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The Spectrum: Minorities can affirm their own authenticity

Mia Manavalan, Guest Columnist

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This essay is part of The Spectrum, a weekly forum in our Opinion section for marginalized voices to share their perspectives. To submit a piece for The Spectrum or discuss story ideas, please email [email protected].

My mother endearingly refers to me as an ABCD: an American Born Confused Desi. It is a term used for first-generation South Asians living in the U.S. who are torn between their South Asian background and this new American lifestyle. As first-generation South Asians, we have been exposed to a world that includes drinking, partying and dating — notions we often keep hidden from our mostly conservative parents. Fortunately, I had the luxury of my parents being OK with all of these things, because, well, I got lucky.

Growing up in Cincinnati, I was one of the few Indian students at my high school. This is something I felt, but not significantly. I remember a classmate once asked me if I was from Indonesia, a statement I laughed off before correcting it. No big deal.

Then I stepped onto Northwestern’s campus. All of a sudden, I felt as though I was surrounded by South Asian students, many who had come from close-knit communities back home. I was a member of a South Asian group on campus for a short period of time, but I found my passions and circle of friends elsewhere. However, I have always felt as though my lack of involvement in this organization has created a confusing identity for both others and me. An NU peer once said to me, “Sometimes I forget you’re Indian … you’re basically white.”

This is not anything new. “White-washed” seems to be a term used to describe me often, as well as other minority students unaffiliated with cultural organizations. I used to brush these comments off, but recently, they have made my stomach turn and my heart drop. It has been mostly fellow students of color that have loosely thrown these statements around, not realizing their significant effects. Judging a minority’s “authenticity” seems silly, yet I have found it to be a habitual task for many.  

I went through periods of college wishing the Indian side of me was at the forefront of my identity. Then there were phases where I was so caught up in other activities that I myself almost forgot about my Indian identity. At the closing of my sophomore year, I got a Malayalam (the language spoken in Kerala, the state of India I am from) phrase tattooed on my hip. It was a way to force myself to remember who I am, to remember where my parents came from, to remember my identity. I was grasping for my ethnicity, fumbling with it for lack of a better word — all so I could have some sense of solidarity on this campus and in my life.

NU’s culture includes an environment where students are labeled by their extracurricular activities. I am not saying this is necessarily negative; sometimes people need organizations to feel a sense of community and belonging. However, it seems as though cultural associations are just another way minorities are grouped, and choosing not to actively participate in these organizations has somehow excluded us from that part of our identity. Being Indian cannot just mean you are a member of a dance team or attend the samosa social event in the fall … right?

I once had an argument with an NU peer about my desire to identify as Indian. “Oh … but you’re not one of those typical Indian girls …” he said. “Don’t worry, that’s a good thing!” Again, being boxed into a stereotyped category seems to be the main issue here. I feel uncomfortable defending my awareness of my Indian self to others. I have spewed off lists of “Indian” activities I participated in growing up just so the listener could walk away with a feeling of “Ah yes, she is Indian.” Believe it or not, I never felt very satisfied from these encounters.

At this institution, we are used to this idea of categorizing people. When one does not necessarily fit one category, there seems to be some confusion. Simply because I am not involved in a South Asian interest group does not imply I do not identify as Indian. Minorities’ identities on this campus have been lumped together with cultural organizations in an uncomfortably strong way. There is a need for more fluidity of one’s interests and passions on this campus. Whatever you choose to identify as should be your choice, not the choice of NU students.

Mia Manavalan is a Weinberg senior. She can be reached at miamanavalan2016@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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