Friday, May 29, 2020

Unbitten Tongue

"I'm not racist, but those guys were a bunch of n*ggers!"  ~Dude from college describing some black students at a pick-up basketball game (who were far better at basketball).

"Ugh, why are we listening to this Martin Luther King music?" ~Girl from college upon hearing a group of us listening to rap music.

"Hey, check this out! N*gger lips!!" ~Multiple kids in grades K-12 curling their lower lip and resting their tongue on their upper lip as a joke.

"Black people are just dumber than white people, my dad told me." ~Girl from 7th grade in front of a black boy... who stared straight ahead and said nothing.

"It's not a racist thing, but I just don't find black people attractive." ~Co-worker reacting to a discussion about hot celebrities, commenting specifically on LL Cool J.

"I'm sorry, but I won't be coming to you anymore... it's getting too "dark" around here." ~Client of my mother's who stopped going to the salon where she worked because of the increase of black patrons at the mall.

"Well, you know, all these black people came out of the woodwork and started voting all of a sudden!" ~Appalled family member reacting to Barak Obama's victory in 2008.

"If he would have just listened to those police officers he wouldn't have gotten the shit beat out of him, serves him right!" ~Father of my friend watching footage of the 1991 Rodney King beating.


I am not a confrontational person. It's one of my personality traits that I think has helped and hindered my life in equal measure. While it has helped me to not overreact in many situations, it's also prevented me from saying many things that have needed to be said.

I bite my tongue when I don't want to offend or upset another person. There are so many occasions where I've chosen to keep my mouth shut in order to keep the peace, occasions where I have been personally offended by something, but opted to "not go there" because it won't be pretty. In essence, protecting the offender while my night has been ruined from some offhand comment.

George Floyd is the latest black man to be murdered by excessive force at the hands of police. I watched the footage and once again felt the absolutely nauseating heartache I do whenever these stories emerge. I wonder how the hell this is still happening. I marvel that these cops see people filming and yet continue abusing a non-violent, unarmed black person because they're aware of the historic lack of consequences. I get enraged, and I'm ashamed to say... I haven't done much beyond that. That is going to change.

Check Your Empathy
In reading articles by black journalists and authors, I've gleaned so many helpful insights into the appropriate ways to address these horrific stories with sensitivity to the black community. The biggest lesson is to not make it about you. This isn't about you. Rather than focusing on the emotions that YOU are feeling, express your sympathy for your black friends. Saying 'I'm so sorry this has happened again' or 'I see you' and lending an ear goes much further than expressing how the event has made YOU feel. Again, if you aren't part of the targeted marginalized community, do not make it about you.

Part of me thinks, "I can't win! Even if I express my own shame or disgust, I'm in the wrong!" That statement proves the point. I should focus on re-directing my feelings outwardly and make it about the feelings of those in the community. I'm still coming from a place of honesty; it's still the same sentiment that my heart is broken about what happened, but instead of saying how it affects me, I am recognizing that it affects the black community in a way that I cannot comprehend.

I'm guilty of being that woman who posts my reaction on Facebook and thinks I'm really doing something. I'd feel better since I expressed my disgust and heartache in a wordy diatribe. Again, I made it about me and how I felt. "Oh, people will know where I stand and that I hate when these incidents happen, good for me!" Even though I was being sincere in my words, my lack of action always left me feeling very inauthentic, because it WAS inauthentic. I'd say, "THIS MUST CHANGE!" but without the courage to actually participate in the change. My fear of putting myself in the fight has gone on too long.

If I truly care about these issues of racial injustice and want to be part of the solution, I must educate myself. I will join/donate to organizations that focus on serving people of color, I will read books and attend workshops about how to be an ally. I won't rely on my black friends to educate me, I will do my own work. I can get up on my soapbox all I want and say all the right things, but this is about DOING the right things.

My Lips Are Unsealed
In a previous post, I wrote about how I was always one to speak up against racist comments at school or other situations with co-workers or acquaintances. I didn't let that shit slide. However, when the racist person is my father-in-law, it hasn't been so easy to openly chastise him. Let's just say he and I couldn't be more opposite about many things, but specifically racism.

