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Hey APC! My name is Nalini Oliver, and I’m 18. I’m from West Linn, OR. I recently moved to Massachusetts to study at Smith College!
One thing I’ve learned from being a woman of color in a majority white city is to never resent the aspects of yourself that you can’t find in other people. Every day I hear people ask why there’s such a push for diversity on television, movies, advertisements, etc. But the “push for diversity” is just the opportunity for the representation and self-love that hasn’t been readily available to people that aren’t white, male (cis), and straight.
Being a mixed Indian/ White girl living adjacent to one of the whitest “big cities” in the U.S., I realized how never seeing yourself reflected in your own community can lead to a warped self-image on your racial identity.
Growing up, my race had become one of the sole identifying factors of who I was and how people described me. I was labeled as the “second Indian” at my middle school, the one student that had to speak up in class discussions on discriminatory conflicts, and a sounding board for the white guilt my peers might face for doing an Indian accent at lunch, or an offhanded comment on Asian stereotypes. Instead of being a source of appreciation to my heritage, my race became an unfortunate target- a way for me to feel isolated and treated differently in comparison with everyone around me. When I spent my entire life defined by how I was different from others in my community, I began to resent my brown skin and (apparently) unpronounceable name.
Living racially isolated in the white suburbs for most of my life made me realize it can be far too easy to idealize the most unrelatable aspects of other people because we believe it’s the easiest way to feel a sense of belonging. I used to tell myself that if I had lighter skin, if I was Christian, or if I could somehow make myself less “ethnic” then I could finally feel happy as who I was. Moreover, I spent my childhood internalizing a hatred for being Indian, for having a Tamil name, for not having anyone to relate to the struggles of how WOC are viewed and treated in our society- that I tried to cling on to the people that were able to mold so easily with the rest of my community when I couldn’t.
At this point, it’s important to ask: how are you able to combat a personal hatred that’s just an animosity towards your circumstances? The truth is you have to redefine your expectations of community forging identity in the first place.
How we choose to see ourselves: both in our racial identity and our place in the communities we’ve grown up in, is a completely different experience for everyone. For me, it took years to realize that I would lose my entire racial identity as I continued to search for a way to erase every aspect of my heritage. It wasn’t that I would just be changing myself- but in the process, I would completely neglect my family lineage. In that way, I realized what this pain was, and how I could learn from this experience.
The more I struggled with my identity, the more I learned about what it means to be a woman of color, and how internalized racism had warped my self-image during some of the most pivotal moments of my adolescence. I realized that I spent most of my life resenting the fact that I couldn’t be completely white- and believing that the half Indian part of me had ruined my chances at belonging to the community that helped raise me.
But from this realization, I began to appreciate my identity for the first time. I think it’s been a long process to learn to love what it means to be Indian. I had to understand I wasn’t just a part of my city’s community- but a part of a long line of Indian ancestry that I chose to ignore for an embarrassingly long amount of time. Conversely, I had to realize that the same hatred I projected onto myself was something I had spent so long trying to eradicate from my other Indian family and friends that had faced similar challenges to me. I’ve spent so long pointing fingers at myself- on everything I wish I could have changed- and yet I could so easily see those same aspects as a source of admiration in others.
I can say (without a doubt) that I have genuinely loved and cared about my community and the people I’ve grown up with. But the more I reflect on my time as an Indian woman in the (very) white state of Oregon, I’ve begun to realize how valuable the simple act of self-appreciation can be to strengthen a love of my race and place as a woman of color. With any point of transition, there’s always a learning curve. But the more I’ve challenged why I’ve had such a complicated relationship with being Indian, the more I’ve come to appreciate the culture I’ve avoided for so long. We all have different relationships with our race and are at different points in our lives in how we choose to embrace that. All I could say to anyone that may be able to relate to this situation is to understand why you’re at the place you are and see where it might take you. The more we begin to appreciate the aspects of ourselves we may not see in others, the more we begin to cherish our real identity. In my eyes, that’s always something worth searching for.