Why I refuse to live inside the box of race

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My first name is Hindu. My last name is Christian. I am married to a Caucasian; our daughter is biracial. And yet, with all this “integration” I have never been more conscious of my race and ethnicity. 

In the last five years this awareness has heightened. From the harder line on immigration to mass shootings in the United States, and abroad, that target specific religious and ethnic groups, I’ve found reason to wonder about my place in this mix. 

Smriti Jacob

I also have a strong urge to stand with my brothers and sisters of color to fight injustice and inequality. The sense of kinship I feel with them has become more intense. I am suddenly more cognizant of articles that report on racial tension and books that discuss the issue of identity, for people of color, especially in a society that preaches freedom for all. Then there’s white privilege and how it is wielded, intentionally or unintentionally.

Racism doesn’t occur quietly today; it’s out in the open. For some, whiteness is a badge of pride. Hate crimes have risen. In Pittsford, where we live, racist incidents in the schools have laid bare ugliness beneath the community’s polished surface.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines racism as “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.”

That definition suggests clear limits, but I’m not sure any of us know with certainty where racism’s boundaries lie. What falls within those lines? Violence against minorities, surely. And prejudice, whether explicit or implicit. But what about uninformed or thoughtless words that result in hurt feelings?

All in all, it hasn’t been easy acknowledging the fact that I am of a different race than the majority in the United States. It’s been even more difficult understanding what to forgive as ignorance and what to call racist.

A community of tolerance

Many assume that in India I was among my own kind. Not so. I’m somewhat of an anomaly. I was born into a Christian family with two educators as parents; my father taught philosophy and religion, and my mother was a professor of English, with a focus on teaching English as a second language. We lived in Ahmednagar, a small town with one traffic light that was more of a suggestion than a rule. My father, a Hinduism expert, wanted his girls to have Hindu names. I share my name with a body of Hindu texts; it means remembrance.

Yet even with my Hindu name, in India I was a minority. Christians make up roughly 2.3 percent of the Indian population, compared with Hindus at 80 percent and Muslims at 13.4 percent. Most assumed my family was converted by missionaries (it’s true the colonialists did convert quite a few to Christianity). I grew weary of explaining that I descended from a line of Syrian Christians, or the Saint Thomas Christians, who trace their origins to Thomas the Apostle’s evangelism in 50 A.D. or thereabouts.

So, a Hindu first name and a Christian last name only complicated issues. My parents had egalitarian ideas that made for a childhood ridden with explanations. My friends assumed as a Christian I was influenced by the West, that my mother wore a dress at home, when, in fact, Mom wore saris and salwar kameezes just like any other Indian woman. Since my parents left home early for morning lectures, the easiest lunch meal they could pack for us was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or two. My friends, on the other hand, brought freshly-cooked fragrant meals, some in two- and three-tiered tiffin carriers. 

Smriti Jacob as a child in India with her parents and her younger sister, Nitya.

Then, we spoke English at home. My roots are in Kerala, a state in southern India, which would make my mother tongue Malayalam. I understand it but never spoke it enough to be fluent. We grew up in western India, near Mumbai, so I studied Marathi, the regional language of Maharashtra state, and Hindi, our national language. I didn’t excel at either. I did, however, enjoy English.

My parents, both Fulbright scholars, had studied and taught in the U.S. They made a conscious decision to settle in India, but their exposure to America introduced my sister and me to the world. American, British and German students came to campus where my father was president on exchange programs or to simply take a semester off to learn about rural India. We hung out with them, devoured British and American children’s books, got care packages from the States, including Barbies. Posters of British and American rock stars hung in my room, although that also was true of many middle-class Indian teenagers.

My friends were Christian, Hindu and Muslim, and much like the majority of India, we lived in harmony. That did not mean my city was devoid of skirmishes. I was used to curfew. If a riot broke out between Hindu and Muslim factions, we went into lockdown. But I didn’t feel any different from my Hindu or Muslim friends. 

Perhaps the first time I noticed a real difference was when I took a job as a research chemist in New Delhi, where Hindi and Punjabi were spoken more commonly than any other language. I found my name was hard for people to pronounce, and I didn’t speak Hindi with the proper intonations and inflections. I remedied that quickly, immersing myself in the language and culture to the point that friends I made there assumed I was from Delhi. I always answered: “I’m an Indian.”

That’s not an easy answer to digest in a nation with a caste structure, a more than 3,000-year-old system that divides Hindus into groups. While this division is based on work and duty, as Indians we’re constantly trying to figure out where we belong by our last names, accents, clothes and food. Globalization has made this harder to do, and the younger generation does it much less, but it is ingrained in our psyche. As a Christian, it was even more complicated. 

So, when I finally came to the States, I thought I would be free of the all these labels and the paradoxical desire to go unnoticed and yet fit in. 

Land of the free

I was excited to come to the U.S. and terrified at the same time. My father reminded me that his first trip on an airplane was to New York City in the mid-1960s. In his all-knowing way he suggested that learning to speak, read and write English would be my ticket out of any sticky situation. I took him at his word. 

My first stop was Atlanta, where my sister, Nitya, who had already been in the States for more than a decade, met me at the airport. I was so comfortable with my Indianness that, fresh off the plane, I wore a traditional outfit when we toured Nitya’s alma mater in Decatur, Ga. Her former professor would later ask her if I would be at ease in Western clothes. While I understood her desire to make sure I was comfortable in a new nation, that remark stung. Now, I cannot remember the last time I wore Indian clothes.

Graduate school, which passed in a painful blur of culture shock, was another realm where I was determined not to be a traditional Indian. My friends were international students or Americans. Indians hung out together. I did not join them. Mostly because they were trying to, despite their kind and giving hearts, box me into a category. Nitya, who came to the States at 16, had been through these transitions and had found her own place. I was struggling.

Rochester proved to be a challenge. After spending 16 months at the Ohio State University, with fellow students from all parts of the world, I suddenly had to find my place again. One of my first trips to Wegmans resulted in an encounter with a white shopper who questioned my purchase of ground turkey. “Does your mother know you’re eating that?” I was dumbfounded. I find I’m always silenced by such questions that hint at my origin. “Aren’t you all vegetarians?” she pressed on.

In the years that followed I was asked how I learned to speak English so well when it wasn’t my first language, and whether I could read and write in English (though by then I was a journalist). Some amused themselves by mimicking my accent and pronunciation of certain words (a mix of Britishisms and Indian English).

At a business event in Rochester.

Being a journalist who needed to make calls was excruciating. One source hung up right after I introduced myself, saying, “What kind of name is that?” Any deviation from American English, I learned, could be greeted by “your accent is so cute” or prompt a request to repeat what I’d said. I became adept at swapping words to explain myself, and my accent now is a mix of Indian, British and American English. There are days, though, when my tongue refuses to cooperate.

I refused to change my name. At grad school we international students playfully called it the “just call me John” syndrome—when an international name is just too hard to pronounce, choose an easy American name. A number of foreigners have done so, mostly to increase their chances of getting a job, studies show. I have hung tough with mine and was fortunate to be hired by bosses who didn’t balk at my foreign name. 

I don’t blame foreigners one bit. It is fatiguing to keep answering questions about your ethnicity. I find myself gravitating toward people who have traveled abroad or belong to another race. It’s like coming home. They get it. I don’t have to try as hard. Yet I also meet people who have not seen other lands and it’s their open hearts and minds that embrace me as I am, and I wish for everyone to give that a try. 

I have been picked out of lines at the airport and at the border. I haven’t given it much thought; that’s how it goes today. We live in times of terror and suspicion. I have been spoken to slowly and loudly. Again, I just move on.

What is racism?

Still, all the rhetoric against immigrants and people who aren’t white has begun to disturb me. I thought I had moved to a country where my ideas would be celebrated no matter where I came from, that diversity would be welcomed. I have since learned that America’s idealism runs up against the reality of slavery.

More than 150 years after the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in the United States, most U.S. adults say the legacy of slavery continues to impact black people in American society today, a Pew Research Center report states.

Racism isn’t simply inequality. In my experience, it is more nuanced than that. I find it’s often used as a lens to categorize, born of a human need to compartmentalize. We approach this mental filing system with our explicit and implicit biases, resulting in discrimination, subtle or overt. Inclusion and exclusion. Having lived in two countries, I know that no nation escapes it.

But I find myself wanting more from America. Around the world people look to the United States to take the lead in matters at home and overseas. I do see examples in my immediate vicinity where friends have taken stands against racism in all forms, sending me messages of comfort and apologies for white privilege.

Yet, I too grapple with questions of race, ethnicity and identity.

The same Pew report found that blacks are more likely than Hispanics or Asians—and much more likely than whites—to say their race is central to their identity. About three-quarters of black adults say being black is extremely or very important to how they think of themselves, while 59 percent of Hispanics and 56 percent of Asians say being Hispanic or Asian, respectively, is at least very important to their overall identity, with about three in 10 in each group saying it’s extremely important. 

For me, it is more complicated. As Gary Younge says, we are many things at the same time. Younge, a black British journalist of Barbadian extraction who spent a number of years in the U.S. and speaks fluent Russian, is author of “Who Are We — And Should it Matter in the Twenty-First Century?” In the book, he describes the “complexity, fluidity and multilayered nature of identity.” 

This rings true for me: I no longer want to be labeled or placed in a box. I am tired of being pigeonholed. 

I am Indian, I am American, I am a woman, and I am human.

10 thoughts on “Why I refuse to live inside the box of race

  1. When I was in law school I had a friend who was black.

    But here’s the thing, he was born of an African American civilian engineer father and a Vietnamese mother, and spent the first 8 years or so growing up in Vietnam. Then, when we exited Vietnam he and his family moved … to Iran, where they lived until the fall of the Shah.

    They then moved to East San Diego, which is mostly African American, there and in law school white people thought he was black (he was stopped for driving while black on at least a couple of occasions), black people thought he was black, and he … he had *no* idea who he was, other than himself, a guy who had an incredibly diverse growing up and who was put in one group or another based not on who he was but on how other people thought he fit in.

    It was wonderful to read the article, the more people we experience who’ve lived diverse lives the more we come to see that who someone is is a complex, rich, wonderful thing. I’m not sure how we forgot that lesson; you’d think when people from other shores were streaming into the US we’d have known this, but time and the exploitation of appearance and origin for political purposes have stripped us of the knowledge that, when it comes down to it, we’re all different and all still the same.

  2. Smriti – Thank you for sharing your experiences and perspectives with us. This is an educational addition to the dialogue surrounding race/racism going on in our community.

  3. I very much enjoyed this piece. I struggle with the nuance (great way to describe it – thanks Smriti) of unconscious racial bias. I am aware I come from privilege — and have and do benefit from the often unconscious — and sometimes conscious — benefits of being white. I am learning to be more open to others’ experiences and appreciate you sharing yours!

  4. Thank you Smriti. I’ve always considered myself enlightened, in spite of being a member of possibly the most privileged ‘caste’ in America: white, male, formerly Christian (I am a Buddhist), educated, and middle class. But in recent years, as we see more stories of inequality across race, gender, and sexual identity issues, I’ve come to question my real understanding of what it is like to not be me. This personal experience piece gives me a little insight into a situation I cannot experience no matter how liberal and enlightened I consider myself.

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