• Conversations on Diversity

    A blog by Eboo Patel, Mary Ellen Giess and Tony Banout that looks at identity and diversity issues from multiple angles.


The Effects of Racism and the Excesses of Identity Politics

On my experiences of racism as a kid, the liberating multiculturalism I encountered in college and the very different landscape my children navigate now.

February 11, 2019

Three scenes from growing up brown in suburban America in the 1980s:

  • I am ten years old, my brother is nine, and we are trick-or-treating in our neighborhood, located in a professional middle-class suburb about 30 miles west of Chicago. We arrive at a house right as the Clayton kids, the exact same ages as us, get there. They are white, like about 90% of the other kids in the area. “Trick or treat” we say to the nice old woman who opens the door. She smiles and hands us our candy, then she asks, “Are you all trick or treating together?” The older Clayton kid looks at my brother and me, makes a face like he’s smelling spoiled milk, and says: “Are you kidding, we’re not with them.” The Clayton kids laugh and run away. The old woman looks at my brother and me like she doesn’t quite understand. But my brother and me, we know exactly what just happened.
  • I am twelve years old and a student at Glen Crest Junior High School. We are learning about world civilizations in social studies class. The unit is on India, and the teacher says that women in India wear dots on their head. “I don’t really know why they do it,” he says, “I think it looks silly,” he adds. I don’t really think the teacher meant anything malicious by that, but even still “dothead” becomes a favorite and frequently deployed slur amongst the kids in the class. They start taking cheap felt-tip pens and drawing dots on their foreheads and saying, “Hey, look, I’m Eboo’s mom.” And then they let loose a string of gibberish in what they think is an Indian accent. My mom doesn’t have an Indian accent. Also, she doesn’t have a dot on her forehead. Some of the kids know this because they have been over to my house and eaten my mom’s food. Still, they draw dots on their forehead, mimic an Indian accent and say it’s my mom. 
  • I am fourteen years old, visiting my uncle in suburban Los Angeles, and helping out at his Subway Sandwich stores. My parents own Subways, too, so I’m experienced behind the counter. A customer walks in and I politely welcome him into the store and ask what kind of sandwich he wants. “I want a Cold Cut Combo,” he says. He pauses for effect, and then continues: “But you’re not making any sandwiches for me – she is.” He points to the woman I am working with, a woman who is older than me but less experienced as a Subway employee. “My family owns Subways back in Chicago,” I say, “I’ve been making sandwiches for a while now. I can make it.” The customer takes two steps towards me and says, “You’re not making my sandwich - she is. And I’m not saying it again.” I didn’t argue, I just stepped back. It took me a minute to realize what had happened. It wasn’t my age that the customer didn’t like. He was white, the woman I was working with was white. He didn’t want someone with brown skin making his sandwich.

These kinds of things happened repeatedly, but irregularly – four or five times one month, none the next. The vast majority of customers who I served at Subway were perfectly polite, most of what my teachers said was educational and encouraging, but I always had it in the back of my mind that a white customer might demand to be served by a white employee, or that a teacher might make an off-hand comment that set off a spate of casual racism. Even after the dothead phase in junior high passed, I found myself highly anxious when those kids came over to my house. Were they studying how my mom talked and dressed so they could bully me about her at school? Was I being a traitor to my family by having kids who made fun of our heritage over to my house? Shouldn’t I just be grateful that I had friends (sort of friends, I guess) at all? There were other brown kids at school who were getting bullied far worse than me, and no one would ever go over to their houses. That included me. To be friends with those brown kids would be to highlight that I was, also, a brown kid, rather than a white kid in brown skin.

I think it is worth saying that I would not have called any of this racism. I had learned about racism at school, it meant slavery and segregation. There were a few paragraphs in our history book about it, and in Literature class we read To Kill a Mockingbird and some poems by Langston Hughes. Nobody was whipping me while I picked cotton, making me eat my food in a separate room or framing me in a criminal trial, so why would I even think of applying the term ‘racism’ to what I was going through? I didn’t have either language or sociological categories that helped me make sense of my experience.

That is, until college. I started at the University of Illinois in 1993, an era that, like ours, was filled with identity politics discourse. Terms like ‘white supremacy’ and ‘internalized racism’ felt like a revelation. Finally, there was language to help me understand my experience, including the heavy psychological burden of navigating the white world as a brown person.

