May 9, 2016
by Shailee Koranne
When I moved from India to Canada in 2004, I was eight years old—old enough to understand, love, and be devoted to Indian culture, but plenty young still to be malleable, re-shaped easily by the impact of racism.
My family has lived in the same mostly white suburb of Toronto for well over ten years since we moved to this country. From my first day at school I was lost, trying to connect with people while trying to understand the parameters around expressing my cultural identity. I was, and still am, living in a society that is actively controlled by white supremacy, one that shames people of colour in sinister ways to convince them to assimilate.
At a young age, I was already feeling those effects. I dealt with racist microaggressions on a daily basis, and it wasn’t long before I disavowed everything that publicly reflected my culture—from my accent, to the pronunciation of my name, to my food—embarrassed about the way my voice sounded, embarrassed about the fact that no one could pronounce my name and found it funny, embarrassed about the food I brought to school for lunch, food that even my teachers would point at and ask “what is that?”
I became embarrassed about where I came from. There is something disturbing about teachers critiquing ESL learners’ vernacular and accent, shaming a child every time she can’t remember the English word for something. It is grotesque to make kids feel like they need to whitewash their birth names, picked out with care and love by their parents, to avoid the embarrassment of having a “foreign” name. It is utterly sad and not at all unusual for jokes about curry to drive brown kids to the point that they throw out their lunches at recess for years, or come home and hide their lunchboxes from their parents in their closets until the food literally grows mold. Yeah, I did that, and my mother could never understand why. For a long time, my mother was the person I would disclose all my frustrations to, but as I got older and felt myself evolve from a singular Indian identity to a more complex diasporic sense of self, it felt as though I couldn’t talk to her about anything either. I was alone.
It would have been nice to grow up around other South Asians. It might have counteracted the shame that so many of us feel just by virtue of living in the diaspora, but I don’t blame my parents for moving us to a small town with so few brown people. It wasn’t even like I was being actively bullied; my all-pervading feelings of anxiety and loneliness were coming from the collective impact of many minuscule comments that are so ingrained in the way our society treats people of colour.
I tried making active changes to fix how I felt. In high school, when I learned more about feminism, I started spending more time with women. This helped at first, but even they couldn’t give me what I wanted. I didn’t understand what was wrong with me; why I felt so disconnected from all of my friends, and why I was either apathetic to or angered by so many of their interests and jokes. I felt like the odd one out in so many situations that I eventually distanced myself from the group, but it felt horrible because I knew they weren’t actually trying to shut me out. I blamed myself for all of it.
Then, one day, I suddenly realized that I was the only person of colour in my friend group. Out of the dozen or so friends in my main group, I was the only non-white person. I was startled and felt very uncomfortable when I realized how few people of colour I knew, and how even fewer of them were actually friends and not just acquaintances. How could I have gone so long without noticing?
The pieces came together quickly and I could finally pinpoint the source of my feelings of loneliness: a lack of racial diversity in my social circle. This realization came with my growing understanding of social issues and rekindling of my love for my Indian identity. I didn’t understand how lonely I was until I started celebrating my culture again and realized that I had no one to do that with.
I’ve never had a shortage of friends, but in all of my friend groups, most of the people I spent time with were white, and I gave up a lot just to exist comfortably in proximity to their whiteness. I was exhausted all the time, coming home from parties and other hangouts emotionally drained because I had to silently tolerate yet another racist microaggression, or getting in arguments with some of my white friends about racism. This is not to say that I don’t love my white friends, because I did and I still do, but it was frustrating to spend time in groups of people who would never be able to fully understand me or my life. I wanted the solace of people who could actually relate to me, people who would say, “oh my God, me too!” and know exactly what I mean when I express that I’m too afraid to wear a bindi outside of my house. I wanted to stop biting my tongue when someone said something racist, and I wanted people to stop expecting me to be their teacher when it came to social issues. I wanted reflection, validation, and genuine empathy in an environment where I was being understood, not silenced.
