Trigger warning: This blog is highly personal and speaks to my experiences of sensitive subjects / topics.
Here’s to me no longer avoiding something I’ve been wanting to write about for years. When something hits my emotions my first response and for a long time, only response, is to ignore it. i.e. avoid it, in the hopes that it will disappear, no longer seen ever again. I’ve avoided talking about the topics of prejudices and people’s biases because I was embarrassed. I was embarrassed to say how I felt and to share my experiences because I grew up privileged and was exposed to opportunities many didn’t have. I had access to great educational institutions, grew up in a diverse environment and traveled while I was a child. What I missed in my embarrassment though was that this exposure allowed me to see the real value in difference and diversity and the depth of learning without judgement. Because I was also different, I could ebb in and out of places and people’s lives without being noticed but while being noticed.
So, here’s my attempt to embrace my privilege and recognise that I also had many discomforts to face.
I’m doing this to feel comfortable in my uncomfortable-ness which is going to remain until I can acknowledge what has been sitting with me and release it.
The question: “How do we deal with the deep prejudices we face, not always by strangers but by those closest to us, and let them go?”
My answer: We see them and notice them, forgive them and with love, bring them out of the shadows into the light.
Here’s my learnings; here’s what I’ve faced and overcome through the years and here’s to me hoping that if I accept what I’ve been avoiding, it will help me face my own unconscious biases. And as always, maybe it will help you too.
I’ve grown up being of a darker complexion than most of my family. Growing up it seemed that having a dark complexion was a bad thing in general but as a girl, it seemed really bad. Yes I may have had “pretty eyes” or a “nice smile” but overall, I wasn’t…you know…”beautiful”. I was nonetheless rebellious and much to many family members irritation, spent copious amounts of time in the sun. But this rebellious streak didn’t mean I loved myself. It just meant to the world, I was putting up a front, to show how little I was irked by it. Lies. Boy, did it bother me.
I remember, when I was younger and one of my friends of Indian origin had to meet her boyfriend’s grandmother (of a different origin) who made it evident that she wasn’t accepting of certain races. It turned out she was fine with my friend dating her grandson because “she didn’t look Indian.” Effectively, my lighter-skinned beautiful friend didn’t look like me. At the time, I thought, “Wow, she’s lucky.” And years later, that thought still haunts me.
Here’s what I woke up to questioning:
- How could I expect others to like my complexion when I myself didn’t? I, over the years decided enough was enough and started taking one baby step at a time. Recently I stopped using the “light” filter on photos or cameras when I’ve had photos of myself. Not easy to do but I feel freer to accept who I am. This “small step” in itself of not using filters is a struggle on its own and I still fail at times especially when it’s constantly in-your-face that complexion is important (it isn’t but it’s been ingrained in us by society and history to think so. Here’s to me fighting off hundreds of years of ridiculousness).
- Did my physical traits really define who I was? If I’m darker, does this make me less intelligent or less human? How can I learn from my feelings and ensure others never feel this way because of any action or word from me?
When the whatsapp emojis started allowing us to change the colours of the human-looking emojis, I started using one of the darker shades that I related to and had a then close friend comment, “That’s a really dark emoji.” Without a second thought, I changed it back to the original colour, so as not to offend anyone. The same friend who is of a much lighter complexion (and different racial background) a year or two later, looking for sympathy, told me someone had called them racist and instead of questioning themselves on what they may have done to be called this, was offended by the accusation.
- I still reflect on if, instead of just changing my emoji colour, I should have questioned said friend about why the colour of my emoji bothered them, and just maybe, it would have allowed us to discover unconscious biases that we were holding. I still haven’t changed my emoji colour…now it’s because I’m angry that I have to feel like I need to relate to something based on its colour (you have to love this rebellious streak that just pops up – more work to be done).
It’s taken me years to accept that in the country I live and in many countries around the world, I am boxed into a race group as being “Indian.” While part of my heritage is based in India, I grew up learning and being a part of African cultures and my South African heritage more than anything else. And funny enough, when I visited India for the first time in my late teens, I was asked, “But you’re not Indian. Why do you look like us?” (She was a sweet old lady who had been a teacher in her younger days. I learnt then that education doesn’t always happen in schools). And let’s not go down the road of what caste or what type of “Indian” I’m supposed to be. The absurdity I feel in being made to either feel “part of” or “not part of” a certain caste or culture, with questions of “Oh, you don’t know what this means?” or “How do you not know this?” by people who know I grew up in an ultimately mixed society, makes me at times want to reject a culture that I’ve come to love. I have had the blessings of growing up learning about other cultures and having diversity in my upbringing and no one can take that away from me.
Basically I’ve come to accept that I do not fit in anywhere. There will always be someone in some country that will reject me belonging. And it took a trip to Cuba in my thirties to fall in love with me being different, unique and to be absolutely okay with standing out (“I’ve never seen someone who looks like you. It’s wonderful” – said by an elderly man on my trip). It made me reflect on the following:
- What does heritage mean for you? Whatever you decide, no one can take it away from you because it only affects you, and nobody else.
- Do not let another person’s own projections or insecurities make you want to reject a rich history or heritage that is a part of you, and not all of you.
- There are good and not-so-good aspects to every culture, religion and history. Learn about all sides and gain a deep understanding of what you’re saying you’re part of.
When my family didn’t initially like my boyfriend, whom I ended up marrying (and divorcing and is now more part of my family than I am), and people heard that my family didn’t like him, the first question some would ask is, “Is it because he’s not Indian?” No people. It was because my family really liked a previous boyfriend, who by the way was also not of Indian origin.
- Stop jumping to conclusions.
- Test your assumptions.
I went for many years, always competing with males because I grew up thinking females were weaker. I cannot identify the root of this (thanks society) but it’s taken me and still takes me time to accept that I am not part of a weaker gender. I am not some separate species that has been built to only have “weak” characteristics.
- There are many positive traits to being female or male, and whichever you are (or neither), whatever you choose, embrace it.
- There are good and not-so-good aspects to being any gender of your choosing. Learn and understand your strengths and weaknesses.
What I have learnt more than anything else is that no one can decide who you are and where you belong except you. Race, gender, heritage and culture make up parts of who you are, but they do not make up all of who you are. The kind of person you are, the kindness you show, the compassion you have and the empathy for others far outweighs anything else.
When I find my emotions being triggered by others it means I shouldn’t hide from it, I should look deeper. If I’m letting someone else dictate my traits, my worth, my value, I should look into what part of me is lacking love. Pour all my love and light into those parts and this will allow others to be comfortable in their uncomfortable-ness too. It all starts by looking within.