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One year later, an ode to the immigrant

in Columns/Opinions by

I have never been more acutely aware of the color of my skin, the home country of my immigrant parents, or the gender I identify with, as I was on Election Day of last year. Growing up in an all-white town, surrounded by symbols of wealth and privilege, I had spent the bulk of my adolescence attempting to refute the notion that I was brown. As the only Sikh student at my high school, I wanted to flee the stereotypes which colored the lenses of the the students around me. Growing up in the US as a second generation Indian, I wanted to be white more than anything. I dressed like the white girls at my school, hiding behind my sleeping bag of a North Face parka and covering my brown ankles with white high-top Converse sneakers, spending late nights studying at Starbucks, and emphasizing how I was born south of Chicago—not in India, unlike the rest of my family—at every opportunity I got. The students of color at my high school were few and far in between; the handful of Indian students were mostly male and probably just as fearful of acknowledging their brown skin as I was.

I realized, slowly, that I could cheat on my faith, in a way that my turbaned brother and father could not. Dressed in my white-girl camouflage, I could slide through the halls without drawing attention to myself as a Sikh woman of color; my brother couldn’t, and still cannot, fill up his car’s gas tank without being spit at by a white man as he was told to go back to where he came from. It was easy for me to pretend that I was independent of the immigrant identity of my family members.

It took me years to embrace my culture, faith, and origins with pride. I now feel ashamed of myself and how embarrassed I once used to be during school-wide events, hoping desperately that my turbaned father would not attend and that my mother, with her moderate Indian accent, would not speak up. It pains me deeply to think that I once found the people who I idolize and worship the most so humiliating to my existence. Coming to Swarthmore and finding a community of both international and domestic students who not only took pride in where they came from and what they looked like, but also actively promoted greater opportunity and advancement for the communities and groups that they represented, I gained a greater appreciation for the immigrant story. I started listening more carefully to the stories of my own parents, who left India and arrived to the US with the equivalent of seven US dollars; the retellings of my mother, who worked three jobs at a time under the table to make extra cash; the narrative of my brother, whose turban was ripped off from his head in middle school, who would go on to preach the values of patience, tolerance, and kindness to me when I’d angrily tell him to fight back with the same level of vitriol.

In the wake of the election, with anti-immigrant and xenophobic sentiment at all time highs given Trump’s condonation, I learned to find solidarity between myself and other women of color. I looked to my father, who escaped from the corruption of India’s democracy in progress to come to a country where democratic institutions, values, and principles are still, to this day, upheld, and found solace in the company of other first and second generation students. He reminded me to not lose faith in the American democracy, or in the institutions that would serve to counteract the potential damage an incompetent and unfit president could inflict. With this being said, he and I both recognize that the US is currently exhibiting the lowest degree of social mobility in all of American history and some of the highest levels of economic inequality in the world; in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory one year ago, it is near impossible to have blind faith in free markets and democratic institutions, the most fundamental underpinnings of American society.

However, this past Election Day, one year after what I considered to be the D-Day of American democracy, Hoboken, New Jersey elected its first Sikh mayor, Ravi Bhalla. Prince William County, Virginia, elected its first openly transgender state legislator, Danica Roem. Helena, Montana elected its first black mayor, Wilmot Collins, a refugee from Liberia. A refugee from Vietnam, Kathy Tran, became the first Asian-American woman elected to Virginia’s House of Delegates, and the House of Delegates also elected its first two Latina female members, Elizabeth Guzman and Hala Ayala. The elections of 2017 show us that when constituents mobilize at a grassroots level, collectively organize, turn out to the polls, and demand change, we create a government that starts to look more like the diverse America that I have come to be so proud of, where individual identities and differences are celebrated. I was disheartened to find that so many of my peers had ignored their civic responsibility by choosing not to vote this past Tuesday, assuming the election was unimportant and didn’t deserve their attention. This lethargy and complacency was precisely what led to poor voter turnout on behalf of Democrat voters in 2016, and contributed to an ultimate Trump victory. There is true and tremendous promise in the future of the American democracy, but—like my conservatives across the aisle have preached for years—we must pull ourselves up by the bootstraps to create it.

 

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