Appreciate diverse world views

I watched the dark black cloud engulf the New York City skyline on Sept. 11, 2001, originating from where the two glimmering skyscrapers used to stand. I was 11 years old then. I stood watching an almost motionless screen, as if the world had paused outside the windows of my elementary school — Joseph H. Brensinger No.17 in Jersey City, N.J. I saw a drastic change in the way that kids who resembled me were treated after that day. I noticed my peers who were brown were suddenly being called "bin Laden" and the Middle-Eastern children were being pushed around. Did this monumental day suddenly help us elementary school kids in Public School 17 realize we were different based on our skin color, bringing racial acknowledgement to the forefront of our young minds? I wish that were true.

The truth is, race was always visible in Jersey City, and it stuck out like a zit before prom night. You saw it in the way people interacted in the barbershops, the conversations you overheard in the bodegas, and you especially noticed it in school. In my elementary school, the smart people were looked down upon and you gained notoriety based on how well you could crack jokes about other people — jokes that were racially derogative most of the time. This did not fly so well with my Indian parents, who scolded me for bringing home 95s on my grammar test — my education was the reason they immigrated to America, they said. So my afternoon activities consisted of coming home from school, checking out Yo-Mama joke websites for an hour, followed by doing all my homework and simultaneously reading Time magazine, BusinessWeek and Newsweek before going to bed.

Sometimes, "We just wish we could be black or Hispanic," my elementary school friends would say. I understood what they were saying. They were tired of being bullied and picked on. They simply wanted to assimilate. If you needed a poster child for the melting pot that America symbolized, I was the quintessential example. In eighth grade, I dressed black, thought white and looked brown. My mom used to yell at me for wearing T-shirts that hung beyond my knees. My school friends would make fun of me for liking politics and the stock market. And brown girls, well I guess they liked that I was brown.

Growing up, I often had deep conversations with my younger cousin who lived in Carteret, N.J. at the time. He would tell me how hard finding his personal identity was. "There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America — there's the United States of America," said then Sen. Barack Obama in his 2004 Democratic Convention Keynote Address. But for my cousin, he was called an Indian in America and an American when he visited relatives in India. No matter how many times race was swept under the rug by political rhetoric, race was still a highly visible topic for my young friends and me.

I was surprised to read a line that Bobby Jindal, the first governor in America of Indian-American descent, wrote in his book, "Leadership and Crisis," "I never felt culturally different from your typical Baton Rouge kid," he wrote. How could he not? Even fifth graders in my school noticed it. Regardless if they were Caucasian, black or Asian-American, everyone felt culturally different from one another. Perhaps race was not as prevalent a topic for Jindal's community, but it sure was for us. Our elementary school taught us about diversity before it was in the teaching planner. It taught us that we were all different and there was nothing we could do to change that. Sure we could try to dress a certain way and speak slang with a specific dialect, but at the end of the day we could not change who we truly were inside. But this did not deter us from trying. This was the beauty of growing up in an inner-city environment — you were able to experience many different cultures and customs.

I can relate to Jindal in some ways. I spent a substantial time living in St. Joseph, Mo., with my uncle's family when I was younger. Throughout all my travels around the world, there is no place like St. Joseph where I have felt more accepted. Although the majority of locals were white, there were sprinkles of color throughout the town. I never noticed any prejudice or discrimination whatsoever from anyone there. Perhaps this was the United States Obama was referring to in his speech. At the humble age of 5, I looked up to my older cousins who both attended high school in St. Joseph. I would be in my Power Rangers underwear while they brought home their warm-spirited friends, all of whom were white and loved warm Indian roti and Pepsi every time they came over.

Such a homogeneous group of friends was unimaginable for me in my hometown. If my best friends were to be in a room together, a person might think I were trying to initiate World War III. I currently have two best friends who are of Jewish descent, another from Palestine, one from Pakistan and the last from India. Adults used to ask me when I was younger if having a best friend from Pakistan bothered me, given the constant conflicts that Pakistan and India shared. I always answered with a resounding "No."

Perhaps this would have been an issue in other parts of the world or certain regions in America, but we were able to look past that. Being raised in Jersey City made peoples' skin colors somewhat invisible. I was able to judge them more so on their character rather than an assumption based on culture. I bring with me a diversity that is not based solely on my skin tone or socioeconomic status, but through my perspective of the world. It allowed me a shrewd understanding of being street-smart, while instilling in me values of compassion and tolerance for others. I will never forget the life lessons the potholed streets of Jersey City and the green plains of Missouri farms taught me.

 

Amit Jani is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in journalism and media studies and political science. His column, "The Fourth Estate," runs on alternate Wednesdays.

 


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