Five years old. The Bronx. Playing in a park. Woman rams her bicycle handlebar into my eye, muttering “terrorist.”
Eight years old. Stop trying to learn Telugu. You shouldn’t speak it, people look wary when mom and dad speak it. It doesn’t matter that you’re a Hindu—you’re brown.
Preteen. Stay quiet and hidden. Don’t get noticed. Do your best to be invisible, especially if you’re the only brown one in the room.
Teenager. Stop wearing bright makeup and eccentric clothing. People are staring. They see you’re different. They’ll get suspicious.
Last year. Grocery store. Talking on phone, saying “that song is the bomb.” Woman drops the tomato in her hand to stare. Keep your head down, walk away. Don’t be loud, be unnoticeable.
Looking back at my thought processes during these different stages of my life, this all sounds kind of ridiculous to me. These are the thoughts of someone overdramatic and paranoid. I’m almost embarrassed thinking about how self-conscious I used to be all the time. I wasn’t even fully comfortable in my favorite place, the public library, if everyone else there was white. I felt them staring at me, judging me.
Yet, the horrible thing is my apprehension has never been completely irrational. From a very young age, after 9/11 I was subject to the horrible wave of Islamophobia that spread throughout the nation, even though I am not Muslim (though no one, Muslim or not, should ever face such treatment). The fact that I was brown made me subject to mistrust and unkindness. There were horror stories everywhere, and anything I faced was mild in comparison, but it still deeply affected me in a way I fear I will always carry with me to a degree.
After that bicycle incident, I ingrained it within myself that I ought to be inconspicuous. It was my burden as a brown girl to make myself seem inconsequential so that I would not alarm or upset others. Quite a daunting task for a little girl; I became quiet and afraid to speak. Of course, my own natural shyness and introversion was a large reason for my demeanor, but it was definitely prolonged and intensified because of the knowledge that I was different.
I would get nervous all the time when I was in a place without other brown people. I would constantly look around and see if anyone was looking at me. Most of all, I felt so out of place. I felt like I didn’t belong, that I should leave for the benefit of everyone else.
This lasted for years, all the way into high school. Whenever I began doing something as a mark of my own individuality, like wearing brightly patterned dresses and ensembles that stood out, I quickly changed my tune when I saw everyone looking at me as I passed through the halls. Slowly my bright eyeshadow, my sequins, and my cat ears disappeared as I started dressing like everyone else. Things that shaped my identity, that made me the happiest, I forwent. I suppressed myself out of fear and hyperawareness derived from that fateful day in the park.
My biggest regret is that in my quest to be like everyone else, I denied a lot of my culture. I can’t speak my family’s native tongue, Telugu. I don’t know many of the customs and traditions of my family because I never wanted to learn or celebrate them. Sometimes, as silly as it sounds, I feel like a fake Indian. And while this lack of immersion in Indian culture would have perversely pleased me years ago, now it just makes me deeply sad for everything I missed out on because of my paranoia.
Fortunately, I have managed to remove a lot of the weight of fear that dragged me down for most of my life. Though occasionally, like at that grocery store, my old feelings spring back, I have learned to shed my cautiousness and embrace who I am, my brownness and all, with no regrets. I found my cat ears, and I wear them every so often. I not only sing songs from American classics like Grease, but I now also unabashedly belt out Bollywood hits. I sometimes put mehndi (henna) on my hands and wear it with pride, uncaring of who sees. It may have happened later than it should, but I have accepted who I am and who I truly want to be.
However, Islamophobia, and general fear of anyone perceived as different, is growing in intensity. With the election of Donald Trump only exacerbating this problem, there is no telling exactly what the future holds.
Little brown boys and girls will have to face the same internal conflicts that I did. They will be forced to question their legitimacy and their right to freely coexist among everyone else in this country.
It goes beyond them too. Different groups of people from all kinds of cultural, racial, sexual, and other identities will have this involuntary sense of inferiority instilled in them due to the growing hate and mistrust in this country. Personality and a sense of self will continue to be suppressed as these people feel the pressure to diminish themselves and to become nondescript.
Beyond the violence and the inhumanity of it all, this is perhaps one of the biggest shames. We lose people, brilliant minds and unique individuals, because they feel like they should not express any sparkling particularities that they hold. They are taught through their daily experiences that both external and internal differences are wrong. They should be expelled as thoroughly as possible, and what cannot be removed should be masked and made unobtrusive to society. And not everyone gains back their self with time, as I was lucky enough to.
We will never get to know many of these people. They’ll never get to know themselves. What is being taken away from them is incomprehensible.
So, in the face of everything that you’ve survived through and everything you will have to survive through in the future, I urge you to wear your brown crown proud. That doesn’t mean you have to force yourself to accept aspects of a culture you do not connect with. All it means is to avoid feeling any shame about who you are, about the color of your skin or traditions you choose to follow or anything that seems to make you unlike what others try to impose on you as the norm. It doesn’t only refer to traditionally “brown” or ethnic aspects of you—it refers to any part of your beautiful and wonderful individuality that you should always feel free to express.
Above all, do not feel ashamed to live your own life.