In 2001, I stopped telling people where my mother was from. I was only a kid then, hardly old enough to really understand racism, but even then I’d picked up on the fact that people weren’t too keen on my half-Iranian heritage. I learned to say “Persian” instead; it cut the tension so nicely.
Now that I’m older, I’ve tried to stop making this switch. Iran may not have gained good favor in American eyes, but I’ve at least begun to realize that that shouldn’t shape how I see myself and my cultural identity. And yet, even today, the habit is hard to break.
Of course, I’m not fully Iranian — my constant identity crisis would be far too minor were that the case. My dad emigrated from India and met my mother in college. That’s how my sisters and I came to be — multiethnic, first-generation Americans, born and raised in Michigan and now happily settled in central Illinois.
I never felt like an outsider growing up; if anything, I was out-of-touch with my background. What little Farsi I learned as a child slipped away when my grandparents left our house for my uncle’s, and unlike the few other Indian kids at my school, I didn’t take classical dance lessons or know the Hindu deities.
This awkward state of cultural limbo bothered me sometimes, but at the end of the day it didn’t matter because I could still identify as American. It’s what I was, and what I always will be.
I’m that girl who takes the Olympics way too seriously, checking every night to make sure we’re number one in the medal count. I’m that person in the crowd who can’t listen to the national anthem without singing along, that overzealous fan who brought her own flag to Buffalo Wild Wings for the women’s World Cup final. The Fourth of July is one of my favorite holidays, and while I adore my parents’ cooking, I’m often just as happy with a plain old burger.
I shouldn’t even have to mention these things to prove I’m an American; the fact that I’ve lived every year of my life in this country should say that on its own. And yet, somehow what I say will never be enough because to a handful of people, all that will ever matter is my dark hair, brown skin and unfamiliar last name.
Until recently, I thought I’d never experienced racism — after all, I’ve never walked into a football stadium to see a giant banner reading, “Go home Iranian,” as my mom did when she was in college. What I’ve dealt with, rather, is the racism embedded into our culture — racism that the recent criticisms of the newly crowned Miss America, an Indian-American like myself, have brought to center stage this past week.
I’ve grown up in a society that sees immigrants like my parents as taking jobs from “real” Americans, and that sees me as taking college spots from those Americans’ children. I’ve grown up where the standards of beauty don’t include women who look like me, and where when it finally seems like they do, people get outraged and resort to racist slander. I’ve grown up feeling like I have to prove to my compatriots that I’m just as American as they are — like I owe it to people to make myself seem less “ethnic” so it’s easier for them to like me.
The worst part is, I didn’t used to think this was a problem. As a child, I never questioned this ongoing pressure, since after all, I’ve never lived without it. Thankfully, starting college has finally made me realize an important thing about my mixed up self-identities: I’m not sorry.
My parents come from two beautiful cultures that I’m proud to represent, and I am not sorry if you think those countries are breeding grounds for terrorists. It is not my responsibility to sugarcoat my background to make it more palatable; it is your responsibility to look past your prejudices and get over it.
Most of all, it is not my, nor anyone else’s, job to prove to you I am “American enough” to belong here. I do. And so does every other American who’s ever felt unloved by their country.
Nikita Dutta is a sophomore in Saybrook College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.