On Identity (and Why You Should Care Too)
November 20, 2015
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Forum or its other staff.
These past few weeks have been a viewpoint-altering time for many of us. I know some fellow CMCers had never given the ideas of diversity and inclusion at CMC two minutes of their time, but now, it’s all I can think about. My thoughts during class are consumed with a sense of self-doubt—guilt over what I could have been doing, righteous anger over what has not been done, hesitation as to what the next steps should be.
However, one opinion I’ve heard voiced over and over that has really stood out to me is the following: “I’m a person of color, but I’ve never felt marginalized, at CMC or in my life before CMC!” The students I’ve heard express this sentiment use a tone that implies the following: “I’ve never experienced marginalization, and so I don’t need a diversity center—why should anyone else? Why is a resource center even necessary?”
I would like to respectfully submit that we all need a “diversity” center, every one of us, even those who don’t think they have been or ever will be marginalized. However, I would suggest that, instead of calling this center a center for “diversity,” “inclusion,” or “marginalized identities,” we call it an “Identity Center.”
I will acknowledge that I have had a substantial amount of privilege in my life: I don’t come from a particularly low socio-economic background; I went to private, Catholic school from Kindergarten to senior year. In these discussions on campus, I sometimes feel like I have no room to speak because I have not had nearly the same experiences as many of the leaders or active participants have. I will also acknowledge that I’ve never felt marginalized on this campus—but that does not make the experiences of those who have been marginalized any less valid.
The theoretical idea of a diversity center is excellent to most of us—of course it is fundamental that people of marginalized identities receive a space to dialogue on questions about ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, and other puzzling or elusive concepts, and to vent, decompress, brainstorm solutions, and seek reparations. However, I now realize that I, as a student of color who has not felt marginalized, need this center just as much.
I am a person of color—even saying those words is a foreign feeling to me. Upon further ponderance of why this is, I have come to realize that identity is a concept that I struggle with daily. Before coming to CMC, I hardly ever spent time thinking about my race, my culture, my religion, or my experiences with diversity and inclusion. I never knew, and I still don’t know, how or where I fit. Do I need to fit? Do I need to self-identify?
I have never felt like I fit into any category in my life. My mother is Pakistani; my father is Indian. My mom moved to Chicago when she was 19 years old; my father to Cincinnati when he was 25. My mom speaks Urdu and Arabic, and my dad speaks Hindi and Konkani. My parents never taught me either language.
My parents, whose names are British-American instead of Pakistani or Indian, were raised in intensely Catholic households in predominantly Muslim and Hindu countries. My family doesn’t celebrate the traditional Hindu holidays like Diwali or Holi, or the Muslim holidays like Eid; instead, we strictly observe Lent and celebrate on Easter by going to Vigil mass. My mom’s six siblings and my dad’s four siblings all live in the U.S. or Canada; I’ve never been back to my dad’s hometown of Bombay, and certainly not my mom’s hometown of Karachi.
I was cut from the Catholic cloth. My parents sent me to Catholic school from Kindergarten to 12th grade; my K-8 school was co-ed, and my high school was all-girls. I completed my first communion and confirmation all before fifth grade, I said the rosary every night before going to sleep, and I listened faithfully during theology classes throughout my K-12 career. But, as I like to tell my parents, the best way to ensure your child won’t be Catholic is to send them to Catholic school, and I’ve gradually come to separate myself from the Catholic label in favor of a more secular lifestyle. Although Catholicism was such a huge part of my life growing up, I can’t even claim ownership of that identity anymore.
I grew up an Indo-Pakistani girl in Phoenix, Arizona, from a suburb called Ahwatukee, affectionately nicknamed “All-white-tukee” for its racial homogeneity. I had no friends of color until 8th grade; I myself was one of few “brown” kids in my elementary school. Growing up, I felt an inexplicable sense of self-hatred—a feeling that is not uncommon among young people of color in predominantly white communities. I would look at myself in the mirror and think I would be so much prettier and more likeable if I had lighter skin and blonder hair. I saw my popular, light-skinned, light-haired, blue-eyed, outgoing friends and paled in comparison: me, a short, brown, dark-haired, brown-eyed, shy, unassuming child. I would feel a sense of alienation and frustration when my dad never hung out with the other dads to drink beer and watch football; when my mom never went shopping or went to brunch with the other moms. I hated when my dad would pack me tandoori chicken for lunch; I would go home and demand peanut butter sandwiches to be more like the other girls.
Instead of seeing my parents as successful immigrants who were able to afford a college education and become a microbiologist and an engineer, I saw them as people who were different. I saw myself as someone who was different.
