Updated: Jan 8
Stereotypes, microaggressions, and flat-out racism. Three words that describe life for an Indian American in a primarily white school district.
Growing up in Westchester meant that I’ve always attended a predominantly white school. From the age of 5, before I even technically knew what race and racism was, I could still notice that out of everyone in the whole classroom—I was the only one with dark skin. But I didn’t take it to heart; I thought that made me special, honoring my family and where we came from.
Until age 10. I started to face microaggressions everyday, subtly racist comments that usually had no malintention, but still hurt (basically, stop and think for a second and see if it could be
hurtful, and if it applies, don’t say it!). People brought packed lunches everyday, but I was the only one with food my friends would call “stinky.” Parents would come for volunteering every holiday, but mine were the only ones with “weird accents”. When asked my favorite song, if I said “Bole Chudiyan”, I got weird glares. I began to realize that in this town, different wasn’t special, different was weird. And at 10, while all the other kids expressed themselves the way kids should, I kept an eye on myself at all times. If I was too smart, “I’m succumbing to the model minority stereotype”. If I was dumb, I’d get comments like “Aren’t Indian people supposed to be smart?” While others would bring lunchables to school, I would bring pulao, a very delicious Indian dish, though I wouldn’t admit it then. They would take their lunchables out proudly, and the other kids at the table would “ooh” in jealousy, while I would get up and throw my food away because if I would eat it, I would only get told how bad it smelt.
“Please pack me a PBJ. It’s what all my friends have.”
Quickly I began to hate my heritage. When Hindu holidays rolled around, I would beg my parents to not make me go to the celebrations. I hated when my sister would post pictures of herself in Indian clothes, because what if my friends saw that and knew I was Indian? I straightened every last strand of Indian out of my hair, and cracked the racist jokes with my white friends. But no matter what, the damage was done. I had brought up my ethnicity too often in elementary school; everyone knew I was Indian.
“Hey Riona, the new boy’s dark like you. Maybe you’ll finally get a boyfriend!”
When I was 12 and COVID hit, everyone spent more time on the internet, and everyone learned more things. People became aware of what microaggressions are, and what different types of racism could look like. I didn’t go back to in person school from March 2020 to April 2021, and in that time I changed a lot. I learned that if people judge me for my skin and my race, that's their problem, not mine. I shouldn’t have to go out of my way to conceal my identity just for racists to like me. And in highschool, I’ve met many new people who make me feel included and accepted, regardless of my race and ethnicity. I’m starting to learn that I don’t need to be or act white to be liked by everyone, the people that I want to like me, will like me for me and my Indian American self.
About the Author: Riona, a 15-year-old student in Westchester is a writer for the Bittermelon’s writing program, as well as a member of the Children’s Reading Program. She writes for the Bittermelon to share her experiences as a South Asian, 2nd generation American, hoping to help others. Her interests and hobbies include playing piano, drawing and painting, and going on walks.