Coming-of-age novels are usually filled with periods, cute boys, and adorable mother-daughter moments. But if you’re a chubby Indian American teen from the Bible Belt, your coming-of-age is filled with ACT prep, the new Ranveer Singh movie, and racism.
As a kid from a small mid-western town, I was always the first – and only – brown kid my peers had met. I remember being in the fifth grade and having kids ask me if I could demonstrate the rain dance, because they thought I was Native American. And as a confused 10-year-old, I shrugged it off and continued with my day. Little acts of racial insensitivity and manifestations of racism were normal, even expected, in my mind. The way I saw it was no one meant to be mean, so they weren’t actually racist. That mentality made it easy to pretend like nothing was wrong.
It wasn’t until high school, thousands of microaggressions later, that I realized something was wrong. Your friends weren’t supposed to look at you and say “You’re too dark for pastels.” They weren’t supposed to find it gross that you were open to the possibility of an arranged marriage. They weren’t supposed to tell you they’d want Indian workers like you “cause they’d work hard for cheap.” They weren’t supposed to build their understanding of you around stereotypes and limitations.
Friends were supposed to help me scoff at the casual racism I faced, not perpetuate it.
When I finally stood up to my friends and demanded their support and respect, I was kicked back into the pile of rejects at my high school. Eventually I was able to form a safe space in my high school, one where my real friends and I could talk about things like cultural appropriation and heteronormativity. But just as I began to regain some optimism and gain confidence in the future that my generation is creating, the 2016 presidential elections started up. With them came the vicious, racist rhetoric from Republican front-runners and attacks from would-be national leaders. It wasn’t just microaggressions and ignorance anymore – for the first time, I felt as though I was dealing with real racism, the kind that is skipped over in history lessons and glazed over by careless eyes.
I thought that if I switched the TV off and focused on my schoolwork that this whole Trump/Cruz fiasco would be over. But it never did stop. By the time March rolled around, Donald Trump was on the clear path to securing the Republican nomination, and some of the brightest students in my school committed to vote to him. These were the kids that I remember playing tag at recess with, kids that I exchanged Valentines and birthday gifts with. They were never my friends, but I knew them. I grew up with them. My childhood wouldn’t be complete without their presence, and my experiences were inherently linked with theirs, but somehow they ended up in a place where my beliefs, my ideas, my very existence was unwanted, disgusting, and worthy of their verbal and sometimes physical assault.
It would be nice to say that I have it all figured out, but I don’t. I don’t know how to combat microaggressions from my peers like my old friends. And I definitely don’t know how to coexist with the right-wing Trump supporters at my school and in my community. But I do know that the few kids at my school that don’t sympathize with racism and discrimination in any shape or form are what keep me at my high school. They keep me from losing my mind, and continue to help me through this whole “coming of age” thing. Even though we are few, our voices will prevent any other generation to come of age in a time like this.