About two months ago, the shots fired in Olathe, Kansas rang loudest through the ears of Indians all across the country. As I read about the victim, his countless similarities to my dad stained my mind, specifically his job in IT and his Indian ethnic background.
I thought back to who my own father may have been when he immigrated to San Francisco in 1999 and whether, if he had immigrated now, that victim could very well have been him. Deciding to be positive, I swept aside my thoughts of what could have been.
About two weeks later, my family cancelled our plans to go to Myrtle Beach in the very red state of South Carolina for spring break. It was the first time my race had made me feel so acutely unsafe.
Yet, we must ask ourselves: Should this discomfort translate to avoiding race discussions? Can we claim to be proud of our heritage when hate crimes against foreigners make us shy away from identifying with our respective race? When I am volunteering and a fellow doctor asks me if I come from an Indian ethnic background, should I be offended that my race was the first thing he noticed?
While a lot of factors come into play, at the end, I believe that if someone asks me about my culture, I will not selectively disclose that I am an American from Washington, DC. Frankly, a racially charged hate crime does not happen because the perpetrator bothered to ask someone their ethnicity.
Such acts of violence occur largely in part due to a lack of racial discussion. This ultimately leaves people uneducated and fearful of the foreign. To truly diminish the apprehension of foreigners that is plaguing the country today, we cannot afford to tell people to save the race discussions for deep, 4 a.m. conversations.
People keep saying “build bridges, not walls,” but regardless of whether you’re a first generation or fifth generation immigrant, you only build walls by being uncomfortable with race discussions.
Being identified as an immigrant should not be something strikingly offensive to someone, as this diminishes the real life problems immigrants’ face in consolidating their ethnic backgrounds with the “standard” definition of American. To truly understand these struggles, people must be more empathetic in how they react when facing stereotypes.
For instance, immigrants often face the fear of being being deported from the country. These struggles of hunger and anxious desperation are not things people should be ignorant about or feel affronted at being innocently associated with.
For instance, my 12-year-old brother does not speak Hindi, even though he and I are first generation immigrants. Yet, when Indians start speaking to him in Hindi, often randomly, he never complains. He understands that in this day and age, it is not with malice that people assume a minority is very in tune with their culture.
When Asians are identified as immigrants, it is because historically, the race has been a relatively new immigrant population in America. As such, my brother has learned that people who assume his immigrant status are not attempting to be rude or disrespectful in any way, they are simply attempting to form an ethnically rooted connection.
Moreover, he understands that such an intention to assume race stems from the fact that many people actually desire to be viewed from the racial perspectives that form their identity.
So yes, when someone notices my race at our first meeting, I will proudly discuss the cultures that define me. However, I understand some people may think of race as too personal of an issue. If you truly do not identify with your race or think it's too delicate of a discussion, just politely say so instead of attempting to thwart a conversation many find to be meaningful.
Minorities who scamper to the safety zone of “American” without much discussion insinuate that those who incorporate ethnic and immigrant histories into their identity are less American in some respect.
In fact, resorting to the simplistic answer of "American" only reduces the meaning of American to be someone who is anguished when asked about culture and ethnic background. Such a definition severely detracts from the definition of the America, which idealizes liberty, independence, and social justice, while preserving cultural values (for instance, having Asian, Irish, etc. roots).
Being proud of your heritage does not mean you must speak the language or eat the same foods. It means you empathize and understand that culture on levels someone else may not. And while the current political climate may make people uncomfortable and fearful of identifying with their race, they should not alienate themselves from it altogether.
Most importantly, someone who actually does not identify with their race or thinks of it as a private matter should not place the blame for their lack of empathy toward the many immigrants and Americans who rely on race to connect with others.