Finding An Identity Through Safe Spaces

I used to throw away my lunch in the trash can at the back of the cafeteria. Sometimes, I didn’t even look inside, I just unzipped the bag and tilted it straight towards the bin, and there was my dad’s sandwich with keema, Indian minced meat, wrapped in foil, reflecting back at me with an accusation. I had made the mistake of opening my lunch once before in front of my classmates and seeing them wrinkle their noses and point, an accusatory finger directed at my leftovers from last night’s dinner I quickly figured out that I did not want this type of attention. It wasn’t just that I obviously looked different, with my brown skin and jet black hair — often praised for how exotic it looked. I was different, and my life at home was markedly different. I was never able to say, I’m Indian but I’m no different than you, I go home and have meatloaf and mashed potatoes for dinner and then my dad puts on the game. This was my idea of an American upbringing. No, my mother only knew how to cook Indian food, and my dad, an engineer who spent the first 20 years of his life in a country thousands of miles away, couldn’t tell you the first thing about Sports™ in general.

Being one of the few students of color in a majority-white school district, I struggled to pinpoint my identity. As a hyphenated American, I was torn between my Indian and American selves, who I viewed as two very separate people. My American self was reserved for the classroom, and my Indian self for my house, but the real me was somewhere in the intersection.

My school district, in a majority-white suburb of Detroit, has not always had the best track record of inclusivity. Within the past couple of years, a parent group was formed to address a long-standing tradition of sweeping race-related incidents under the rug. Around the same time, the district finally began to address and direct resources towards inclusivity efforts. What has followed since have been many uncomfortable conversations: change isn’t always pretty. But as a senior in high school, having reached the culmination of my K-12 career, I know that for all the missteps that I have experienced firsthand, there is also the “right” that we can focus on for the future. Throughout my time in high school, I have become increasingly comfortable with my expressing my identity — in its entirety. I’ve found that my friends and peers are willing to listen when I am given a chance to share about my experiences — it’s just a question of making time and space for curiosity.

One of the first times I felt confident in my own skin as a student was standing up in a room full of my classmates and presenting about my Indian heritage. Standing at the front of the room, wearing my bindi — a jeweled sticker in the middle of my forehead, a physical reminder of my culture, I finally felt in control of my narrative. I was able to answer all the questions I’d gotten over the years: how I could be Catholic and Indian and how my parents had been born in India, but I’d been born in Canton, Michigan. In elementary school, I used to get questions often about my cultural background. Somewhere along the line, that stopped — but I’m not sure that my peers stopped being any more curious. Simply giving people the forum to learn more about others’ cultures can help to address the questions that would otherwise go unanswered. These safe spaces don’t require any sort of complicated orchestration — the only requirement is that all participants enter with an open mind.

The idea of safe spaces can be executed on a larger scale — One of the ways we have made a deliberate effort to create safe spaces is through the student-run diversity club at my school: an opportunity to debate topics that are relevant and important to us as high-schoolers. We have talked about cultural appropriation, gun control, and gender norms — all in a space where we emphasize that every student has the opportunity to voice their opinion. Students should get the opportunity to be their authentic selves in and out of the classroom.

It’s been a long time since I’ve felt the need to hide my identity at school. At the same time, I know that if I’d never had the opportunity to share — and be comfortable with — my differences, I likely wouldn’t feel the same acceptance. I come to school with gold bangles and jeans, a balance of my dual heritage. I finally feel confident expressing myself — my whole self.