Women of colour are strong, and that is special to me, a brown girl with a lot of feelings and so many anxieties that exist because of my intersecting identities. We carry heavy weights on our backs that are unique to the intersection of our genders and races. We, as women of colour, are hypersexualized or portrayed as submissive, but also shamed for liberating ourselves on our own terms; we bear the burden of being told we are ugly because of our skin colours and non-European features, but are also fetishized for our exoticness; we deal with disproportionately higher rates of violence and harassment, but are rarely given credit for how resilient we are. We shouldn’t have to deal with these injustices. We shouldn’t be expected to be resilient—the systems that exist to oppress us should be expected to stop hurting us. I was sick of being around the people that were part of those hurtful systems because most of them didn’t care if they upheld them; they didn’t care to give up any of their privileges.
I reached out to more women of colour even though part of me was tired and weary of making new friends. I sought out online communities of women of colour who existed in solidarity with one another. One of the first women of colour I befriended after making the active decision to diversify my friend group was driving me home one day after dinner when the topic of sexuality came up out of the blue. I vividly remember how easily I spilled my feelings about how my relationship with my mother became turbulent after I entered my first sexual relationship in high school. One after the other, I divulged secret after secret about what my disapproving mother had put me through for casually dating. I had never talked to another racialized woman who found her culture to be as sexually repressive as I sometimes find mine, and at some point, my friend interrupted me to say, “I’m so glad you’re telling me this, because I went through the same thing, and hearing you talk about it makes me realize that I shouldn’t just accept what our parents put us through as a part of our culture—it’s abuse.”
My heart swelled to three times its size that night. Even though the disclosures I was making to my friend had happened nearly a year before we met, I still carried those feelings, and after that night, the burden felt lighter. I could talk freely about the ways my culture can be oppressive and for once not worry that I was adding fuel to the fire of Orientalist views of South Asia as being “backwards” on the plane of progression; I knew that my friend was aware of what I was talking about and didn’t have any reductive or insulting ideas about my culture. In fact, she dealt with the same things. I wasn’t imagining my struggles. I felt validated.
Making the decision to make more friends who are women of colour has been a turning point for my mental health, productivity, and overall happiness. I am seeking out campus groups of racialized students, reaching out to the women of colour who would email and tweet at me about how they had read and connected with my articles, going to campus and city events tailored for women of colour. And even if I don’t end up making new friends, I still thoroughly enjoy the safety of the space and the feeling of togetherness buzzing through the group. It takes an immense effort to put myself in places where I knew no one. Often, my anxiety wins and I spend the day at home regretting my choice to skip events, but when I’ve been able to make it out, being a part of those things has been so much fun. For instance, in October 2015, I went to an art exhibit and panel discussion called “Shame Shame” that was focused on South Asian artists and the stigma we face from our own community when we pursue art as a career. Most of the attendees were South Asian, and just being in a room full of South Asian artists who had felt the same things as me was so incredible. I had no idea how big the circle of South Asian artists in Toronto was, and it made me feel so excited about one day being a part of it.
I follow more women of colour on social media and we engage in positive conversations with each other. Even if the interaction is just a comment from a brown girl saying, “you look amazing☺” on one of my Instagram posts, it makes me feel stronger.
The few women of colour I have befriended so far have already changed me, just by being themselves and giving me the comfort of nonjudgmental, truly empathetic company. Sometimes I connect with white women over our gender, and other times I have lots to talk about with men of colour regarding race. But I still spent over ten years feeling like no one would ever understand me completely. With women of colour, I have been able to foster intimately special connections that are central to our identities. I feel more confident, intelligent, and healthier than ever.
The future for me is about seeing through this shift from accepting my place in the margins and spending all my time with the people I already know, to meeting people who are learning to love and celebrate the aspects of themselves that they have long been taught to be ashamed of. The future for me is about finding the people who understand me on molecular levels because of our shared similar experiences—people who will let me say what I really feel and be who I really am. My future, which is already coming together, is going to be full of colour.
Shailee Koranne is an equity studies student and freelance writer from Toronto. Her work has appeared in HuffPost Canada, EverydayFeminism, and Shameless Mag, among others. You can find her on Twitter @ssshailee.
“Bonds of Colour” is from our FUTURES Issue (spring 2016)