We were out on the softball field for gym class. In the outfield, no one else could hear our conversation, way out of earshot of the teacher on duty. My classmate turned to me, hatred and bitterness seething in her eyes.
It was another typical hot, sunny, Southern day. I could feel the red clay beneath my feet heating up like hot coals.
“Go back to Indiana, or wherever it is you came from,” she hissed.
Sound travels faster in humid air, stinging the ears more quickly than normal.
I said nothing in response, but knew what she meant. Her nonchalant usage of the name of a state, Indiana, instead of the name of the country, India, made the meaning undeniably clear.
Or maybe that is simply how much fifth graders in the deep south really knew? We were, as far as we were aware, the only Indian family within a 70-mile radius, and my classmate had never met (or presumably even seen) anyone else before from the far-off land of “Indiana”.
I cannot recall what might have preceded that comment, nor what precipitated that hatred. She didn’t like me, and there was no apparent reason.
Except maybe one.
I wasn’t upset or horribly bothered by what she said, but I never forgot her words. I didn’t go home and cry later, or cry at all.
I was not “going back”. I had not even thought of “going back”. When had I, in my ten years of life at that point, ever thought of going back? Go back where? This was the only country and home I knew. Of course I had not thought of going back– that was preposterous. I had moved from South Dakota, so that was the only place that made any sense in my mind to even possibly return to, but that had not occurred to me, either. After all, I did not make those decisions as a ten-year-old.
When I looked in the mirror, I did not see what she saw. It just was not as obvious to me that I was any different from anyone else (although I did wear my hair differently, which my mother did each morning, and which made me look different. That is the subject of its own upcoming post.)
She told me who I was not. Her words reminded me of what she, and others, saw when they looked at me. I looked at me, and saw “American.” They looked at me, and saw “foreigner”, “Indian”, “Asian”.
It took me a long time to see what others around me apparently saw. Eventually, I did notice it, too: the color of my skin and the difference it could make.
I used to joke with my friends that I never needed to get a tan— I was born with a natural one. And they’d laugh. They would lie out in the sun, trying to get a tan, and I’d hide underneath shade, avoiding the sun.
Admittedly, I’ve made some mistakes, based on assumptions, based on appearances, based on what others look like. I have also done to others what others have done to me.
And, others have made mistakes, too, big mistakes, in assuming who I was.
Some people don’t seem to notice skin color; they seem to look beyond appearances. Other people do notice. Some people reject right away based on skin color; sometimes, it is easy to discern when that is the reason. Other times, it is more subtle, and consequently more difficult to determine the cause: is it me, or what I look like? Or maybe it was what they thought or assumed about me? Rejection isn’t ever easy, no matter the reason or how many times it happens. My conclusion: life is just way too short to overanalyze.
I’ve had people confess that before speaking to me or upon meeting me for the first time they weren’t even sure I could speak English. Even today, on a regular basis, I meet people who marvel that I have no accent whatsoever. It might be amusing to know that the only accent I’ve ever had was a Southern accent. Now that accent has all but disappeared since living in the Midwest (but I can bring it back anytime, just for the fun and humor of it….)
I do get frustrated with a few people who should know better, though they mean no harm. I mean, don’t they have it figured it out by now? They want me to fit in their category of “Indian”. Sorry, I don’t fit in that box. I’m not defined the way they define it. It’s based on their perceptions, and not on reality.
My standing joke the past few years, once people hear that I grew up in the South, is this: I’m a Southern girl— in disguise. That always gets a few laughs. Can’t you tell? Isn’t it obvious? It gets the point across, doesn’t it? (I’m pretty proud of this joke; I made it up myself. I think it’s a good one, and I remember too few good jokes not to make a big deal of mentioning it, haha. Humor is such a gift.)
Nowadays, I may still run across the occasional prejudicial attitude or blatant discrimination, but it does not define my existence nor each day of my life.
Now and again, I may visit a new place and notice the difference and feel like I’m the target of a bullseye, as conspicuous as ever. (I only have to drive 30 minutes north of where I live to experience this). Some years ago, when my kids were younger, we walked into a church where everyone (it seemed to me) had blond hair and blue eyes. There was no doubt who was visiting church that day! Unfortunately, no one spoke to us. This was 20 minutes north. So yes, it exists. (Um, never went back there, in case there is any lingering doubt on that point.)
Maybe I’m just more aware of it than others, as some people around me seem oblivious. Yet when I talk to my sister, she seems more aware than I ever was. She has told me stories that I cannot recollect. Though we grew up in the same place, of course, we weren’t always together every minute. She is a year younger than me, and she had a different group of people she interacted with and was in a different grade in school. I think we are all aware of it in different degrees; we have different sensibilities and different experiences.
When I was in third grade, I invited a friend over after school, my first new friend in this new town in the south, after moving from South Dakota. My new friend told me later the instructions her mother had given her: “Now, be polite. Eat whatever you are given….”
My friend went on to explain that they did not know what sort of food we might eat for dinner; Indian food is what they assumed we would have. I realized later my friend might have been nervous about it. In the South, young people generally are taught good manners and to be polite, and to say “yes, ma’am”. (Saying “yes ma’am”, in my opinion and experience, must be the hallmark and epitome of Southern politeness.)
So what did we eat for dinner that day?
“For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” 1 Samuel 16:7