I have two clear memories of pain from my early childhood. Both took place on the playground at my elementary school. The first is from when a kid told me he didn’t want to play with me because I was brown, and the second is from the first time I was stung by a wasp.
I clearly remember the aftermath of both events. In response to the second, I flew down the slide and to my teacher who provided me a soaked sponge frozen inside a Ziplock bag to create a makeshift ice pack. In response to the first I was stupefied. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. Do I simply ignore the comment and play with this other kid? I didn’t see him with anyone else, so I wasn’t sure why he would refuse my attempt to play. Thankfully, I didn’t have much time to think because one of my friends intervened with, “Well I’m going to play with Frankie because he’s my friend.”
I was immediately grateful, but still confused. Ian, whom I will always remember as my hero, and I were friends, but only tangentially. We had never really hung out after school, and we didn’t even spend much time on the playground together. It might not take much for children to recognize overt racism, but I’m impressed that he did and that he chose to stand up for me without any hesitation.
This memory is one of the first times I felt racialized. Courtesy of my patriotic parents, I grew up simply thinking, “I am American; I fit in here.” As a child, I grew up in the suburbs and spent my days biking around the neighborhood with my sister. I felt no different from anyone else, and so the thought that I might be treated differently never crossed my mind.
When I was in middle school, I faced more racism. And the sixth grade, at age 11, was the first time I was stung by a slur. A fellow sixth-grader in my Intro to Informational Technology class called me a “sand-n—–.” I didn’t understand the jab because none of the places I had ever visited in India were ever sandy. It took me until the middle of high school when people made fun of me for being Arabic (I’m not) to realize that he was making fun of me because likely he thought that India was part of the Middle East.
At that age I took solace in the fact that the students who teased me were not so good at school. The kid from my Intro to Info Tech class finished with a solid F, a 37.5 percent in a class where the only assignment turned out to be rewriting memo emails to practice our typing skills. But, the solace I found in my intellectual superiority wasn’t enough. In fact, nothing made me feel better about the racism I experienced.
In high school, I almost quit the swim team because of the racist jokes people made. I began the season on the JV team and worked as hard as I could to make it to the varsity team within the season. My coach still jokes with me about how I asked him weekly if I was fast enough. Yet, after my first week of varsity practices I was set on quitting. Thankfully the novelty of the jokes wore off, and the second and third weeks were easier without their humor.
I never looked back at the decade of racism I experienced until recently. Doing so was harrowing. I often feel indulgent when I talk about my experiences with racism. I feel guilt when I talk about how I’ve been hurt and when people give me sympathy; I know that things are harder for others. Why do I of all people deserve support and sympathy and care when others have faced so much more than me?
My experiences feel instructive. They give me context for the racism that other people have faced even if I have not. Yet I find this outlook dangerous because I regularly discount the depth of my own experience and my own pain. In high school, I faced constant racism. And it’s okay if those memories make me hurt; I can hurt without comparing my experience to those of others. I just take what I know and do my best to be empathetic.
Yale feels like a cop-out. Yale has plenty of problems with race (and more), but I don’t walk around with my guard up all the time, and being here makes me forget the kind of overt racism I grew up with. Here, I can call people out for their racism, something I can’t always do back at home. Here, I can turn my attention to institutional and more subtle racism. Here, I am comfortable challenging the things I don’t like.
Today, I find solace in myself. I am strong and capable. I know that it is okay to feel hurt and angry. Wasp stings hurt, objectively, but all they need are an ice pack.
Frankie | firstname.lastname@example.org