Color Me American
Hannah Dehradunwala, 2015 Dalai Lama Fellow
I remember my first day of college quite well; there was a South Asian-looking boy living on my floor. I asked him where he was from and he responded quick and proud, “I’m American.” I remember my cynicism, I remember scoffing internally and thinking, you’re as Indian as they come, give me a break. He was born in the United States and knew nothing other than the American culture in which he was raised, but there was something about him claiming so proudly that he was American when he looked so much like me that, quite frankly, angered me. Why?
His skin was the same mocha color as mine, he had the same stark gap between his eyebrows that came from constant maintenance, he spoke Hindi like I spoke Urdu. It didn’t matter what he identified with. I was born and raised in the United States until I was eleven before moving to Karachi, the city of my parents’ birth. Before 2004, in my mind, despite acknowledging that I looked different from most ‘American’ girls, I was American. But what is it in that identity that automatically makes so many people, myself included, think, ‘white’? I was under the impression that identity had something to do with the way you looked, and after returning to the U.S. for college, I was intrigued by how my thought process around it was evolving and how the very concept of identity itself was layered and fluid beyond what I expected.
I recently spoke to someone who believes that democracy is just a word. Everything depends on the nature of the people. With fear and anger being used as political tools, we’re now all, consciously or subconsciously, creating a system where we’ve learned to identify ourselves by what makes us different from other groups of people. In doing that, we’ve established, almost, an ultimatum for what it means to be American, and which groups can identify themselves as such. I fear what kind of world we’re going to be living in. I’m starting to fear other people.
There’s so much that we don’t know about the people that we subconsciously categorize into groups. My experience with this comes through my work with Transfernation, a nonprofit organization I run that picks up the extra food from large corporate events in NYC and sends it to local shelters. At a glance, it is evident to me which population I’m working with- I feed ‘the hungry’. That was the extent to which I knew who they were. But there is so much more to these groups of people, ‘the hungry’, ‘the homeless’, that we all tend to gloss over.
I never questioned it until we hit a dry spell with available volunteers, and I found myself running to pick up food from our donors and, for the first time, dropping it off to the shelters myself. It was then that I had the idea of extending paid volunteer opportunities to the people who ate at the shelters to help ease some of the load. I was introduced to Grady- upwards of sixty years old, who had spent the majority of his life either on the street or running a small book stall on 6th Ave that temporarily kept him off it. I came to our first meeting laden with assumptions of who Grady was, what his life was like, and how enthusiastic he’d be about the opportunity I was presenting him.
During the meeting, I ended up being so much more nervous than I’d been when I was pitching to our corporate donors. I didn’t know how to address our differences, and in my attempt to erase any trace of a power dynamic, while simultaneously relying on my assumptions, I spoke to him as if he were a representative of a population and not a person. He noticed, and I noticed too. I was focused on focusing on what I knew about people experiencing homelessness to make myself more comfortable with continuing to ignore everything that I didn’t know- behavior that, I realize, isn’t limited to my interaction with Grady.
At the time, I couldn’t think of anything that we had in common. We came from drastically different walks of life and this lack of similarity threw me off. I came out of our meeting with no concrete answers because, in my attempt to address him on the basis of what I perceived of his identity, I asked no real questions. This did, however, raise a question: what made my categorization of him, and people like him, so different from the assumptions that we make when we group together ‘the Muslims’, ‘black people’, ‘white people’, ‘Asians’, and attach to them the characteristics that we see fit? This question is the foundation of a very real fear: to what extent are we willing to distance ourselves from groups of people who are different from us to avoid being uncomfortable, and how is this exacerbating the unwelcoming political climate that we’re creating in our country?
Disagreeing with the opinions, political or personal, of a group of people is no excuse to write them off as entirely different from us. By doing so, we’re guilty of removing ourselves from massive portions of the American population. If ‘American’ is something we identify as, then even with groups that we think are incorrigible, who actively act on fears of other people that are both misinformed and misdirected, we cannot afford to gloss them over as ‘the intolerant’, ‘the uneducated’, ‘the racist’. In the same way that we believe that their political opinions spring from their lack of education and inherent racism, what’s stopping them from saying and believing things like, hungry people are hungry because they’re too lazy to get jobs and Muslims are violent because that’s just what Islam teaches them. If we’re not willing to go past our idea of people being a certain way because that’s just how they are, how can we expect them not to do the same?
Fear has led us to believe some crazy things about what other people are, to the extent that we forget that we see things the way that we are, not necessarily how they really are. We are often quick to judge how comfortable we’re going to be with other people based on the identities that we share with them. We forget that there are identities that go beyond the way that we look, the job that we work, the socio-economic class that we belong to, and also include the ones that we choose for ourselves.
The one saving grace in my conversation with Grady happened right at the end. He told me that if I ever wanted to talk again, he’d be watching basketball at the West 4th St court. He used to be quite the player, something that we had in common, an identity that we shared. I know for a fact that there are more, and I look forward to meeting him again- a Muslim-American and an African American, watching basketball together at the West 4th St court; American in the end, regardless of what identity we attach before it.