Writer reflects on acceptance, diversity

“I think she’s white.”

“I think she’s black.”

I can still remember the first time I learned about different skin colors. It was first grade, and my teacher had just explained the Civil War to us and one of its leading causes—racism. Up until that point, I knew I didn’t look the same as everyone else. Having grown up in a predominantly white area, I was one of the few people with tan skin and black hair.

But I had never associated any meaning with my physical, cultural or religious features that set me apart from my peers. My parents told me I was Indian—not Native American—but from India, which was on a different continent. I had never previously thought about the holidays I celebrated that other people didn’t. I didn’t even notice that I had attended a Jewish preschool when I wasn’t Jewish.

The moment that my teacher explained how slavery was a practice that revolved around skin color, it suddenly seemed as if a dividing line was created. Physical appearance became something to take note of, and people began questioning me, asking what I was. Physical appearance became a definition of a person, not just an exterior feature of him or her.

Not many people understood me when I said I was Indian—when I explained how I wasn’t black or white. But even though my parents had explained my culture to me, I was still confused and felt isolated. If I was familiar with different traditions at that age, such as Christmas or Chanukah, then why did people look at me strangely when I said I celebrated Diwali?

Reflecting on that time, I realized that not many people were familiar with Indian culture, or with Asian culture in general. Because so many people didn’t have any knowledge of Asian cultures, it was hard for them to understand our differences, and it was hard for us to feel accepted. People weren’t necessarily judgemental of us, but their confusion was apparent.

While acceptance is important in bringing different cultures together, it is only the beginning of creating an environment where everyone is respected. We may acknowledge the presence of unique traits that make us all slightly different, but this is not the same as completely comprehending a person as a whole—for the nuances of their existence that sculpt their entire being. To say that only a portion of these traits, such as culture, define us as a whole is the equivalent of only understanding a person at a surface-level.

Regardless of the extensive role culture plays in my life, it will never define me as a whole. I can still remember how I viewed the world before learning about the stigmas attached to physical appearance, and I know that skin color is just a part of us, not the definition. Paradoxically, just as a part of humanity is having differences, our humanity brings us together.