A Different World: No Longer Brown in White America

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To my absolute horror, my parents moved our family from the outer fringes of Detroit to a small city in Tennessee in the middle of my fifth grade year. Not only was I uprooted from a neighborhood and a school I loved, but I was transplanted from one racially and culturally diverse close-in suburb to a town where some people still believed that the South had won the Civil War.

 

The eighteen students in my Michigan fifth grade class came from a variety of backgrounds. We had one Arab, two Indians, two African-Americans, an Argentinean, two East Asians, a girl from France, a boy from England and a few Jewish children. My new fifth grade class had close to forty white, Tennessee born-and-raised children. There was one African-American, and as far as I could tell, she was the only African-American in the entire school of about 800 children. She was The Black Child named Ebony. I was The Brown Child named Anjali. And so, the first day of class right after Spring Break when I was seated next to her, I couldn’t help but forge our names into a new version of my then favorite duet, Ebony and Anjaleee, live together in perfect harmoneeee.

 

Living in perfect harmony was what we had to do. We had no choice. I often wondered who Ebony hung out with before I came along in the final months of the final year of elementary school, because she didn’t seem to have any other friends. We were The Black Child and The Brown Child, sitting together in the cafeteria. The Black Child and The Brown Child playing together on the swings at recess. The Black Child and The Brown Child sharing a pair of scissors in homeroom. The Black Child and The Brown Child hanging out in a sea of nothing but White Children.

 

After I completed the fifth grade, we moved again locally. Instead of continuing to middle school with Ebony, I was thrust into yet another school where the odds of seeing a brown child were just as slim. The same was true for junior high and high school. In assembly, where 600 students sat in bleachers in the school gym, I peered across hundreds of adolescent faces to find in the crowd one, two, three other Indians, a handful of east Asians and a dozen or so African Americans. The school was primarily white.

 

During my years in Tennessee, I pulled out my old yearbooks from my multicultural-utopia grade school in Michigan, just to read off the gloriously ethnic names. I hungered for a wide array of cultural differences. And while I eventually made very close friends at my mostly white schools, I always felt a little out of place.

 

A little less than two years ago, my husband and I found out we would be relocating our family, then two daughters, from Philadelphia to Atlanta. We scoured maps to determine commutability, school district geography, property taxes and home prices. Once we narrowed neighborhoods down, we began researching the ethnic diversity of communities and school districts. Our oldest daughter would be starting kindergarten in the fall.

 

After we found one school district that seemed like a good fit, I flew down for a visit. The assistant principal took me on a brief tour. Because it was the last few days of winter break, there were no students around. I asked about the typical class size, the library, and the after school activities offered. The tour ended in the cafeteria. She pointed up.

 

Encircling my head was a sight to behold—a sea of international flags from dozens of countries. The assistant principal explained that each flag represented the birth country of the students who attended the school. And when I flipped through the school yearbook, I came across pages upon pages of brown faces, eyes of different shapes, hair of various textures.

 

I remembered my school in Michigan.

 

I blotted fresh tears at the corners of my eyes with the sleeve of my shirt.

 

One year later, I am looking at my daughter’s kindergarten class picture. It’s the most beautiful photograph I’ve ever seen. There are children of every imaginable shade of black and brown. The school, as well as our neighborhood, is a microcosm of the world. Our home is a stone’s throw from several Indian families, an Ethiopian family, a Malaysian family, two Korean families, a Chinese family, a Puerto Rican family and a Sri Lankan family. My children are one quarter Indian, one quarter Spanish, one quarter German, one eighth Austrian, and one eighth Puerto Rican. A perfect neighborhood for a multitude of genetic ingredients.

 

My kids would never feel “different” here.

 

Someone once told me, “But your kids aren’t growing up in the real world. Aren’t you afraid that they’ll leave the area someday, and be shocked to be an ethnic minority?”

 

Perhaps I am raising them in a different world. Perhaps, if they move to a more homogenous area when they are older, they’ll resent me for not helping them to understand the intricacies and complexities of life in white America. Perhaps, by selecting a multicultural community, I am just as racist as parents who choose the school districts with the least amount of minorities and the fewest children who speak English as a second language. Maybe I should stress the importance of being comfortable in one’s own skin, despite minority status. I don’t know.

 

But while they are young and innocent and sensitive, this place is what I want for them. Because I remember what it’s like being a brown child in a multicultural classroom, and I remember what it’s like being a brown child in a sea of white. There is, unfortunately, a difference.

 

Soon after we moved into our new home, in an attempt to meet more people, I held the first meeting of a new book club at my house. There were nine of us total and here was our count: two African Americans, one Pakistani, two Indians, one Dominican, one Ethiopian, one white, and me. Here we all were, sitting around drinking wine, laughing and sharing stories of our youth. We were women who immigrated from other countries, women who had arranged marriages, women who struggled with how to explain racism to young children. We were women with the common goal of wanting to raise kids who not just pay lip service to diversity and acceptance, but who hold it close to their hearts and live it.

