Internal and External Perspectives
Perhaps nothing other than severe illness has affected my life more than discrimination. Even before I was born, the wheels of prejudice began turning in my own family in response to my parents’ involvement. The relationship and eventual marriage between my father and mom was inter-ethnic, with him being born in India and her being an American of European descent. One of my uncles asked my parents what their children would look like. Sarcastically, my father replied, “Like zebras.” This interaction set the stage for me losing most of my mom’s family before I had even been conceived . My father would not permit my mom or us to have familial contact except for a few more visits. This included his own family as well.
As a young child growing up in Joliet, Illinois in the 1970s. I was in the middle of a war zone. My siblings and I were tormented by the other kids in the neighborhood and had rocks thrown at us. We could not play in the front yard and access was limited in the wooded backyard. What otherwise would have been a paradise of a home was an uninviting environment filled with rejection. My brother, sister, and I were often bullied or felt afraid, and it wasn’t just of those in the dominant group. Falling in between, we took assault from different groups. I recall walking to the park with a friend. I was under the age of ten. Kids yelled out “Spic.” I was so humiliated. Later, when visiting the private university my father worked at in my late teens, I felt like I was in a flashback of segregation in the 1950s.
To add to this, my father came equipped with his own views, placing everyone into racial and ethnic categories, an educational category, a category for income, and one for gender. Sexual orientation and cohabitation are heavily scrutinized even if platonic. Even people from India were and still are not excluded from this “caste system”. One day, he was walking with my mom and he saw a couple. The woman was “Caucasian” and the man was from India. He told my mom that she was with the man, because she couldn’t get anyone here (as in an American of her own race). It is safe to say that my father’s system was discriminatory against everyone in the family, and he expressed that he was superior to everyone in the household and outside of it.
This system added to the struggles I was already enduring and made functioning in the larger society even more difficult. Also, I believe my father’s attitudes about other Indian people came shining through directly to me, and I developed a strong inferiority complex with regard to my east Indian heritage, even when I acted proud of it. Despite that, I continued to try to find a way to appreciate my heritage.
My mom remarried when I was 9 after moving to Seattle, WA. My stepdad was African American. This added a new dimension. We lived in Federal Way, Washington, an area that had a small percentage of minorities. In the neighborhood, I once again fell into a category. This time, it was biracial. I had discussions at school where I vehemently defended children of interracial families to the point where one friend finally figured out I was a product of an “interracial couple.” I am not sure if people thought I was African American or some mixture. I didn’t discuss that a lot. I felt invisible at school and for the most part, excluded. I eventually found myself completing high school in a college environment. It was at this point that I actively started identifying as Asian American. I used this designation on forms I filled out.
Both in Joliet and in Federal Way, friends that did come around or into my house made comments or passed on comments made by their parents. In Joliet, two friends discussed how their parents didn’t think my house was clean enough. One of them was instructed not to drink from our cups, because she was told they were dirty. Our family was viewed as a being part of a lower socioeconomic status when I lived with my father in Illinois. In Federal Way, two sets of parents did not want me around their child or family. I believe it was due to being from a mixed family. My friends told me behind closed doors in their own way.
While having a multitude of conversations over the years, there has been a general and backhanded compliment expressed to me by many people, in every arena including education. The sentiment can be summed up with this quote: “You aren’t a minority. You are like one of us.” Members of my family have made these comments. One day, my aunt told me that people should marry their own kind. When I questioned her as to what my kind was, I was told that I was just like her and everyone else, and different than “them.” I wondered if I was supposed to say thank you for including me or for not persecuting me directly along with the others.
I developed an interest in Sociology, talking a great deal with some professors about their experiences with discrimination and often asked for input about why I was enduring so much hatred. On campus, I remember kids yelling racial slurs at me completely unprovoked later when I went to school in Bakersfield, California. I took a few main things from my classes that have helped me to understand things better than I used to. I learned about some of the socioeconomic factors that have led to prejudice and hatred between different racial groups, even those people that are minorities. Through one teacher, I found out that the Asian American family appeared to have a basic structure. My teacher’s experiences were unique but were quite similar to mine in many respects even though she had grown up in a Chinese American family. I took many classes about minorities and felt more connected to my minority status, largely feeling that I would accept that I was not part of the dominant group. I felt I didn’t need to be, and I was essentially in a category of “other.” This, I came to find out, was the reason I had it particularly rough. I simply didn’t have a community to connect with directly, being part of a complex, inter-ethnic and interracial family with discrimination internally present as well.
I had two experiences in Bakersfield and one in Seattle which profoundly shaped me as a person. I was refused seating on the basis of sexual orientation once. I went to get some food late one night with someone I was dating, and we waited 45 minutes to be seated when there were plenty of tables and no others waiting to be seated. I absolutely refused to leave as I was totally in shock. The second time I was not seated was close by where I attended school. I was with a close friend that was Native American. After 30 minutes of waiting, a busboy finally came to seat us. I really can’t remember. He might have served us also. Both times, I was filled with anger and that was a change for me. I felt they did the wrong thing, and although it was hurtful, I put the blame where it belonged. Prior to that, I was denied housing even in Seattle and caught the person when I called to check if the basement was still available. It was and I knew that once again, my skin color had caused a problem for me.
As a student at Oregon State University, and one that has experienced discrimination on multiple levels, I would openly share with others what I had experienced in my family and society with regard to discrimination. I would make myself available to people that felt marginalized in any way. Along the way, I know for sure that without my social science teachers all through my schooling, it would have been even harder. I know I could pass that on and make a positive difference in society and the lives of other people. I strive to do that in my everyday interactions, and it is my desire to help those that need help and protection the most in society.