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Mariyam Quaisar poses during a photoshoot.

Emerson’s promises of diversity fell short for me

October 11, 2021

TW: This story contains mentions of racism, hate speech, and strong language

I decided early that whatever college I attended had to have a diverse community. There must be a Bollywood dance team, Indian cultural clubs, and people who remind me of home. Emerson does not have any of those. 

Emerson was on my list of colleges because of the world-renowned journalism program and location. When I came to tour, one of the prominent points highlighted was the diversity at the school. The tour guides told us Emerson has representation from more than 100 countries and is open to all identities. While the latter is true, the former I’d have to disagree with. 

My first glimpse of college, in Fall 2020, was through the lens of COVID. Being in a dorm with no space to move or natural light was already horrible, but even worse was the lack of people I could connect with. Yes, meeting people and making a variety of friends during a pandemic is hard. But 

I found myself overthinking and overwhelmed because of all the white students around me—I didn’t know how to act and, really, who to be. Flashbacks of my young, undesirable self pummeled through my mind, to the point where I not only blindly followed in the footsteps of “friends” I didn’t truly connect with, but I let them pull me away from my true identity, a lot like I did as a kid. 

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I need people who understand my culture and background, especially after the way I grew up. 

When I was in elementary school, I rejected my Indian background because I was ashamed of it and even bullied for it. I pushed away everything that related to my skin—a very difficult task when your family is confidently immersed in the same culture you detest. By putting a lot of pressure on myself at such a young age to be like the white majority around me, I grew up with a low self esteem and a sense of loneliness. 

The bullying would range—”you smell like curry,” “your arms are so hairy,” “your parents have a funny accent, do they even know English?” It was with those comments that it all started. 

Hearing those constant taunts led me to believe that they were true. I became self conscious of my looks and I felt ugly compared to the white, perky girls around me. I forced myself to try and look like them, going so far as buying specific, branded clothing that matched their styles, doing my hair in a messy bun when I wore leggings and a sweatshirt with Ugg boots, and painting my nails white even though it did not match my skin tone one bit. 

Being uncomfortable and unhappy in your skin, in your body, at such a young age laid the foundation for my lasting insecurities. I hated looking at myself, and there are times I still do. 

Going to school with my leftover Indian food had my backpack smelling funky, a smell I crave now. I’d sometimes throw my food away to avoid getting made fun of, and I’d sit at lunch watching my “friends” eat. I couldn’t accept any part of my culture because I was scared and embarrassed.

I was weak against the bullies, and I had no confidence. 

***

I’ve played soccer my whole life. My dad introduced me to the sport in our backyard. When I first started playing at the age of four, I didn’t know what racism or a microaggression was. But that didn’t stop me from noticing parents and kids acting differently towards me when I joined youth soccer teams. 

Throughout my soccer career, I noticed the white parents not being too keen on talking with my Indian parents at games and practices. My parents would stand by themselves while all the white moms and dads huddled together and chatted away. I hated seeing that from the field. My dad tried to befriend the other parents by talking to them about his knowledge of soccer and work, but they only listened to him out of politeness. They never tried to approach him to talk. He never noticed because that’s who my dad is. My mom and I did. 

It’s one thing to personally endure exclusion. It’s a whole other feeling when you witness your loved ones suffer through it too.  My stomach would churn and grind from the field. I wouldn’t be able to focus.  Seeing how my parents were treated made me realize that racism has no age limit—adults and children did it all the same. 

I constantly felt like an “other” when I was with the team as all the white girls connected over their lifestyles. Everything about our lives was different, whether it was the food we ate, the movies we watched, or the way we were raised, because we were completely different, but I refused to accept that. And I lived like this until my mind and conscience were so beat up that I just had to end my personal hell by standing up for myself. 

Until then, I pushed away all the aspects of my life that made me different so I wouldn’t have to stand awkwardly on the outside in every social situation. All those mind games, detesting my identity, and trying so hard to fit in, really messed me up. 

I still feel that tension within myself to this day. 

I acted the same way in school as I did on the soccer field. Whenever someone made fun of me, I laughed along and let it slide. When people blatantly excluded me from their friend groups, I stood right beside their group to prove to myself I had friends, even if they didn’t really want me. I’d stand there, just close enough to flaunt my white “friends”, but not too close so they wouldn’t feel uncomfortable. 

At school, I acted like any white girl, even though I physically wasn’t, with how I spoke and interacted with others. When I got home, I’d happily eat my mom’s delicious curry and watch Bollywood movies. I’d say it was the best of both worlds, but, no, there was nothing good about the first world. 

By the time I entered 9th grade, I had become utterly numb to the blatant racism shot at me every day. Whether it was people talking to me in an Indian accent or asking if my fingers are yellow from curry or not-purposely-but-purposely excluding me. It was my life. I was just the Indian girl who would be asked for help in class and then never talked to again. And by that point, I had begun believing that my worth ended right there. All I could do was seethe in my own skin. 

It’s not like I was constantly alone, in the physical sense, when I was at school. The group of people I hung out with weren’t really my friends. I socialized on weekends and had people to talk to, but it never felt genuine. 

My “friends” would make snooty comments about my dad or brothers. They’d make a face when they walked into my house. They laughed when we went as princesses for Halloween and I chose Jasmine, because what else would I choose? 