I'll be honest, it's been a real challenge to endure his racist comments in the almost 19 years of knowing him. My body tenses up and my heart pounds in my chest when he flippantly says things that make my blood boil. I internally try to calm myself with reminders that he has been a father figure to Paul and a great husband to my mother-in-law after a tumultuous first marriage to Paul's biological dad. While his opinions about black people are gross, I cannot deny that he provided a much needed support system for the man I love since his formative years.

One Thanksgiving, years into my relationship with Paul, I couldn't take it any longer and we had it out. It got heated. It wasn't pleasant. There were tears on both sides of the table. I needed my father-in-law to have the decency to recognize that his racist beliefs cannot be on display around me. After so many years of biting my tongue, I was glad to express how his words had affected me, but I was afraid that I may have splintered the relationship between Paul and his parents. As anyone who has racists family members, the feelings are very complicated. You love them but absolutely abhor a big chunk of who they are.

Since that night, we've tried to avoid hot-button issues that could spark a racist tirade. He and I don't have the closest of relationships, but we can be civil. More recently though, he's had the tendency to slip and say offensive things and I bite my tongue. "It's not worth it" I tell myself. "You're never going to change his mind, so what's the use?" I say. "We're only here for a short amount of time, let's not turn this into an argument," my mind screams.

I recently started examining those situations and the position my silence puts me in:
  • My father-in-law says something racist 
  • I choose to let it go because I don't want to cause tension 
  • He has no idea that he upset me
  • I hold in my anger and it causes me stress
  • He moves on completely at peace
  • I'm on edge and exhausted from putting on a happy face to protect his feelings 
It's really f*cked up. He's the one who said something awful, yet I put an incredible amount of energy to not upset a man who inflicted all of these feelings of anger and hurt. He continues his ignorance while I have to expend so much mental energy to figure out how to reform my attitude towards him and remember "he's good in other ways."

Those days are gone. Now, I don't want to turn everything into a heated argument, but a simple, "that is a racist thing to say," can be effective enough. I know I cannot change his mind and it's not even about that. I've always known that wasn't possible, but I cannot stand by any longer and let him say things that are blatantly prejudiced and let him think it is okay. I'm tired of making excuses for him.

And to echo the point I made earlier, this isn't about me. Sure, my own personal emotions get affected, but this is about speaking up for every black person who has had to suffer from ignorant prejudice. My father-in-law epitomizes the attitude that holds back progress for the black community, and as an ally, I will make sure he knows that. They aren't the problem... he is.

Passing It On
Racism is learned, so I'm not teaching it.

Once during a Facebook thread about the Trayvon Martin murder, a black friend of mine thanked me for my sentiments and then said something that I wasn't quite prepared for. She thanked me for "raising kids who won't see her son as an enemy because he's black." I hadn't even thought of that as something notable, I mean, I'm just raising my kids to be good and decent people. But to her, I was taking part in forming a new generation with less racism. As she went on to explain, she had seen the prevalence of black oppression through generations of her own family. From slavery to the civil rights movement, she could track how her own ancestors had been affected by each era. I was so inspired by her hope, even in the midst of such brutal violence on the black community by law enforcement (amongst so many other racial viral stories), she still holds onto hope.

Her words have never escaped my psyche. It is my duty to teach my children to see everyone as equal and further educate them on what has occurred throughout history and what is still happening today. When they see me enraged watching or reading the news, they often ask what it is about. I'm open and honest with them about these issues. And when I don't know something, we look it up together and learn together. I apply this to all marginalized groups. Sure, it's about being an ally... but it's also about doing what is right as part of the human race.

I'm aware to not to pat myself on the back too much with raising good kids... because as I've already stated it is not enough. Beyond talking about it, I need them to see me put those words into real action.


Click below for a comprehensive list of resources for those who want to be an ally to the black community.

Anti-Racism Resources

"In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be antiracist.” — Angela Davis

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Dear 1996 Sheevani...

Not sure I went one minute without that dark lipstick on in high school 


"Sheevani, you're almost done, huh bheta?"

I leaned forward and craned my neck to see the auntie inquiring about the end of my high school career. With three tables pushed together at Buddy's Pizza, it was a bit hard to see her. Whenever a few of our Indian families went out to dinner together, the chosen restaurant had to scramble to accommodate all of us. Part of the evening was usually spent entertaining ourselves while waiting in the lobby. We'd nurse hungry bellies until we heard the hostess mispronounce the given name followed by "party of (greater than 6)." At least Buddy's had video games.

