Same Same, But Different
Growth Myndset is happy to present this featured post in our Guest Writer's Series. Guest writers are diverse in their background and issues of focus, and the content below is neither edited nor altered by Growth Myndset in any way without the consent of the author. The views expressed elsewhere on our website do not represent the views of our guest writers.
This piece took a while to write because it forced us to sit down and deal with thoughts that have come and gone. It’s easy to get distracted with the day-to-day, especially when you’re working or studying in a field that does not encourage critical thinking and personal reflection. We would like anyone reading this to know that the following is not an attack or critique on non-POCs (person of colour), nor is it meant to put down any fellow POCs.
The purpose of this piece is to express our individual experiences and confront the challenges we have faced and continue to face daily- as small as they may be. These challenges exist predominantly in our minds and we hope by sharing our interwoven internal dialogues, it can spark a discussion on a difficult topic.
- Ankita & Ragini
What is Internalized Racism?
A: The first time my sister and I shared the uncomfortable thoughts we had regarding our background took a weight off my shoulders, which I hadn’t realized was bringing me down. We had just taken a cab together and once we arrived at our destination, I remember turning to her and saying, “Sometimes when you take a cab and the driver starts asking you questions, do you ever feel—”; she cut me off and said, “Uncomfortable and you hope they don’t ask where you’re from?”
“Exactly. And then when we do end up talking about it, I feel like I need to justify that I’m not the Indian they think I am.”
This brief conversation released a flood of conflicting emotions, embarrassing thoughts, and unanswered questions. We started comparing the various interactions we’d had in cabs, ubers, with strangers, and even with friends. Almost all of these experiences seemed different versions of the same story. The conversation typically went like this:
Them: So, did you always grow up in Toronto?
Us: No, actually we were born in India and moved here when we were 5/3.
Them: Oh, wow! So are both your parents from India because you don’t look…
Us: Yeah, actually. We get that a lot. They are both fully Indian but our mom was born in England and then half raised in Toronto and half raised in New Delhi, and our dad was born and raised in India. So, when we moved here, it was just moving back for our mom but a bigger change for our dad.
These conversations always ended in us feeling the need to justify that we aren’t “fobs”- fresh off the boat. We felt the need to prove we were more culturally integrated than other families who immigrated to Canada. For some reason, this justification allowed us to feel superior and diminished the negative perception we had of “those Indians”.
After starting this dialogue, my sister and I soon realized that we have been struggling with these feelings individually for some time. We were unable to define the feelings of embarrassment, irritation, and self-loathing. It was only this year that we came across the term “internalized racism”. The concept served to validate our struggle because we were able to come to terms with our emotions and connect with others who have had similar experiences.
Simply put, internalized racism occurs when minorities develop racist beliefs towards their respective racial group. This can be hatred of one’s physical characteristics, a disregard of cultural practices, or even disassociation with members within their racial group (or other POC’s).
“Overall, minorities suffering from internalized racism buy into the notion that whites are superior to people of color. Think of it as Stockholm Syndrome in the racial sphere.” (Nittle, 2017)
The interaction we had with others regarding our background brought about an impatient and irritated feeling from within, as though we wanted to just say “Can we just not talk about this and pretend when you look at me you don’t feel the need to ask these questions?!”
R: This irritation and desire to never address our heritage consistently lingered in the background. As a result, one of the most uncomfortable interactions we have had with people occurs when we’d get asked, “Where are you from?”
When asked questions about India or when people share what they admire about Indian food, their trip there, etc., we find ourselves sinking in a dark hole of embarrassment for several reasons. Firstly, we realize that it is obvious we are the odd ones out. It’s as though we forget that we are POCs until it’s pointed out in such a way. In one experience my sister had, she described it as being an odd artifact at a museum, that people find fascinating but only when they want it to be.
Other conversations we have had consists of people asking us questions about India’s geography, culture, and politics when we are almost as unaware as the person asking the question. There were times where we used to be extremely engaged and interested in learning more about these things. However, the need to stray away from our roots overpowered this desire to learn more. The embarrassment we felt was coming into contact with feelings of cowardice. Why couldn’t we just be proud of where we come from and own it?
These feelings of embarrassment weren’t just present in the cab rides. Shying away from discussions regarding our background existed everywhere and came out in a variety of ways. Here are some of the main areas we’ve felt this has manifested itself in our lives:
The Pronunciation of Our Names
R: We both have very unique names. Whenever we need to tell a stranger our name, whether that was calling a cab, at Starbucks or trying to make new friends at school, we felt we needed to apologize for our name as it was inconveniencing the other person.
Ever since I could remember, meeting new people has always been difficult because of the fact that I have to introduce myself. It would go something like this: “Hi my name is Ragini, like Raw-guinea… oh you still don’t get it, ahh sorry I know it’s different, just call me Rags.” That’s how I still introduce myself because it just feels easier but I hate that I do it by apologizing for the name I was given.
A: I’ve grown to love the new pronunciation of my name. Ankita (originally pronounced uh nk - ee t ah) was given its new pronunciation by my Grade 2 teacher. As a 7-year-old, I wasn’t embarrassed about my name or my background. I was (unknowingly) loud and proud. My teacher asked me how to pronounce my name, and decided to change what she heard to make it easier. Since then, I realized by saying Ann-kee-tah, my interactions with others would go a lot smoother.
