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.