"Oh, yeah. Just a couple more weeks left," I said. This particular auntie always intimidated me. She had an air about her that always made me feel like I was beneath her, which was ironic since her petite stature allowed me to grow taller than her by age 11. It also didn't help that both of her kids were in the academic elite of our community.

"Very good, bheta. Which college are you going to?" her chin jutted forward and her eyes narrowed. My heart started pounding in my chest. Ugh, WHY does she make me so nervous?

"Um... I got into Michigan State, so..." Please let this conversation stop. I had barely talked with my parents about a final college decision and I absolutely didn't want to go down that road with Judgy Auntie as the moderator.

"Oh? Not U of M?" There it was. No, not f*cking U of M. I wasn't smart enough to get into the superior University of Michigan unlike all the other brilliant ass Indian kids!

"Still need to figure a few things out," my dad interjected. Whew.

"Bharati and Janak, Michigan State is a party school... Sumbalje (be careful)."

I internally rolled my eyes at her warning to my parents. Of course she would think any school that accepted me was some second-rate party trash school. Ugh, where was the waiter with more sesame breadsticks and butter pats?!

"Are you having a graduation party?" The parents were talking amongst themselves now, thank goodness. I pretended not to hear them.

"No, she didn't say she wanted one," my mom said and she was right. I didn't quite know why I wasn't inclined to celebrate.

"American people make such a big deal about high school graduation... it's not a big thing!" my dad said.

Oh yeah, that's why I felt no desire to celebrate. My parents barely considered this an accomplishment.

"Well Janak, unlike our kids, many of these American kids don't go to college, so this is a bigger tradition for them."

"Even so, big parties and gifts... family coming from out of town to celebrate? All for just high school?!"

I wanted to scream but I wasn't sure if they'd be able to hear me from atop their high horses. Graduating high school was special, I thought. Maybe it wasn't some big accomplishment for me, but it certainly was a milestone. Just because it was expected doesn't make it any less significant. But, I couldn't say that. They'd never understand.

Once our orders were taken, the conversation had moved on and I was ensconced in the latest triviality in which a 17-year-old could revel down on the kids' side of the table. I'd be done with high school in exactly 12 days and I guess I was the only one who thought that was... something.


I will admit, at the onset of this pandemic where everything was shutting down and all I could think about was where my next toilet paper roll would come from, I scoffed at the woeful posts, "Oh no, my kid won't get to experience all the last traditions of high school!" In my own personal panic haze, I couldn't fathom giving a shit about missing a prom or a long-ass ceremony. Come on people! THERE IS A RAMPANT VIRUS DEVASTATING COUNTRIES ALL OVER THE WORLD!!

Cut to now; quarantine life is the new normal and I've had time to adjust and realize we aren't all imminently doomed. Now, I can totally feel that sadness. I also feel fortunate that my kids aren't being robbed of those last special months of high school.

I'm choosing to focus on the high school graduates losing out on their closure since, for me, that was the one academic rite of passage that was most impactful in my life. My entire childhood I longed to be older and graduating high school felt like that entrance into my adult life... with endless possibilities.

After watching the graduation episode of John Krasinski's Some Good News show, I was transported back to that time where everything was winding down; last final exams, banquets for all the clubs to which I belonged, my last time on the Kimball High School stage, my last choir concert, prom and graduation followed by the all-night party. In addition to those memories coming back, I could actually feel that indefinable energy that came at the end of high school; a mixture of excitement, relief, sadness and nerves. That collective feeling that we all knew our lives would markedly change after that last day... we all left with different memories of our time in that building, yet we could all say we were leaving as very different people than when we entered.

In the SGN episode, some lucky graduates got to ask a question to their commencement speaker, of course, not knowing who John Krasinski would present via pop-up screen during their online ceremony. The questions were fantastic and ranged in topic from holding onto your dream to a simple, "Now what?" Each celebrity guest gave very poignant answers and advice as only an accomplished and much older person can. It got me thinking that if I had the chance to talk to myself in 1996 when I graduated high school, what would I say?


