The Collegian
Sunday, October 17, 2021

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MARGINS: Fresh off the boat? The South Asian experience

A student and faculty member reflect on microaggressions

<p><em>Graphic by The Collegian</em></p>

Graphic by The Collegian

Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of The Collegian. 

My name is Arju Patel, and I am a sophomore at the University of Richmond. As a first-generation Indian American, I often reflect upon the sacrifices that my parents endured in order to give me the life that I have today. 

I recall the struggles that my father has told me he faced as a brown man in a predominantly white country. In the early 1990s, my father immigrated to the United States, leaving behind his family and friends in hopes of creating a better life for his future children. As someone who had experienced poverty and separation from his parents for a vast majority of his life, my father had faced a lot of obstacles to get to that point – a 26-year-old man entering a country he had idealized growing up. 

The “American Dream” fueled him with hope, but he would soon learn more about this country’s structural racism and history of white supremacy. People would often make fun of his accent and make jokes about the color of his skin, calling him a “terrorist” and telling him to “go back to where he came from.” During my childhood, my dad would never talk about the struggles he faced – all the racism and microaggressions he had endured. 

Microaggressions are everyday verbal, nonverbal and environmental slights, snubs and insults. They can be intentional or unintentional, but they always communicate hostile, derogatory or otherwise negative messages. It wasn’t until my high school years that my father finally opened up about his experiences. When he did, it was almost as if a huge burden was lifted off his shoulders.

As a student at a predominantly white institution, I see similarities between the microaggressions that my father has experienced and encounters that I have had at UR. During my time at UR, I’ve faced microaggressions such as “But you’re not really Asian?” or instances in which my presence is ignored by my white peers.

Throughout my life, I often found myself failing to simultaneously connect with my American identity and my South Asian identity; I don’t necessarily “fit” into either identity perfectly. Additionally, I am not as well-versed in American culture as my white peers, nor can I speak fluent Hindi like my South Asian peers, often leading to questions from my peers about the “realness” of my identity. 

I didn’t (and sometimes still don’t) fit neatly into anyone’s pressurized box of what I should be. 

My name is Monti Narayan Datta, and I’m a professor in the department of political science at UR. Born and raised in Los Angeles, California, I am of mixed racial heritage. 

My father was born and raised in what is now Bangladesh; he moved to the United States in the late 1960s to escape ethnic violence as a Hindu minority in a Muslim-dominated nation. When my father settled in America, he met my mother, who is African American. 

When I was a child, my father rarely spoke about his past and essentially abandoned his culture and language. My sister and I spoke only English at home; we never celebrated any Hindu or Bangladeshi holidays, and we seldom heard from relatives back in South Asia. 

Only years later, when I was in college, did I begin to realize how much trauma and post-traumatic stress my father must have encountered not only in Bangladesh, where his life was sometimes at risk due to his religious beliefs, but also when he arrived on America’s shores, where he never quite fit in. 

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My father loved America, but as an immigrant “fresh off the boat,” his experience was at times painful. His English was broken, with a thick accent, and it was hard for him to advance his career as a chemist, despite his educational training back home. 

Growing up in Los Angeles in the 1980s, we had never heard of the idea of “microaggressions,” but I think my father was a recipient of them. I was, too. 

Although I cherished growing up in California, the most common question I received, given my unique facial features from my twin African American and Bangladeshi heritages, was, “Where are you from?” Or, simply, “What are you?” No one (even now) has ever been able to figure out my ethnic background upon meeting me for the first time. I probably heard the question “where are you from?” more than a thousand times growing up. Black friends would often question and challenge my Black roots, whereas South Asain friends would often question my South Asian roots. 

I didn’t (and sometimes still don’t) fit neatly into anyone’s pressurized box of what I should be. 

These experiences have taught us the importance of speaking out openly in a world that often forgets about the struggles of dark-skinned Asians. When we don’t share our experiences, we often internalize them and believe that they are reflections of us rather than of the world that we live in. 

It is in these lived experiences of our fathers and ourselves that we find a passion for combating bias – and more specifically, microaggressions – in our daily lives. We have also found, in reflection, that our passion to combat microaggressions doesn’t include only our own lived experiences. It also includes the experiences of members of other marginalized communities. 

Despite how wealthy UR is, with a nearly $3 billion endowment, we know that unless we can find spaces to share our true selves, and explore our identities in authentic ways, we will always be living in a kind of poverty of spirit on campus. Our greatest richness as the UR community comes from celebrating our diversity and embracing one another. Some personal stories are tough, even tragic, but that doesn’t mean we have to keep them silent. We can be stronger together if we can lean in, share, listen deeply and seek to understand one another. 

These are simply snapshots of our stories; we know we're just scratching the surface of the cultural diversity on our campus. As people who have found our voices in speaking out and combating microaggressions, we also understand very well that this is not the case for everyone. 

Power dynamics, stereotypes and outright racism prevent some of the most vulnerable people from being able to speak out. Some, perhaps many, at UR might be feeling suffocated by all the layers of social injustice in our society. 

In talking about these issues with other students and faculty, we have found overlap in all of our experiences and the need to combat microaggressions. We, alongside professor Mariela Mendez and student Penny Hu, have been working to this end. Mendez teaches in the Latin American, Latino, and Iberian Studies department and women, gender, and sexuality studies program, and Hu is a sophomore. We encourage you to sign up for Not So Slight: Combating mAcroaggressions, a workshop series (occurring 7-9:30 p.m. EST on March 30, and 7-9:30 p.m. EST April 1) developed to discuss different marginalized communities and the microaggressions they face. 

Attendees will learn more about microaggressions, share their experiences and critically analyze how to combat microaggressions. The different sessions are titled 1) LatinX Xperience, 2) Antisemitism, 3) “Fresh Off The Boat?” The South Asian Experience, 4) Mental Health Microaggressions: Let’s Think, 5) We’re More Than What You See: Black Excellence from Within, 6) LGBTQIA+ Community: mAcroaggressions Based On Gender Identity/Expression + Sexuality, 7) Microaggressions and Ableism and 8) Walking the Line Between Asian and American. 

Faculty, staff, and students can sign up for four out of the eight sessions. These sessions will be attended by facilitators who will share their truths in an effort to help people listen deeply, share and understand one another. 

For those impacted by microaggressions, Not So Slight will serve as a moment of healing and an opportunity to find one’s voice. For white people and all those who do not identify with the marginalized groups that will be discussed, this is yet another opportunity to learn and provide allyship to marginalized communities that need it.

If you have any questions or concerns about this article or Not So Slight, please feel free to reach out to us.

Contact contributors Arju Patel at arju.patel@richmond.edu and Monti Datta at mdatta@richmond.edu.

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