 

Perhaps this small corner of America—where cultures collide and then blend, where grocery stores resemble international bazaars and restaurants offer foods that taste just like one’s homeland—a thin bubble shields us from the harshest of racist intentions. Or perhaps, while we carry out our day-to-day activities in this true melting pot, the rest of the world is changing to look just like us.

 

The morning after book club, as I returned extra chairs in my family room to their rightful place, I realized that our deliberate move to this neighborhood wasn’t just about finding diversity for my children. It was the conclusion of my journey to find a place where I can feel comfortable with my own color—a journey that started twenty-five years ago, when I said goodbye to my Michigan classmates.

 

It is a journey that ends here, in a place my children and I love to call home.

12 COMMENTS

  1. What a wonderful article! I grew up in a multicultural setting in a third world country myself and it shaped me to be who I am, hopefully my daughter will have an opportunity to as well one day.

  2. What a beautiful essay. Fascinating. This part of your growing up – that you went through these emotions – is something I wasn’t ever aware of. Funnily, to us, the Indian cousins living in India, you were always as patently American as McDonalds. I suppose the concept of being “American” isn’t as simple as that. Very happy for you that you love the place you now call home.

  3. Love this essay! We are at a wonderfully diverse school and our kids are thriving. Most of our neighbors choose not to attend this school, for various reasons. (our neighborhood itself is not very diverse.) But I look at our Kindergarten photographs and get the same rush of emotion that you do. Our school is 1/3 white, 1/3 black, 1/3 brown (my apologies to lumping my Hispanic and Hmong friends into the same category!….but it is for illustrative purposes….) No one feels “different” because everyone is different.

  4. What an emotionally beautiful written piece. Thank you for sharing. I so understand your feelings, I too grew up knowing I was different not so much by colour, but by origin and always made feel I had to belong to a box, when actually each of us are individuals with our own rich history and story; and I hope I can pass on as much and even more heritage and pride to my son who is even more of a blend!

  5. Thank you for this slice of reality. You write with honesty, clarity, and fearlessness. As the white mother of one Ethiopian girl, no other kiddos, this is a topic I think about, nearly daily. I too grew up in a diverse, though not as diverse, town outside of Chicago. I did not know, until my father moved us to the beaches of Southern California, that brown skinned people were not a part of every community. Or Jews. I felt out of place, even though I was a white girl among whites. This is a challenging topic but one so necessary to discuss. We too are seeking a new area, but will be ultra picky now that we know the importance of walking the talk of diversity.

  6. I just came across your article and reading it took me down memory lane. My family moved from Chicago to Memphis during my middle school years and my experience was very similar to yours. As an Indian with brown skin, kids just didn’t know what to make of me. But I was clearly not white so it was convenient for them to throw me into an “other” category and treat me as such. It was a tough time. As an adult with three kids married to an Irish-American, I too have a fondness for diversity and love exploring culture when I can.

  7. This story reminded me of my own childhood. I grew up just outside NYC on Long Island. I’m Irish, Scottish, and Austrian. But, my older brothers and sisters are adopted from Vietnam & Korea. The first pre-school my mom sent me to was completely “white” and she soon took me out and put me into a Montessori school where I was the minority – most of the kids were Asian, but we had kids from all over the world. It was a much better fit. I learned to eat with chopsticks and I introduced my new friends to “Goldfish” and “Lasagna”. They taught me about “Hello Kitty” and I taught them about “Holly Hobby”.

    I don’t think it is ever a mistake to introduce your kids to new cultures. The media provides plenty of exposure to the “norm”. It’s our job to introduce them to new people and ideas.

    I’m now part of a Filipino family too. And, I think that my early exposure to other cultures helps me to appreciate my new family more. We plan to expose our children to as much diversity as we can.

  8. “Aren’t you afraid that they’ll leave the area someday, and be shocked to be an ethnic minority?” Sure, U.S. cities and regions differ drastically in their racial makeup, but the overall future is less pale:

    White kids will no longer be a majority in just a few years
    http://money.cnn.com/2013/05/15/news/economy/minority-majority/index.html

    It’s something I think about too — I have a half-South Asian toddler, and while we live in a city that is heavily Latino, her daycare has almost no kids from that background (but lots of various mixed-race kids), and the “good” school district is overwhelmingly white. I’d like her to be in a much more global environment somehow.

  9. I appreciate you putting these longings into words. I moved from a multi-cultural community and great diversity of friends in Atlanta to a mostly white region with little diversity. I love my neighbors and the people in the community are kind and hospitable. Yet, it feels very one-dimensional and not at all like the real world.

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