During winter break, I returned to one of my high school haunts, the local Barnes and Noble in Fort Worth, Texas.
My Arab American friend Danna and I were feigning MCAT study when a young gentleman from Abilene sat next to us and started talking about how he had recently taken the GMAT before deciding to start an online gallery for marketing art. Later on, he asked us to look at some prospective logos for his company, remarking that “some Indian guy from India” had made the samples, so he wasn’t too sure about them.
With a glance at Danna, I laughed and said meaningfully, “I’m a big fan of Indians.” Taken aback, he stumbled, “Oh. Are you of Indian descent?” After I confirmed that I was Indian, he proceeded to ask where I was born, why I didn’t have an accent if I was born there, if there were tigers there and, in a last-ditch attempt to relate to me, if I had read the book “The Life of Pi.”
I’ve lived in eight cities — from Redlands, Calif. to Grayling, Mich. — and in each place, I’ve encountered well-meaning yet ignorant strangers who see me, an Indian American, as an anomaly.
Last Tuesday, the first Indian Miss America, Nina Davuluri, came to speak at Yale. She is also the first Miss America to receive xenophobic comments about being a terrorist or Muslim extremist. In addition to being all-around well spoken, graceful and sassy, she thoughtfully explained her platform of cultural competence and stressed that patiently answering people’s questions is one of the strongest ways to combat ignorance.
In a question and answer session over dinner in Berkeley, I asked Davuluri what her response is to the criticism that ethnic organizations and cultural houses, like Yale’s South Asian Society or its Asian American Cultural Center, are self-segregating. Her reply harkened back to a tale she had told earlier that evening. When she was at the University of Michigan, she explained, one of her sorority sisters criticized her for choosing to spend time with “Brown Town,” an affectionate term for the school’s Indian community, without inviting her white sister to come along. Davuluri had wrongly assumed that her sister would not be interested in socializing with Indian friends. She went on to urge leaders of Yale’s various campus organizations to collaborate and host joint events so that people can be exposed to different communities.
I believe that cultural houses are never meant to segregate. To people who think they’re exclusive, please understand that their doors are always open to all. To those who think they’re irrelevant, appreciate that a lot of people worked hard to secure those spaces, should you ever need them. And to the few who jokingly ask where the White Cultural House is: All of Yale University is a cultural house for white people.
But we can also use cultural houses as a vehicle to broaden our different communities and allow them to overlap. By inviting white friends to events hosted by ethnic organizations, we promote dynamic exchanges between people of different backgrounds. And white students can integrate into other cultures — not just by stopping by cultural houses, but by opening themselves to friends from all walks of life.
I’m with Miss America on the importance of cultural competency — and it’s not just because she let me take a selfie with her. It’s crucial to overcome “friend anxiety” and let your many communities mix. I am a part of the South Asian Society, but I am also involved in communities like Dwight Hall and the Yale Gospel Choir; I realize now I should work to bring these different groups of people together. You do yourself a disservice if you compartmentalize parts of your identity or if you only interact with people just like you. If all the rich New York kids I’ve yet to meet only hang out with each other, does it matter that Yale boasts 41 percent students of color? The line between diversity and tokenism is a fine line, and you stand so much to gain from other human beings, other walking collections of stories just waiting to be heard.
Only once we expand our horizons on campus can we be ambassadors who dispel ignorance back home, away from Yale. Responding to offensive questions with tolerance and patience might be more effective than harsh words. As we can see from Davuluri’s response to her critics, tolerance begets tolerance. And I saw that just one month ago in a Fort Worth bookstore, explaining to a stranger that my birthplace in West Bengal doesn’t have tigers roaming the streets.
Lorraine James is a junior in Trumbull College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .