“So I was in Arizona and I was trying to be extra nice because everyone was white so I was afraid they would be racist [towards me]…” A young south Asian woman confessed to me as she narrated an anecdote of her experience on a family vacation to a southwestern state. I deeply empathized with her discomfort as a racial minority in a new setting since I, too, have felt nervous and overcompensated niceness for my racial identity. I felt that my appearance marked me as a deviant, an outsider.
Recently, I made my first trip to Colorado with a sense of uneasiness. Colorado, I had been warned, is exceedingly white; in fact 88% of the state’s inhabitants are white. While I had not heard unpleasant stories about the state in particular “white” had often been equated to “racist” and “conservative” in my experiences.
I recalled stories I had been told by friends and family in my head, people who wish to remain anonymous: my friend, a young black man, was welcomed with curious and surprised stares in Oregon because people of color were so seldom seen. An Indian woman, who had been laughed at and ignored by cashiers in London, refused to serve her upon confrontation. My high school teacher, a white man, described the awe he felt as he stared at the giant Confederate flag he saw proudly displayed on a visit to the American south. These experiences are varied but share a common thread. Each reminds me, that as a person of color that I do not have the same privileges of movement and travel as a white person.
I will face increased discrimination and have to be more cautious. As such, I had every reason to be timid on my first trip to this new location. But, gradually, my discomfort ebbed away. I was relieved to meet a sea of colorful and kind faces during my visit and found the Centennial State to be quite pleasant. But I was left dwelling on my initial nervousness as the trip came to an end.
This apprehension is a hallmark of being a racial and cultural minority. As a woman of color and first-generation American, I have always been aware of the role of race on my life and social interactions. As a young child, I frequently felt a hyperawareness of my race and, though proud of my Nepali heritage, wished to look more like my white peers, as many other people of color often do. As a teenager, I no longer sought blonde hair and blue eyes but was acutely aware of the racial divides I saw during lunchtime and noticed there was no group that would welcome me strictly based on my features. As an adult, at a university with students of predominately East Asian descent I became fed up with explaining that Nepal, too, is in Asia and therefore I am also Asian. And at the end of my college years, these experiences culminated to produce a deep empathy for self-segregation. Yet, I cannot help but feel resistant about surrendering to these feelings, because they have pushed on me rather than blossomed from a genuine place.
My experiences have guided me to believe this tendency is born of both external and internal forces. Minority individuals exist in the unfavorable position of attempting to justify their existence to the majority group and are concerned about defying stereotypes and representing not only themselves, but also their racial and ethnic groups in a favorable light. It seems much easier to simply associate with those of the same race than to attempt to assimilate into a society in which one’s race is a defining characteristic.
Additionally, it is difficult to stand against the norm of associating with those of a different skin tone when the world demands that divisions continue separating white, black, and brown peoples. Society wants the world to continue its divides, accounting for the external pressure that results in self-segregation. The internal force stems from the need to participate in one’s culture, language, food, and religion. The influence of external and internal forces that result in self-segregation are varied from individual to individual.
Across the United States, communities are formed based on cultural and ethnic similarities. Southern California is home of “Little Saigon” located across the borders of Westminster and Garden Grove in Orange County and boasts the most concentrated Vietnamese population in the country. According the Migration Policy Institute, one-third of Indian immigrants live in just two states: California and New Jersey. The disproportionate concentration of the Vietnamese and Indian peoples in certain regions of the United States cannot be attributed merely to chance. This migration pattern, and many like it, is indicative of the desire of ethnic and cultural groups to self-segregate based on external and internal forces.
Though this self-segregation can easily be justified as a source of societal comfort, it also strengthens and breeds stereotypes and mutual distaste amongst racial and ethnic groups. Dialogue between groups cannot begin when they are physically isolated, preventing people from learning about shared values and individual characters. I consider the information and culture that has been passed between friends in past years and am resigned to admit how limited my knowledge, as well as theirs, would be without the interactions we shared. Yes, homogenous company can provide security but it also limits ones perspective and, consequently, cumulative societal acceptance. And so, the harms of self-segregation are identified. As we seek to create a world in which equality is a basic human right, we cannot hope to gain it without mutual understanding; an understanding that can only be achieved through dialogue. I continue to empathize with those who choose to separate themselves from society, but also urge them to learn about the world around them with open eyes.
As I continue to navigate race and clamor to find a niche of the world to call my own, I seek both to further connect with my culture and grow my knowledge of others. Perhaps I can then dismantle my own preconceptions and contribute to societal acceptance.
Image via Vinoth Chandar.