I don’t blame my teacher for changing the pronunciation of my name. Instead, what bothers me most is my embarrassment of the original Ankita. I would be ashamed when friends could hear my parents calling me and then they would ask why it was pronounced so differently. It’s taken me 20 years to be able to “own it” and be proud of both pronunciations.
I’d be lying if I said I don’t think twice every time I’m asked to introduce myself. What I’ve realized is that the person who struggles the most with how to pronounce my name, is me. Embracing my name took one step in the direction of embracing my background.
R: Our appearance has always been harder to deal with because it is obviously something we can never really change about ourselves. I remember when I was younger and the Tyra Banks show was on and she was interviewing women of colour who would bleach their skin. The point of the episode was for people to realize they didn’t need to make themselves lighter to love themselves but the only thing I took from it was that there was a way for me to make myself look more like my white friends. I spent hours researching stores that carry similar products because I was so desperate to not only change the inside but the outside of myself as well. I never ended up following through with it but it scares me to think about what would have happened if I did. I still sometimes find myself avoiding the sunlight or wearing neutral coloured clothes so that my skin doesn’t stand out with vibrant colours but I have also learned to try and at least accept the skin that I was born with. It’s still hard and I know at some point I will get to a place where I can really love it but it takes time.
Being Called/Calling Ourselves “White-washed”
A: This goes hand-in-hand with our pride in being labelled “white-washed” by our white friends. It was as though we gained their approval. We were a part of the club. In our eyes, we were finally seen as equals. The first time this started was in High School - we had no idea what it meant but it sounded like social approval, and thus we took it and understood it as such.
Lack of Participation in Indian Culture
We would go out of our way to ensure we were not involving ourselves in groups or activities that would involve interacting with Indian people. We avoided friendships with other people of colour and distanced ourselves from family members because we feared being labelled FOBs. This was the opposite of being considered white-washed, which we considered a compliment.
Like most triumphs in life, there is never a single resolution. The mindset we choose to have throughout our life is one that must consistently be exercised and worked at. While we can’t necessarily control the embarrassing thoughts we have about our background, the colour of our skin, and other aspects of our lives associated with being Indian, we can control how we face these thoughts and how to address them when they re-occur.
These thoughts have not disappeared, but our reactions have changed. We are actively thinking about how we can grow from these experiences and help ourselves be happier and more comfortable in our skin (literally and figuratively). What’s important to recognize is that although we may be sisters and have had a consequently similar upbringing, our experiences and our growth have differed.
R: I think what’s really helped me grow has been our 9-year-old brother. When he was 7 years old and we were in Argentina for a family vacation, he saw me doing my makeup. I was putting concealer on my face to highlight my skin (for those who don’t know, concealer is lighter than one’s actual skin-tone used to highlight parts of the face). He asked me what that was, and I told him. He then asked if he could use some. I asked him why, and he said so he could put it all over his body to be white just like his friends at school. My sister and I looked at our parents and it was a heartbreaking, yet crucial, turning point for all of us. We made it a point to discuss our love for our physical appearance, our personalities, and our Indian heritage. From this experience, I developed an understanding of an effective way to combat internalized racism (at least for me): Talking to your younger self. A lot of folks talk about utilizing this technique to help with anxiety. When you feel yourself starting to feel embarrassed because of who you are, or annoyed because of a question that was asked and find yourself getting sad or defensive, think that this was happening to your younger self, or a younger sibling. What would have wished was said to you? What would you tell yourself? What would you say to a younger sibling on how to deal with these very complicated and sometimes upsetting issues?
A: As cliché as it sounds, the turning point for me was in my fifth year at University and learning that embracing myself was OKAY. I realized that I found it easier to come out and be proud within the Queer Community, and yet, being proud of the colour of my skin has taken 10+ years. Why is that? I want to be just as proud about being brown and coming from India, but I’ve struggled and still do. I think growth can only occur after one has acknowledged and reflected on their current state. The past two years have consisted of just that: I’ve acknowledged this internal dialogue and I’ve reflected upon it individually, as well as with my sister. Growing up, I struggled with being able to identify to a certain minority group. I felt that brown people just got mixed in with other groups and this is part of the reason I found it easier to identify as queer more than a POC. However, this inability to identify with a minority group was largely impacted by the desire to be considered white.
Moving forward, I don’t want to shy away from conversations that I’m embarrassed by. If I don’t own my cultural background, who will?
A: The emotions that stemmed from this internalized racism is not something that will disappear once addressed. To this day, I catch myself being uncomfortable, embarrassed, and confused. However, that’s what has changed. Catching ourselves. We have begun to recognize the moments that force us to look within and accept who we are. It takes patience, kindness and an overwhelming urge to not ‘blend in’.
R: Having these discussions has brought us closer to each other, our family, and also our friends – both POCs and not. What is really interesting about it for me is that these conversations and learning more about this issue has really made me understand myself and why I think and act like I do. It has definitely taken time to get to this point, but I have much more of an appreciation for who I am because I have really given thought, which has allowed me to accept myself and learn to own it.