Freshman year of college was a whirlwind of a time, and I enjoyed experiencing it all with you. With the ups and downs of the year, in those short eight months before COVID kicked us out of our dorm, I relished every moment. Even as we had our arguments, I never questioned your honesty and transparency. I applauded your ability to always be blunt and invite all types of conversations. However, as we were getting to know each other, there were a few race-based conversations we had that were distasteful and unexpected.
As a first generation American, I always appreciated your openness to Indian culture and enthusiasm to learning about my family traditions. Your curiosity to learn about different customs is admirable, and I really appreciated it in the right context. However, conversations with a person of color should not only center around the fact that they are a POC.
Imagine if you walked into a room and the initial questions thrown at you were about the origins of Thanksgiving. Asking me about Diwali within the first ten minutes of conversation tends to have a similar effect. The same goes for large historical events. Surprisingly, Indians do not yearn to speak about years of cultural oppression from the British during colonization. For most of us that live in America now, it feels far removed from our day to day lives. Deeper conversations about the colorism, and North and South divide that stemmed from this event are interesting and fruitful. But I – like most other people – do not want to get into that on a Wednesday afternoon. By beginning a conversation with a comment on a cultural event, it implies that your first thought when engaging with me is about my race.
Being a minority in America and a person of color is a significant part of my identity. But they are not the only part. There is a fine line between interest in another’s culture and becoming overbearing to a point where that is what every conversation falls back to.
The “Where are you from?” question can sometimes end at a city in the United States, even if the person is a racial minority. Pressing further into that question, when I do not make a clear indication that I am interested in having that conversation, is alienating, and just irritating. It can be exciting to talk to somebody about when my parents immigrated from South India, but other times, it can be an entire tangent that I do not have the energy for.
Especially at a university that is filled with first- or second-generation immigrants, we have all built an identity beyond our race. Limiting most early conversations to covering our race or familial history can feel uninviting, rather than the comforting intention that it may be presented with. Often, we align closer with American culture than that of their extended family. Keeping this in mind, pushing into a conversation about our ethnicity makes us feel singled out and out of place within the cultures we identify with.
As always, your intentions are positive, and I understand that. It is evident in your willingness to speak about other cultures. But we do not always need a white person showing extensive with every facet of their traditional culture.
I do want to note that this letter is not written in support of the “I don’t see color” perspective. It is just as harmful to entirely ignore that prejudice that comes from racial discrimination by overlooking an individual’s race. Race and ethnicity should be discussed and acknowledged in the right context. Bouncing back in that direction would be ill-advised and arguably worse than being too quizzical about someone’s identity.
To build a deeper connection with me or any person of color, asking about our heritage before understanding who we are as individuals can limit the scope of the connection you are able to build. Extended heritage, especially for a minority in America, can be an isolating topic, stemming from recognizing the stark differences that come from living in a non-American household. Not only do we look different than what is traditionally portrayed as “American,” but these conversations from someone we are not close with implies that that is the only interesting thing about us. Even though I know your intentions are pure, I hope that this will put into perspective the fine line between being curious about my culture to making it my entire identity.