The Race Diaries: An Intimate Series of Stories on Race (Part 1)

I was born black-haired and earthy-skinned and screaming my lungs out. The nurses, I hear, were disappointed.

My brother was a cherubic toddler, blond-haired and blue-eyed, and they had been so excited at the prospect of delivering a little white baby to match.

Instead I came out looking pretty much like all the Pakistani babies they saw every day – dark-haired and dark-eyed. In a racially homogeneous country, I wasn’t nearly exotic enough to satisfy the hospital staff’s anticipation of a white infant in the maternity ward.

But it didn’t take long before I was plenty exotic. And for the rest of my childhood in Pakistan, I was stared at like a three-headed elephant in a zoo.

Grown men and women, and especially curious children, invaded me with their eyes in every corner of public space. My hair, bleached by my Nordic genes to the brightness of the sun, beckoned little brown fingers to touch it, as if to see for themselves whether this phenomenon were real. Every time I left the house, the back of my neck began to prickle with the sensation that dark eyes were boring into my white skull from every direction.

Being a minority sucked.

Except for moments like these. 🙂

Me as a toddler with my Pakistani neighbor and beloved “auntie”

Last week I talked about race in my Confessions of a White Girl post, but a mere 1,000 words wasn’t nearly enough talk about race. So I’m coming back to the topic because I think it’s a problem when white people don’t talk about race, or talk about it in a walking-over-hot-coals kind of way, doing it quickly and gently so we don’t get burned.

But it’s a problem that’s understandable. I mean, who wants to be called racist? Or ignorant? Or offensive?

Most people just want to do the right thing, or at least feel like they are doing the right thing. But the “right thing” can feel very vague and seems to change as swiftly as the breeze, bringing new terms of political correctness with every sensitivity.

How is a white person “supposed” to talk about race?

Quite frankly, I don’t think most of us know. So we shut up and choose to go colorblind, even though of course we’re not colorblind.

I think all of that needs to change if we ever want to have real conversations, real empathy, and real understanding and if we want to continue making progress toward racial justice.

So here is my small attempt at starting a conversation from the only story I really know – my own.

America was a relief. It was a strange and scary place I didn’t fully understand, but whenever we visited I fit in, at least on the outside. With my white skin, I finally looked the part. No one stared.

We spent a year in Indianapolis when I was in fourth grade, and I went to a public school that I now look back on as a sort of utopian era in my life, where everything felt balanced and whole, right down to the mix of races in my class.

My best friend was black. Another friend was South Asian. Another friend’s parents had immigrated from Romania. And we all got along so well.

But when my family settled permanently in the U.S. four years later, I entered a private school where I would remain in an upper class white bubble until I graduated. All my teachers were white. In my class, there was a higher percentage of girls named Jessica than there were students of color.

That is a big problem.

But I don’t think I had the foggiest idea what I was missing in that white bubble, how I was learning about the world through only one story and one voice.

I missed my home in Pakistan, though, and I began to define “America” as the small sphere of it that I occupied, where there was so much privilege that there were parents who just gave their kids cars and cellphones or handed out cash in exchange for good report cards.

Gone were the days of my interracial friendships.

While my dad worked three jobs to keep us at that school, and I got no car or phone and nothing but a pat on the back for my straight A’s, I nonetheless received the privilege of a college prep education in a space so safe the most dangerous threat was a little pot getting passed around in the parking lot.

The suffocating effect of such a sealed world became clear enough, however, when it came time to choose a college (thanks, privilege!). My first campus visit was to another white bubble in Ohio. I couldn’t pinpoint the unease I felt there until I went on to visit Indiana University and immediately felt at home walking behind a group of students speaking a language I couldn’t understand.

I didn’t need to visit any other schools. My decision was made.

Although I chose IU for its diversity and the 60+ languages you could study there, my professors remained largely white, and the campus seemed somehow segregated by choice. White kids hung out together. There were East Asians over here, and South Asians over there. There seemed to be a special center on campus for every minority group, to which white people were implicitly not invited.

It wasn’t until I transferred to the downtown Indianapolis campus that I started to have non-white professors and took a class on race and ethnicity. While I don’t remember much of it now, I do remember it being highly educational in the best sort of way – the way that gets you to think about the world you always thought you knew in a completely different way.

The guilty episode I confessed in my last post occurred well before taking this class. My feelings as a teenager came out of a definition of America dictated by my snow white high school years, by the white suburb I lived in, and by the white church I went to.

So when I took a trip to a different part of America, but it didn’t look like the America I knew, I felt like I was in a foreign place. I felt uncomfortable, as anyone naturally does when they feel out of place, just as I had felt growing up in Pakistan as a racial minority.

I tell you this story as a means of explaining where subtle streams of racist thought and feeling may spring from. It is by no means a defense of racism or prejudice or an attempt to excuse it.

But I always think a back story is helpful in understanding where sources of evil trickle from. You can’t rewrite the story you came from, but understanding it can certainly help you write a better one in the future.

To be continued… I’ll be writing more about my own experiences with race in the weeks to come, but I also want to feature your stories.

No matter your race or background, if you want to get your story out there, let me know through my contact form or by email at jessica@boundlessandfree.com, and I’ll feature you on this blog, anonymously or by name, whichever you prefer. There needs to be a safe space to talk about race, so let this place be one.

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