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White, Black, or Other

by Aruna Radhakrishna

One day in kindergarten, a girl in my class, asked me quite loudly as I was standing in line for the bathroom, "Are you one of those BLACK people?" Surprised at her question, because I thought it was obvious I was Indian, I replied a barely audible, "No," as my eyes rolled to the floor. That was the first time I realized I was different from everyone else in my class.

In fourth grade during a standardized test, I raised my hand to ask which box I should check: 'White' or 'Black'. There was no 'Asian', not even an "Other." My teacher replied without a second of thought, "I guess you'll just have to check 'black.'" Inside I felt relieved somehow, probably because I associated myself with Blacks more than with whites. I felt like I was essentially black, being the only non-white person in the school except for my sister. The little history we were taught in school made me feel uncomfortable. Whenever the word 'slave' was mentioned, I felt like all eyes were on me. In some strange way, I felt that I was the child of that sharecropper, of that woman who had to sit at the back of the bus. That day taught me what I have learned in my 25 years of life-to much of white America, I will always be considered an 'other.' And if there is no box with my name on it, instead of being embraced, I will be shoved into whatever is available.

Junior high P.E. class was the first time my heart was broken. It was report card day. My teacher, Miss Cade, whom I thought never liked me, put her arm around me and gave me a squeeze as we were heading to the gym. It was the first time she ever acknowledged my existence outside of roll call. I was perplexed to say the least. When I got my grade, it all seemed to make sense. I was the only one in the class who got a 'C.' Not only is it unheard of to get a 'C' in P.E. class, but that quarter we were doing gymnastics. I had taken gymnastics for 10 years. I cried all the way home on the bus and then some more in a locked bathroom when I got home. My Mom had a conference with Miss Cade but my grade never changed. All my Mom could say was, "Yeah, she seemed a little bit weird." I suppose that was my Mom's way of showing she was on my side, but I would've rather had her call Miss Cade a racist, or talk to the principal and make a big deal about it. It wasn't the grade I was concerned about, it was the fact that a teacher, who is supposed to be someone who is fair and trustworthy, was not. The only security I had in school was doing well. I knew kids would judge me by what I looked like, but I thought teachers weren't supposed to. I always felt comfortable with teachers as long as I did good work. But this time the formula was not working. I retested my theory about Miss Cade when I tried out for volleyball and she was the coach. I was one of the best ones to try out. When I did not make the team, I never felt so brown, skinny, nerdy and hurt in my entire life.

So what does all this have to do with feminism? To me-everything. Up until my high school years, I was everything but "feminine." That's how long it took society to beat down my true self and reshape it into the mold labeled 'female.' At a very young age I was gregarious and loud, until my mom told me I talked too much. I was confident and assertive until my school teacher told me not to yell out answers just because no one else knew them. I was a TOMBOY- I loved to play with cars and run around, and loathed dolls and wearing dresses (the only doll I had I decapitated). When I reached high school, my best friend, who faithfully read Seventeen magazine, told me I should wear lipstick to bring out my "pretty smile." At that time in my life, when I felt like I didn't belong, when Miss Cade made me feel worthless, when the blonde, fashion-conscious cheerleaders left me feeling ugly, and when my best friend was judging me by my looks, I wanted nothing more than to belong. That lipstick still stains my lips today.

When women try to look feminine- the makeup, the plucked brows, the no tummy/no hips/big breasts body- they are acting out of some insecurity society has left them with. My insecurity was my brown skin. When I accommodated to the look people wanted to see- long hair, feminine clothes and make-up- I was suddenly transformed from a brown person, to a hey-she-can-be pretty brown person. That 'look' was my security. And although I can now say that I love the color of my body- in all of its seasonal hues- I still struggle to love my bare brown lips. Even when women are happy with their looks, when they love their bodies with all the curves, bumps and hair, when they cherish their natural glow - someone is always telling them to cover it up, to pluck it, lose it, or curl it.

The second time my heart was broken was when I was home on vacation from college. I found a banner hanging in my little brother's room, that he made with cloth and markers that read, "Minorities are people too." 'Those bastards,' I thought- it was 10 years since I had been through this and nothing had changed. My brother who was in junior high at the time, had experienced everything from racial slurs to getting spit on to having his P.E. clothes stolen. Something struck me at that moment. He was struggling more than I ever had, yet he wasn't trying to fit in like I was. Why did he have long hair and both ears pierced? How - I thought- did he have the courage to say 'screw you' when I didn't?

I've come to realize that besides his skin color, he was not judged on his looks. He didn't have to fulfill any measurement requirements for his hips or butt or chest. He didn't have to put chemicals on his face. He could do whatever he wanted with any of his hair. Guys somehow, have the authority to be slobs or hunks, and they can belch and swear and raise their voices and it's applauded. But females have a mold to fill, and the closer they fit, the more they are accepted.

It's been a long road for me to finally love myself whether I fit in or not. I'll never be a blonde-haired, blue-eyed babe and thank God for it. The first quarter of my life was spent fitting in. I have at least three-quarters left to go and in that time I will revel in my beautiful brown body with my new hips and bare lips and muster up the courage to say, "HA!!" I can't wait.