Since seventh grade, Hercules has been one of my favorite movies, which is strange considering the first time I watched it, my eyes were filled with tears. As a twelve-year-old, I was fascinated by the “Gods” on my television screen, and proudly proclaimed, “I’m going to be Hera!” to which a well-intentioned classmate remarked, “but you’re brown.” Hera was, of course, pink. Now, almost five years later as a senior about to graduate high school, I still remember this moment clearly, but not for the reasons one might think.
Immediately following my peer’s acknowledgement of my skin color, I cried. My teacher, to her credit, made my classmate apologize, yet this moment remains a powerful memory because it reflects that I, at twelve years old, had already internalized the idea that being brown was something to be ashamed of.
I grew up attending a predominantly white, affluent, private school in Orange County, and needless to say, between me and the other Indian girl in my class, there wasn’t exactly an accurate representation of Indians.
For my classmates, there was little-to-no cultural context for understanding the Indian American experience. Race and ethnicity were seldom discussed, and when they were, teachers only addressed issues that were black and white. When the word “Indian” did come up it was, inaccurately, used to describe Indigenous American peoples. I thought maybe we’d be acknowledged when people referred to Asians, but quickly learned that this term was reserved strictly for descendants of the East side of the continent.
I came to find that while much of my culture was left uncovered within the classroom, it was an entirely different story outside of it. Indian accents were widely promoted through pop culture as hilarious—and images of us as cab drivers or covered in henna tattoos and colored powder were of no shortage. Whenever Indians were mentioned, it was through stereotypes about how “exotic” we were, nods to our intelligence, and other overgeneralizations. I struggled to find myself in the misguided images provided by the media and was getting mixed signals on when it was “okay” to be Indian.
Saris, bindis, and henna tattoos were cool—and everybody loved Indian food—but as soon as Slumdog Millionaire came out, I became the Indian ambassador—everyone expected me to have all the answers related to Indian culture and be accountable for 1.3 billion people’s actions. I was learning very harshly that American pop culture picked, rather selectively, what it was going to accept and what it was going to reject from any given culture.
Pop culture made festivals such as Holi—the celebration of color in which we throw colored powders at one another—yoga, and meditation all seem like fads. I would see images of non-Indians dressed in saris, throwing colors at each other and think to myself, they’re enjoying Indian culture now, but at the end of the day they don’t have to deal with being brown. They have the privilege of celebrating our holidays and taking “trendy” pictures, but then turning right back around and mocking our accents or telling us we smell like curry.
The most daunting question of all was the dreaded, “Can you do your Indian accent for me?” which wide-eyed classmates lined up to hear, ready to imitate and mock my heritage in the most excruciating manner. I felt like a puppet, like a circus act, and horribly used when people asked me this question. My classmates, who were mostly white and weren’t struggling with the identity crisis I was, couldn’t understand why this question was so hurtful.
I didn’t want people to just see me as that Indian girl or talk to me about their fascination with Indians as if I was some type of “exotic” fetish.
Problems occurred when my two worlds collided and someone decided to bring up stereotypes about Indians or talk about how cool it would be to have Holi at school. I loved my Indian culture, but in typical middle school fashion, I was embarrassed by the thing that made me different. Every time it came up, I felt singled out. Part of this was because I’d internalized the American concept that race isn’t an appropriate conversation topic, but the other part was because of the valid reality of racism in the United States.
I was far from understanding the complex racial dynamics of America in middle school and even further from being able to explain them. As a result, I hid my heritage but owned my skin color. Basically, I understood that the color of my skin was brown and I couldn’t hide from that, but since Indian culture wasn’t highly publicized and I clearly wasn’t white, peers tended to lump me into the black category. Of course, their classification relied exclusively on stereotypes, like being able to dance and my “sassy” nature.
The funny thing is, I didn’t mind. Like I said, at this point I had no concept of race in America. I grew up with the same ideals as every other American kid: we are all equal and race doesn’t matter. So, I went on being called black because, in this context, it was cool; of course, I was doing the same thing non-Indians were doing when they celebrated Holi on their own. I was taking what I liked from black culture (the accepted part of it) and using it to my advantage.
What finally put an end to this identity crisis was getting into social justice work. My sophomore year of high school, I got the opportunity to attend the Student Diversity Leadership Conference—better known as SDLC.
This conference was for students from independent schools around the country who wanted to learn more about identity. During one of the sessions, we were all instructed to go to our cultural affinity groups. In reality, this was the same as me going to a family party to see my Indian friends for a night, but at that point I couldn’t understand why we needed to do this.
However, when I joined the circle of over a hundred other Indian American youth, I knew I was right where I belonged. We talked about our favorite Bollywood movies, how annoying it was to be asked to do our accents, and how often people mispronounced our names. I could relate to everything that was said! For the first time in a setting outside of my home, I felt my Indian identity affirmed.
I returned to Orange County with a newfound confidence and clarity regarding my Indian identity. I began to correct people when they tried to lump me into a black, or otherwise nonwhite, category and I was proud of my heritage once again. I combatted harmful stereotypes and let others know when their questions or comments about my culture made me uncomfortable.
Today, I’m proud to say that both of the cultures I’ve grown up in, Indian and American alike, exist within me harmoniously. I’m able to embrace one identity as much as the other. Now I know growing up bicultural is a blessing not a burden.
For my graduation next month I’ve decided I want to wear a sari because it’s the outfit that makes me feel the most beautiful and reflects an important part of my culture. The road to self-acceptance, especially in categories as historically and politically charged as race and ethnicity, can be tricky sometimes and it’s okay to stumble and fall—I certainly did.
Priyanka Jhalani is a high school senior who is passionate about social justice work. Since her sophomore year, she has been heavily involved in diversity and inclusivity initiatives. She’s facilitated numerous discussions and given several speeches at her school. She’s a first generation Indian woman and lived in France during her junior year of school. When she has the time, Priyanka loves to write, read, run, and dance.
Editor’s Note: This article is the first of three in Teaching Social Justice’s first series. I am honored that Priyanka chose TSJ as her outlet to publish this work as part of a senior project. Stay tuned for her next article on colorism in the coming weeks.