Dear Sheevani,

Whoa, you're done with high school. Can you believe it? I mean, doesn't it feel like just yesterday when you'd steal Sheel's yearbooks and study every single page for hours? Now, you've got 4 of your own yearbooks and you're actually IN them! Insane.

Okay, first of all, great job in high school! I know junior high left you a bit scarred, and your strategy entering into 9th grade was to find friends who were good people and treated you well. And you did just that. I can further tell you as your future self that many of those same people will remain in your life for a long time. Just thinking of them and their impact will bring you to tears, so well done.

Now I know you think you aren't some academic stand-out, but you did well. Yes, Mummy and Daddy never seemed quite satisfied with your grades, but I know how hard you worked. Especially in all the math classes. While you could have put in some more elbow grease overall, I don't think you should be ashamed of what you accomplished academically. Plus, you rounded out studies with fabulous social experiences. Okay, all of your crushes went unrequited, but don't worry... good guys come to girls who wait. And believe me, I know it was frustrating that Mummy and Daddy were so strict about dating, but you'll thank them in the long run.

Okay first thing, keep writing. I'm sad to report that you'll give up a lot of things that give you joy pretty soon. Don't worry, you'll find your way back, but there will be long and painful detours. You've been writing in a journal pretty much everyday since age 10, so don't stop. Even when you don't feel like it, WRITE. A lot of what you write will be shit, but write it anyway. Much like Andy Dufresne, a river of shit can lead you to greatness on the other side. Oh wait, you haven't seen The Shawshank Redemption yet. I know the title isn't very catchy, but just know that this movie will be on regular rotation after you see it in college. Ah, back to writing! It has been your therapy thus far and as you get older, you'll need it more than ever so DON'T STOP.

Also, don't stop acting. That fear thing you've succumbed to a bit in high school only gets more forceful in the next few years. The world is bigger and scarier, so yes, the chances of getting the part lessens dramatically (pun alert), but remember, everything is an exercise in experience. You can grab so much from every experience, including failure. The more you give in to your fear, the more you'll lose yourself and not in the Eminem way (that'll make sense in about 6 years). You are so much more capable than you think, trust me.

Please seek help when you need guidance. Don't just assume there's no one who will understand your lack of direction, because there are literally people whose job it is to help you. See your guidance counselor regularly, talk to friends, talk to professors. Also, and I know this seems totally impossible, but talk to Mummy and Daddy. I know, I know... serious conversations with them have never gone particularly well for your whole life, but trust me... keeping them in the dark about your struggles will be a regret from which you'll never recover.

And finally, trust your strength. Okay, I can see the confusion on your face... damn, your face is so skinny and smooth. Whoops, sorry... anyway, YES YOU ARE STRONG. Tell those voices in your head that are comparing you to all the "good Indian kids" to shut up. Their accomplishments do not take anything away from you. You are different and you've felt this your whole life.  Different doesn't mean worse or less than those other kids. And believe me, many of those kids are not happy. They are living their life for their parents approval and nothing else. Staying true to your core isn't a betrayal to Mummy and Daddy, but it is a betrayal to yourself. None of this will be easy, Sheevani, but it'll be so worth it.

Oh yeah... hug Daddy a lot and ask him a lot more questions about his life. Don't leave any questions unanswered... please. And tell him you love him about 1000% more than you do now. Cherish his wisdom and advice. For all his faults and annoying habits on which you tend focus very heavily at the moment, trust that everything he does comes from a place of complete and unconditional love.

Well, I think that's all I can say, 1996 Sheevani. Congratulations on graduating and know that even if you follow NONE of this advice, you will still be okay. You've got a good head on your shoulders and while things may go in the pooper every now and then, you will pull yourself out and find a new way. All of those nights you stayed in over the last 4 years really served you to become your own rock. You listened to music, wrote in your journal, talked to yourself in the mirror and basically, became comfortable with being you. That's better learning than any math or history class as far as I'm concerned.

Oh right, one last thing... you meet Depeche Mode.

2020 Sheevani


My heart aches for these kids who will not get to experience all the things they have been looking forward to for so many years. It's not fair. But I am sure that so many of these kids will come up with some fantastic way to properly celebrate when it is safe to do so. I'm a strong believer in the "better late than never" philosophy. And whenever you do have your 2020 grad bash, pay no attention to the random Indian woman weeping in the corner... thanks.