works used to have a few African American tellers behind the counter and because some high-profile customers did not want them there, did not want to served by them, these African American women were slowly replaced by other more “acceptable” faces and colors.
My face must have registered the shock I felt because she continued, “I know it is shocking but racism exists. If you write about it, please write about what happened here.”
After I left the bank, I stood for a while on the sidewalk and I wondered again what it is that people see when they see me. Do they see my color before they see anything else? And what do they decide about a person based on their perception of that color or a head scarf?
Riding a taxi a few days later, I began the same conversation about Trump with the driver—a young black man. He spoke about going to university and how his friends from Europe would ask him why he didn’t have dreadlocks and why he didn’t “yo” at them and why he didn’t wear his pants low. He said his friends said that this is what they expected of a black man because that is what they had watched on television. The young driver blamed the media for the “mess we are in today.” He said that he had a customer who told him that he and his wife were going to vote for Trump and he remembers looking back at this white man sitting in the back of his cab and wondering whether that man could be a possible threat to his safety.
As Trump continues to sweep elections, I look around me and am afraid again. This is a new fear though. Does that man reading a paper who looks up at me support Trump? Does that old lady who just left my workspace without thanking me for my services want to build a wall? It cannot be a coincidence that a man who extolls hate has so many supporters.
A couple of years ago, I was driving to work, one arm in a sling due to an accident, when I was pulled over for not stopping at a stop sign. I had stopped, just not long enough. The officer who pulled me over was African American. She stood next to my open window and told me sternly that I hadn’t stopped. “But I did,” I told her. She looked at me, I saw her jaws tighten as she wrote me a ticket, “Go to court and contest that if you like.”
I looked sadly at her and said, “I have three kids and a full time job. I won’t have the time to go to court,” I said. As she walked away from my car, I caught myself thinking that surely she should have understood me … A second later, I realized that my thought was based on the hope for cultural—in this case “color”-empathy.
I had hoped America would be a post-racial country. Before I moved to America, more than a decade ago, the media did not highlight the injustices against its minorities as it does today. In India, although America’s history of slavery was well-known, mostly the superior lifestyle for immigrants was what was discussed. The statistics about black American lives reveal a social disparity that is impossible to ignore. Black Americans are nearly three times as likely as whites to be poor, six times more likely to be incarcerated, and only half as likely to graduate from college. White households on average make thirteen times as much as black households. The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that one in three African American men will go to prison at some point in his life. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, one in every 15 African American men is incarcerated, as opposed to only one in every 106 white men. According to F.B.I. statistics, an African American is killed by a white police officer roughly every three and a half days.
Today, while minorities in America are stereotyped by their histories and contributions to the economy, diversity is paradoxically becoming a key word across the social landscape. On the front page of the New York Times, “Schools Strive for Premium blend of Diversity,” begins with the question, “How white is too white?” And on the British Broadcating Coproration (BBC), recently there was a story titled, “Get Ethics with our Ethnics.”
So you’re arranging a corporate conference: you’ve found the perfect venue, sent invitations and booked a panel of industry experts. Just one problem. They’re all white men. Fear not, the Rent-A-Minority website has everything you need. From “intellectual black guys” to “cheerful women of color,” the site promises an unthreatening and under-represented minority guest, or guests, in a few clicks. It is a joke, a spoof on the current need for diversity yet underlying the joke is a serious question, how do we become a more inclusive and tolerant society without resorting to stereotypes?
America is still battling to reconcile itself to its histories of discrimination—#Oscarssowhite and Beyonce’s performance during the Super bowl half time are evidence of this. Headlines such as “Beyoncé’s Formation reclaims black America’s narrative from the margins,” in The Guardian (UK) and “This is a Black Space: give us the space to be heard” in the Guardian (US) speak to this struggle, this push and pull between the oppressions of the past and how they are replayed in new forms in this new world. It is true that the media is more open to discussing difference and discrimination today than at any other time in America’s history.
Diversity is a wonderful thing; it is a terrible thing. I live it every day and sometimes I am ashamed of it and at other times I hope it will boost my ambitions, and sometimes I just wish it didn’t matter, that someone would just see me without needing to give me the concession, advantage or disadvantage of difference. Ever since I started this conversation, both with myself and with the people I meet every day, which begins with the Trump phenomenon and moves on to discussions of our place in a complex social fabric, I have been feeling more hopeful about “us”—the people coming together to become a single united front against discrimination. The stories people share with me are about struggle and finding place and about dealing with discrimination.
As I write this, Trump is the Republican nominee questioning Judge Gonzalo Paul Curiel on presiding over a case involving Trump University. “I have a Mexican judge. He’s of Mexican heritage. He should have recused himself, not only for that, for other things,” Trump is reported as saying.
A man openly extolling hate and separation and retribution and segregation has won a wide circle of support. It is a matter of great shame and concern. The world watches. For some, the question is: will the future give us more opportunities towards equality and happiness?
For others, the question will be: can we let go of our fears to accept all people as equal?
And for yet others, the question will be, can America finally overcome its past to become the true land of the free, or will a man who speaks of banning Muslims, building walls and loving the “uneducated” be its highest representative?
I am always a splash of brown against white. Can any one man be free if others are enslaved? Yes, it is true that all lives matter, but slavery in America is part of the American fabric, a history that still lives in the discriminations that still persist in this country today. To deny the past would mean to not be able to breathe in the present. To live in the past, discounting the slow laborious steps towards equality, would mean lives still lived in anger and hopelessness.
I think of Trump’s supporters as the “new” people as described by Ta-Nehisi Coates in his book Between the World and Me: “Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the pre-eminence, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible—this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.”
I tire of being watchful and wary. I am tired of feeling alone and vulnerable, of being misunderstood and labeled. I want to belong to America but America is perhaps still not done with racism, and until it does, we the people cannot come together.
I am just one voice and you are one and you are one and you are one and all these ones will not be sufficient until it comes together like a force of nature, a tidal wave, a tsunami that cannot be beaten back by any amount of sticks, guns, or walls. Until then do we have to learn to be silent?
I, too, am American, as are my daughters. Those girls, the colors of coffee and earth, believe that this is their country too and we want to live here with dignity and no matter where we go, we will carry with us our color and racial differences. So, as long as we believe in our identities as Americans, fractured as they may be by our origins and histories, perhaps the answer lies not in fleeing but in believing. Believing, as writer Ta-Nehisi Coates does, who writes to his son, “this is your country, that this is your world, that this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it.”
As this piece got ready to be published, 49 people died in Orlando in an attack directed against the LGBTQ community—intolerance in its rawest, deadliest form. In such an environment, we must ask ourselves again who we are. And so when I think about who I am, I think “Je suis Charlie Hebdo, Je suis Orlando, Je suis Bruxelles, Black Lives Matter, I am Indian, I am American and yes, I am also Muslim.”
Chandra Ganguly is a MFA student at Bennington College. She writes about the meaning and loss of identity and issues around gender and culture. She lives with her family in Palo Alto, California.