Attempts to fit in as an “other” occasionally cause us to try to be someone we are not. Our friend groups may shift from White to Black, and we may assume attributes of those friends. Despite that, I understood one thing early on: I was not White. Whiteness was given supremacy in society. All of the positive images and role models in the media, school history books and popular culture were White. Whiteness was unattainable for me and, as I came to better understand my racial identity, not desired.
As I wrestled with racism and white supremacy, I felt most welcomed in predominantly African American settings. These communities were authentic and filled with models of a resilient people.
My experience gives me an understanding of Sen. Kamala D. Harris, the historic Democratic candidate for vice president, who was born to an Indian mother and a Black father. Harris grew up attending predominantly White schools before choosing to attend Howard University, a historically Black institution in Washington, D.C.
“In the ’60s, you were either Black or White. There was no real distinction between Caribbean or Indian,” Harris’s friend Lenore Pomerance told The Washington Post last year. “Howard would be a place to solidify her identity as a woman of color.”
I increasingly embraced being a person of color. I felt a kinship with my African American friends and their stories, heroes and history. I was compelled by the iconic images of Rosa Parks, Emmett Till, John Lewis and the Selma “Bloody Sunday” march. I was moved by the yearning and hope expressed in gospel music. I felt the connections to my Indian ancestors’ freedom struggle under British colonial oppression and to the African American freedom struggle under centuries of chattel slavery and involuntary servitude. The connection between these journeys to freedom is revealed in the passive resistance, civil disobedience and nonviolent philosophies. Martin Luther King Jr. was highly influenced by the writings of Gandhi — two leaders of different cultures bound together, and they were both among my heroes.
As I grew older, I openly championed the causes and issues of the Black experience. I deliberately wore a Black liberation T-shirt (with “Racism is an Illness” on the front and “R U Sick?” on the back) to provoke conversations at home and school. Some people would pass and stare, perhaps wondering why an Indian man wore that shirt. Others accused me of being an agitator who was exaggerating issues.
Family members would be on edge and wary of what I might say or how I might wield my righteous indignation in labeling their words or actions. Conversations about work ethic, welfare dependency or crack cocaine frequently prompted me to fling “that’s racist.” I embraced the joys and successes of African Americans as causes for celebration and experienced their pain and suffering in profoundly personal ways. My Christian faith and family members committed to justice cultivated a deep well of empathy and anger for the plight of those who have been systematically delegitimized, dehumanized and destroyed. Understanding what Harris’s mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, taught her about racial justice and leading social change, I can relate to the influential role of Indian parents.
My kinship with the Black American experience continues today. When Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd were brutally killed, I saw myself. I saw my son, my brother and my late father. I saw my uncles and nephews. It was as though we were shot while running; we were suffocated on the ground; we were choked by a knee on our necks.
We can make the mistake of thinking that our experiences of discrimination, bias, vulnerability and other trauma equate our story with other communities of color. They don’t. As an Asian Indian American, I am more protected from these struggles and violence. My phenotype may prompt someone to call me a “terrorist” or to tell me to “Go back to where you came from,” but I am not routinely targeted and oppressed by systems. In the aftermath of 9/11, I may have been verbally abused on occasion, but walking down the street eventually felt safe again. The harm perpetrated against me can attack my sense of belonging as an American, but I don’t feel the risk of being killed because of how I look. I am not Ahmaud Arbery or George Floyd. I likely would have survived their fatal encounters.
My multigenerational household leans into these conversations of race and oppression with frequency, urgency and little grace afforded to each other, especially when we lapse into assumptions and assertions based on racial hierarchies. We don’t always do what Harris’s mother did: affirm Blackness and promote solidarity with the Black experience. Indians can get held up as the “model minority” who have overcome hardship. However, whatever hostility, exclusion or mistreatment comes our way, it is not the same as what African Americans endure.
I consider myself an ally in the Black freedom struggle, and allyship requires that we cling to a sense of common humanity while discerning how we are treated differently. As a senior leader in the Obama administration, I helped craft policies and initiatives to confront structural racism in housing, transportation and economic development policy. As a result, I have spoken in Minneapolis and elsewhere about the need to confront the unfinished business of racial equity in the face of resistance from regional leaders. Perhaps being neither Black nor White made the message more or less effective. I don’t know, but it mattered to stand, speak and act in solidarity with other communities of color.
Given continued segregation and polarization in the United States, it can be difficult to seek out diverse environments in our personal lives. However, I have grown accustomed to worshiping in a multicultural church, playing in parks and living in neighborhoods that look like the United Nations, and walking on streets where I am not stared at like a foreigner who doesn’t belong. In all these places and spaces, African Americans have been the pioneers, setting the stage for my welcome. They have taught me that equity can’t be something that we only talk about or do for a living — it must show up in how we live.
The nation’s current moment of social unrest calls on all of us to see ourselves in the atrocities, violations and death of others. I have been heartened by the Indian Americans I have seen at demonstrations for racial justice. Showing up matters. The movement needs supporters both old and new, experienced and novice, black and white, and — yes — other.
I am decades removed from that kindergarten playground, and while some things have changed, the question about where I fit in still feels relevant. Back then, it was an innocent question from children who were trying to sort out who I was. In the present climate, if that question was asked of me, I would suspect the person was trying to assess which side of the societal battle lines I am on.
“Are you Black or White, Salin?” My answer: “I am an Indian American, and I stand in solidarity with people fighting for greater equity and justice for all.”