I feel lost in the current movement on racial equity. It has triggered a deeper reflection on the influence of culture and society on my own identity.
I am not Black. I am not white. The colour of my skin may not be white, however I grew up with many of the privileges that many white people have.
[Listen to me read this reflection here, if you prefer audio]
I am Indian, however I do not identify as fully Indian, as others who may look like me do. Most of my friends are not Indian. I do not enjoy Bollywood movies and could not name more than a handful of actors if I had to. While I enjoy Indian food, I have become a picky eater, as my mom regularly points out. My interest in Indian holidays, like Diwali and Holi, is more about nostalgia and cherished childhood memories, than it is about any cultural or religious meaning.
My parents immigrated to Canada months before I was born. They have without a doubt done all of the right things to expose my sister and I to our Indian culture.
We grew up Indian in a non-Indian society.
We took Hindi language lessons on Saturday mornings for years, despite our reluctance as kids. Our family friends were mostly other Indian families with kids our age. I have countless memories of regular gatherings, every weekend. My uncle designed the Hindu temple in Ottawa, the city where I grew up. It was, and still is, a beautiful structure that for a young child can only be described as large and intimidating. We would go there every month or so, and be exposed to a community of people who looked like us. At each life milestone, be it moving into a new house, my parents opening a new business, or the passing of a grandparent, we would host a puja ceremony at home, led by a Hindu priest, in the company of family, friends and Indian food. My parents were active in the Indian community, hosting and organizing events for hundreds of people, a few times per year, at least.
Like I said, my parents did all of the right things to give my sister and I a childhood that was rich in Indian culture. It may have been even more authentic to tradition than if they were still in India. The Indian culture, as practiced by my parents who left India in the 80s, feels frozen in time here in Canada. The distance from home had also inspired a dedication and commitment from my parents that remains admirable to me today.
While home life was rich in culture, my school life growing up was not.
I went to the largest public high school in Ottawa, and in a school of 1,600 students, there were maybe 4 Indian students that I can remember. My sister and I went to different high schools. If she had gone to the same school as me, there might have been 5 Indian students that I remember. Her high school was similarly not very diverse in race.
In high school, it is probably no surprise to hear that I was quite involved with student government. Each year I was elected, including as co-president in my final year. Back then, I was a shy kid. I might still be. While I was good with academics and usually knew the answer to the questions that teachers would ask in class, I rarely raised my hand to answer as I was scared to speak. I did not date in high school, despite many girls catching my attention. One year we were tasked with a public speaking assignment. I was so intimidated by that three minute speech that we had to deliver, that I cleverly chose to speak on the topic of silence. My speech involved a very long, and awkward, demonstration of my topic.
Winning student elections each year felt like a miracle, especially as a kid who was scared to speak. I may have been smart, but at 15 or 16 years old, what wins elections is not intelligence but popularity. I guess that may still be the case for adults in some places.
I can now see that my popularity came in part from my race. Race has played a bigger role than I have realized. The fact that I was often the only non white student putting myself forward for leadership roles increased my chances. A form of reverse discrimination gave me access.
Despite being a student leader, having influence and some authority, the activities that we ran for students were ones rich in white culture. For example, we hosted four high school dances a year. If I was not responsible for organizing them, I definitely would not have attended any. I felt extremely uncomfortable and did not ever have a good time. We hosted monthly barbecues. Despite being a vegetarian, I would cook hundreds of burgers, smell terrible and lose my appetite for the rest of the day. I played rugby for a year and a half, until I almost broke my nose. Despite being fast, my skinnier physique was no match for the larger rugby players, who were all white.
I did not have the awareness, role models, encouragement or strength to build an inclusive student society that celebrated all races and cultures. Instead I propagated, likely poorly, the existing student societal norms that tried to appeal to the masses, at the expense of the minorities.
In contrast, my experience in university was different.
My roommates were Asian. I dated a woman who is white. The company that I kept was truly a rainbow of races. My friends included people who identified as Black, Indian, Asian, middle eastern and white. My friends knew about Diwali, I celebrated Ramadan, Chinese New Year and Christmas with them.
In university, I had the space to choose my friends. We connected on our shared interests, not our shared race. In my case, I started a student entrepreneurship conference in my first year at university, which went on to become a national organization that did inspiring work for a decade. The team was the most diverse that I have ever been a member of to this day. Diversity happened as a byproduct though, there was a bigger common purpose that attracted all of us to work together.
My understanding of different races and cultures did not come from teachers, the media, or even my parents.
It came from friends. There is only so much understanding that can come from reading books, listening to podcasts and scrolling through Instagram. It is only once we connect directly with people who are different than us can we start to build a depth of understanding, empathy and compassion for our diverse society.
Diversity means to see race and culture. If we do not see race, we cannot celebrate it, learn from it, and be inspired from it. Every race, culture and religion has its own customs, beliefs and practices. There is an intentionality behind all of this, that I find fascinating. None of it is accidental.
My experience in high school is an example of the society that we have largely lived in. There has been a sea of sameness that legacy and convenience perpetuated long past its expiry date.
My experience in university is an example of the society that I hope we continue to build together. One where we connect not based on race but on a shared higher and common purpose. One where diversity happens as a byproduct, not for achievement or status.
When I place my attention on the richness in the racial and cultural diversity that exists all around me, I feel less lost or even concerned about my own identity. I know that I will continue to be shaped by the beauty that exists in every race.
I no longer feel lost at sea and have found my way.