Moreover, I learned that even though people like me (child of 1965-era highly educated immigrants from India) were not experiencing the kind of structural racism that denied us basic rights, that is precisely what was happening when it came to black people. But the system was no longer slavery or segregation, it was mass incarceration. 

I like to think that I got woke in college. I feel a deep debt to my education at the University of Illinois for this, and to higher education in the United States in general for taking race, racism and white supremacism in America seriously enough to engage it in a multidimensional way.

It is probably no surprise that I have been especially vigilant about racism when it comes to my kids. I don’t want them to have the same experiences that I did as a kid, or to carry the same psychological burdens.

By my best estimate, they are not. We live in an upper middle-class multicultural neighborhood in Chicago, the very definition of Whole Foods America. While there are some places in America where it is undoubtedly much worse to be a minority in the Trump years, our neighborhood is not one of them. In fact, the high profile racism and white supremacy emanating from official quarters has encouraged neighborhoods like mine to double down on an affirming multiculturalism. Last summer, my older son’s rising sixth grade class was assigned a book by a Pakistani American female writer. My third grader’s class is reading a book about a transgender kid. The show Blackish, the film Love, Simon, the music of Kendrick Lamar and Beyonce, the general awesomeness of LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo – this is the world they know. Their first President was Barack Obama, half of their friends are either religious minorities or kids of color. They swim in the waters of multiculturalism.

This doesn’t mean that they don’t experience racism or Islamophobia (more than once they have been called ‘terrorist’ on the playground) or that they never will, but it will most likely be of a far more muted sort than what I went through. Moreover, they will know that their identities are recognized and valued not just by their family and friends, but by the media, pop culture and their school. Also, thanks to Donald Trump, everyone knows that ugly racism exists, which means that it is talked about in their classes, giving them both a sense of confidence and a language to call it out. More than once I’ve started a conversation about some offensive thing that Donald Trump or some other official person said, only to hear that their teacher already brought it up in class.

So, what do I think about when it comes to racism and my kids? It may sound strange to say it, but because I swim in the waters of identity politics on college campuses, I am increasingly concerned about how the excesses of that movement might have a deleterious impact.

Some of the things that have been on my mind lately include:

  • I do not want my kids to feel like they should only tell a story of how their brown skin, ethnic names and Muslim faith have been the occasion for racism, as if being Indian or Muslim are categories absent of content of their own, defined only by experiences of racism;
  • I want them to realize how much progress has been made, and to be grateful to all the people who did the work and made significant sacrifices for their benefit. The ‘we are even worse off now than we were during segregation’ narrative is not only a lie, it dishonors the American heroes who fought, bled and in some cases died to build a nation where most of us are better off.
  • I don’t want my kids to go hunting for examples of racism and white supremacy. There is enough of it in the world already;
  • I want my kids to have the radar screen to recognize racism and the tools to call it out, and to also realize that such accusations are serous and to not make them lightly. Generally, I’d like them to give people the benefit of the doubt. For example, most ignorant questions about Islam are not best understood as examples of racism, but illustrations of being uninformed, and therefore opportunities to do some good by providing a little education. Without a doubt, they (meaning my kids) will say some uninformed things about other people’s identities, and wouldn’t it be better if the response were education instead of accusation;  
  • I don’t want them to view the world through an Us/Them lens of any sort – not black/white; Muslim/Christian; liberal/conservative;
  • I do not want them to have any illusions that being called names on the playground is at all in the same universe as being framed for a crime or being destitute in a developing country;
  • I do not want them to tell a story that makes them feel as if they have less agency than they actually do, or that the corner of the world in which they live is worse than it actually is;
  • I want them to realize that the vast vast vast majority of people in the world, across human history and even in the United States would trade lives with them in a heartbeat and, if that is true, then whatever term might apply to the difficult experience of being a non-white/non-Christian minority in professional middle class America, it is not ‘oppression’;

Let me be clear that I think experiencing racism is far worse than dealing with the excesses of identity politics, but at least right now it appears that my kids are more likely to encounter the latter far more often than the former. And as I’ve detailed above I believe that that has debilitating effects, too. 

What I want for my kids above all is to be confident and comfortable enough in their own identities that they think about other people more than they think about themselves.  



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