One of the most infuriating experiences is playing a game of “where are you really from?” in every part of the world I travel to. After the 10th rendition of “are you from India?” it is just easier to sigh “yes” out of a justifiable frustration. Everywhere I travel, my family has had to both reassert our identity and tolerate the casual racism from enough of the locals for it to become a discernible issue.
I first encountered an unpleasant situation of this nature in Israel. We were sitting on a park bench in Tel Aviv after a long day of walking when a group of three locals took a selfie with us strategically included as if we were a tourist attraction ourselves. My immediate reaction was to shrink away from the camera as these people took pictures of us without our consent, as if we were animals at a zoo, even though we were just people of color traveling abroad.
A few days later, we were leaving our hotel in Jerusalem when a man ran after us for a block yelling, “Hey India! Do you need a place to eat?”
We ignored him and continued on with our day even though the incident profoundly startled me. He refused to acknowledge our humanity, addressing us as “India” rather than madam or sir or even greeting us with a simple “good morning,” not to mention the incorrect assumption he made about our national identity.
I comforted myself by insisting that he was just attempting to help us find food and was well-intentioned despite his offense. I, like other people of color, am conditioned to brush off microaggressions to be able to process racially charged experiences and move on with my life. It is unacceptable that the sole burden of responsible conduct falls onto the shoulders of people of color.
Shortly after the encounter, we were lost in Jerusalem. We approached a young man to ask for directions, and as soon as he saw us, his face froze in fear, and he began to run in the opposite direction. I qualified it as a moment born out of a lack of exposure to people who looked like me. I kept trying to understand the offensive behavior from the shoes of the perpetrator to humanize them and find a logical reasoning to their ignorant actions.
But these incidents happened over and over again until I became accustomed to the stares, glares and rude behavior I had to endure. From being told we didn’t look American enough in Bangkok to being offered a “better” rate for a bracelet on an island off the coast of Phuket because Indians like us were “poor,” it all became a normal part of being a dark Indian American.
It becomes tiring to endure looks of astonishment or to be mistaken as lost whenever we walk into wealthier establishments. After a subpar experience or cold service, we are expected to relish the fact that we were just allowed to exist in that space, but I, just like so many other dark-skinned people of color, want to be able to receive the same respect and treatment as the other travelers occupying that space.
I am exhausted by post-colonial structures that depict my natural brownness as a flaw that needs to be corrected with bleaching creams. In every salon I went to across India, I was told I needed a “brightening” pack to reduce the darkness that somehow diminished my beauty. I am tired of constantly being told that whiteness and white people are the beauty norm even in places such as Thailand and India — where most of the people are not white. The constant bombardment with bleaching cream ads all across Asia reflected the anti-Blackness and colorism in many communities around the world and attacked my value in society because I did not subscribe to European beauty standards.
Even when we came back to Florida, an agent repeatedly screamed at us that a certain line was “U.S. passports only” or “global entry only” and would only back off if we flashed them our passports — something white Americans in the same line didn’t have to deal with. It is difficult to be born and raised in this country and be mishandled as a second-class citizen simply because of my race. I have to prove my citizenship at every turn, while my white counterparts are never doubted in their American-ness.
I am tired of these false perceptions of who I am. I am mistreated because of my ethnic identity, both when I am at home and abroad. I am fed up with a binary system that refuses to accept that I am just as American as any white individual born and raised in the United States of America. And I refuse to represent all of India’s 1.3 billion people every time I interact with a person of a different race because they see me primarily as a product of my race rather than as an individual. I am tired of always having to step into others’ shoes to qualify their toxic and harmful behavior. I think it’s about time people considered what it’s like living and traveling as a dark Indian American.