When I went to high school, I was introduced to a slightly different atmosphere. There were a few more people of color, maybe bumped up from 4 to 24. I met other Indian girls. I was so excited to be in a place with real “diversity,” and I couldn’t wait to finally feel like I wasn’t alone in my heritage.
But the more time I would spend with my Indian friends, the realization that I, again, was not like them creeped in. My Indian friends were all Sikh or Hindu, they posted photos of themselves and their friends at Diwali parties dressed in beautiful saris, they shared stories with me about visiting their families in Goa, they spoke Gujarati when their parents called them on the phone.
I longed to belong to this culture. I begged my mom to take me to go buy a sari—we drove 40 minutes to the nearest Indian store, and I found the perfect one. I put it on, yet I still didn’t feel right. I had nothing to wear it to—my parents and all their friends dressed like normal Americans, and wasn’t that what I so badly wanted when I was growing up? I felt like I was just playing dress-up, trying to lay claim to a culture that wasn’t really even mine.
By the time I became a high school senior, I was done with trying to find an identity for myself. I didn’t feel American; I didn’t feel Indian. I was tired of trying to fit in with either label, so I stopped trying.
Coming to CMC has been a wildly different experience. I have found in my personal experience that the people and the culture are less demanding of labels, less demanding of identifiers.
My professors have been wonderful resources in the process of better understanding who I am, especially Professor Aseema Sinha. I recall one time in particular that I went into her office hours to speak with her, and she asked me about my background. I told her about my feeling of being nothing, that I was half-Indian, half-Pakistani, Catholic, born and raised in Arizona, and that I felt extremely distanced from my culture. I joked that the most Indian thing about me was that my dad cooks Indian food nightly.
I expected her to brush this off and move on, but she instead asked me to explain why I felt that I wasn’t “Indian enough.” When she could see that I was struggling to fully articulate my sentiments, she described to me one reason she enjoys studying Indian politics. Professor Sinha explained that she loves the lack of cultural homogeneity that exists in India—the fact that there are many religions, many languages, and so many traditions and a general lack of oneness and “Indian identity” for so long in India’s history makes the country such an interesting phenomenon. She told me that if I asked my other Indian friends about their cultural experiences, I would probably receive vastly different stories.
I perceived a difference in our experience because I considered myself excluded from Indian traditions and beliefs, but no Indian would ever turn me away from celebrating Holi, and no American-Indian would ever claim that I am less Indian because I am Catholic or I grew up in a predominantly white city—and if they did, they were just wrong.
I had never been told anything like this before—I had never felt that I belonged in any part of me, and here Professor Sinha was telling me that I could have an identity, that it wasn’t wrong or false to try to claim this label.
It is in this moment of self-discovery that I realized: we all need a forum within which we can speak freely about our own identities. We all struggle with who we are—no matter your race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender, or any other classification—none of us are entirely confident in our selfhood. I have friends who struggle with being biracial, white-passing, growing up in a multi-religious household, unaccepted by their parents, and a myriad of other issues that stem from a lack of identity exploration.
College is hailed as a time for students to be introspective—for us to discover who we are and why we’re here. Some see liberal arts colleges as the epitome of this introspection: take some classes for the sake of broadening your horizons and opening your mind, both to learn more about yourself and to learn more about the world in general.
For these reasons, I support a general education requirement in ethnic and/or gender studies. My friend Em Segal beautifully wrote, “Mocking the idea of classes in ‘ethnic, racial, and sexuality theory,’ only further demonstrates the need for these classes to exist. [...] ‘Ethnic, racial, and sexuality theory’ are human issues.” Saying this affirms the idea that we all come from vastly different backgrounds. I can’t even begin to fathom some of the complex identities of my friends, my peers, and my fellow students. The least we can do while we are in college and have the freedom and the privilege to study these subjects is do exactly that—study them, engage, debate, discuss, and try to embark on that journey of self-discovery and discovery of those unlike us.
I support an identity center because we need a space to share the ways in which our identity is composed and is still being built. This space would give us a way to confront those subtleties of our background and identity categories that we push to the backs of our minds; those things that give us privilege or take away our sense of self. It might not have been obvious, but every one of us has had those experiences, and they have impacted all of us, and we need the opportunity to explore these things with the support of our community—a community that has a vested interest in seeing its students embark on this path of self-discovery.
Every one of us is a constituency of all of our experiences—our hometowns, our religions, and our ethnicities. We all would benefit from a space in which we can discuss these parts of our whole, just for the sake of discussing. Isn’t that what we all chose to attend a liberal arts college for?