Unfortunately, because of my peers’ actions, I also began becoming embarrassed of my dad and brothers. I hated bringing my friends home, knowing the smell of my mom’s food would’ve engulfed the house. And to this day, I refuse to be Jasmine for Halloween out of fear of someone once again saying, “Wow, that’s unoriginal.” Which furthers proves their ignorance because Jasmine isn’t even Indian. 

I let myself live under that pretense until high school, and until my mental health begged me to stop faking. 

I played these mind games with myself everyday, and the whole time I didn’t realize how screwed up it was, not until I had a revelation and said “Screw you, I’m going to be myself and one day, you’ll awkwardly stand right outside my circle.”

Unfortunately, mental health issues are a taboo in immigrant families. Expressing emotions, talking about what’s hurting emotionally, mentioning depression was frowned upon. How can kids possibly feel such heavy emotions? 

One of my favorite movies, “Dear Zindagi,” says it best: “As children, when we were sad our elders told us not to cry, when we were angry they told us ‘give us a smile’ just to keep the peace at home. When we wanted to hate, we weren’t allowed to, so now when we want to love we suddenly find our whole emotional mechanism is topsy-turvy, it cannot function. Sadness, anger, hate, we were not allowed to express any openly, so now how do we express love?”  

During my sophomore year of high school, something in me changed. When the white boy who always asks me to “fill the hookah” in a mocking Indian accent came up to me, I looked him in the eye and said, “It’s no surprise someone as ignorant as you can make fun of another person’s culture.” Granted he just laughed and walked away, but it felt good. I had finally said something back instead of laughed along with the others. I stayed standing in that exact spot in the cafeteria for a few moments and realized how wrong I had been all those years suppressing my truth. 

That’s when I let it all loose. I welcomed my Indian culture with grace and strength, which continues to shine through me today. I realized my mom’s food is a delicacy, and as I’m writing this article my mouth is watering, craving some delicious chicken nihari with naan.

I made friends that uplift my background, that want to learn about it from my family and me, that listen to Bollywood music with me, that made me realize what true friends really are. It’s cliche, but those few friends, whom I have tattoos with now, brought my mental headspace out of a gutter I didn’t even know existed until I met them. 

Obviously, I didn’t go from zero to 100 the second I met my true friends. It was still a struggle going to school and being around people I had nothing in common with. It took a while to feel my true worth, even though it took a split second to realize I deserve more than what I was succumbing myself to. 

It’s hard to help yourself, mentally, when you don’t even know you’re hurting. At the same time I was suppressing my identity, I was also ignoring the reality of my mental health. I was pushing all my truths away to fit in with the hundreds of white people around me. And for what?

At the end of the day, I am somebody who needs balance, which I’m not getting at Emerson. Talking in Hindi to friends so nobody else knows what we’re saying, having a dance party to India’s favorites, crying to Bollywood romance films—that’s what I crave but don’t get. I only get it when I go home. 

Emerson’s promise of diversity was empty, which left me empty. After battling with my identity for the majority of my life, I finally embraced all I am, and then re-entered an environment that doesn’t represent my culture. Thankfully, that doesn’t stop me from enjoying and expressing my culture, but it sucks that I have to do it alone. I love my friends, I love spending time with them, and I have definitely found a group of diverse people, but not the diversity I was looking for. 

There’s no Bollywood dance team I can join, to which my mom says, “make one yourself!” But with who? My mom suggests, “go to other schools and mingle!” But how? And why do I have to go to another school? 

Needless to say, it’s hard. 

Emerson students and the kids I grew up with are not entirely different. Coming here, it often feels like I never left Connecticut because of the people I’m surrounded by. While it’s true that Emerson students are usually more inclusive than the students from my high school, that doesn’t mean a lot of Emerson students aren’t like the kids I grew up with—especially in terms of actively working against disparities. I can feel their desire to exclude the Indian girl, or not give her as much attention, just as I did growing up. 

It’s one thing to accept all genders, sexualities, groups, identities, backgrounds and people, but it’s a completely different thing to actively try to include them. Growing up, I knew many people who said they weren’t racist and loved all cultures. In fact, nobody ever blatantly said “I hate Indians.” But they also never realized that their jokes, microaggressions, and “unintentional” exclusion, are racism. 

Maybe you weren’t the person in highschool making fun of people like me, but were you the one to step in as a bystander? Were you one to support those who were being made fun of? Or did you just say, “I love all and accept all,” and then exclusively hang out with a select group of people? Growing up in a small, predominantly white town in Connecticut, I’ve been used to being surrounded by white people since I began school. But being used to it doesn’t negate its effects on my mental health. 

Representation of who you are in the setting you are in is important. Otherwise, one can easily lose touch with their identity. But more importantly, it strains your mental health by having to conform to a community that you can’t relate to. Not being able to have conversations—about family, expectations, music, movies, love, whatever it may be—with those who will understand is tough. Worse, it causes those emotions to bottle up. 

I’m proud of myself for being able to stay connected with my culture despite having no one to relate to, but that doesn’t mean I can let go of the fact that being a person of color in a predominantly white institution doesn’t take a toll. 

 

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