In September 1995, I was featured as the centerfold paper-doll in American Girl magazine. One-dimensional likenesses of my grandmother’s sari and mother’s salwar kameez bedecked Ragini-dolls in the homes of young girls all over the country. I was an Indian addition to the hallowed pantheon of American paper-dolls. I was proud then of my dual ethnicity.
Six years later, confusion has replaced self-assurance.
Media has dubbed the cause of my confusion “the Backlash.” Since the terrorist attacks on September 11, scores of Americans have adopted a divisive face of patriotism. The anti-Islam and anti-Arab sentiment that surfaced first on the east coast as a response to the horror of terrorism has spread to the west and come to affect a multitude of nationalities.
In the past weeks, a number of my local Middle Eastern and South Asian peers have been subject to harassment and xenophobic assaults. A Bay Area high school senior of Iranian descent experienced extreme verbal abuse from drivers of oncoming traffic during her afternoon jog to the library. A young Indian man in San Jose, stalled by a stop light on his way home from work, was threatened with his life by the hate-filled passengers of the neighboring car. Local mosques have been vandalized, splattered with blood and toilet-papered. And a Caucasian friend of mine, mistaken for a Palestinian, was pelted with beer bottles by name-calling racists on her way home from school.
I unconsciously avoid meeting eyes now, when I walk in unfamiliar areas of the city. I’ve become hypersensitive to the Backlash, incomprehensibly paranoid that someone may think me an Osama-sympathizer or potential terrorist just because of the tone of my skin or the color of my hair.
I sensed it first that ill-fated Tuesday when CNN prematurely aired a photo of Osama bin Laden and labeled his followers the terrorists. Felt it again when photographs of Palestinians “celebrating” the loss of American life were printed in local newspapers. Pictures of pro-Taliban demonstrations in Pakistan. Head-shots of the hijackers.
Photographs of local South Asian and Middle Eastern Americans appeared in the newspapers and on television soon after the attack, cementing my fear. Their faces were similar to those of the hijackers, with respect to hair, eye, and skin color. But they were faces of victims, victims of a Backlash unintentionally perpetuated by photographs aired by the media.
“A picture is worth a thousand words,” or so the old adage goes. Nowadays it has become apparent that a picture is worth a thousand lives. Every image on television or in the newspaper has had the power to cloud judgment, arouse heated sentiment and trigger hatred in the human mind. And each photo of the imploding Twin Towers, each picture of bin Laden, and every image of victimized Arab-Americans, South Asian-Americans, and Middle Eastern-Americans serves as a reminder that there are some in this country who feel that we do not belong in America.
But pictures have in their capacity the ability to rouse understanding as well. And even as I sit to type this piece, I am drawn to the framed photographs around my room. Some, like the action-shots from my Arangetram and a family portrait from a past Diwali get-together, are a reflection of my Indian heritage. I smile, with mehendi-ed hands and bindi-ed forehead. Other photos, like those from my eighth grade graduation, show an American girl in cap and gown sitting among her peers and singing the U.S. National Anthem. My hair is permed, my heels stiletto, and there too, I smile.
I turn to the photo albums stashed beneath my bed. In their leather covers reside the typical photos of a third birthday party, complete with clown and cake, no different from any non-Indian toddler’s. I have a blue Smurf painted onto my cheek, but I am dressed in a traditional South Indian pavada. And a close inspection of my food-filled birthday table would reveal samosas and kheer between the usual sandwiches and frosted cake.
I have photographs of the typical teenage girl’s room, complete with computer and colored telephone, no different from any non-Indian teenager’s. I have a stereo system and SONY discman, but the soundtrack from Lagaan is my current album of choice. And a close inspection of my decorated wall would reveal depictions of Ganapati and Om between posters of Jim Morrisson and the Doors.
Photographs in my high-school yearbook reveal students and teachers in every shade of brown and peach imaginable. And when I turn to the group picture of friends that rests on my desk, I smile to see diversity smile back at me.
November 22 marks the tenth week since the terrorist attacks, as well as the national day of Thanksgiving. In this time of division and disunion, it is of paramount importance that we remember all that we have to be thankful for. As a nation, we have in our power the ability to forgive those who’ve struck against us. As a people, we ought to be thankful that no single group or race has exclusive reign over our country and that nobody has the right to make us feel like aliens in our land.
Thanksgiving Day in 1621 was a picture-perfect celebration shared by “Pilgrims” and “Indians,” the white and brown skinned men alike. Thanksgiving Day, 2001, let us return to our roots and paint yet another picture of unity. But this time, let there be no “Pilgrims” or “Indians.” Let there be Americans. Proud of our multiple-ethnicity.