With all of the recent incidents of bullying, I am recollecting some of my own experiences of it. It evokes a myriad of feelings and it is for this very reason, that it has taken me weeks to write this particular piece. For me, my belief is that sharing can be an important part of the human experience, it helps us feel connected to one another. For years I had stifled these experiences and then when they came out, I not only felt immense pain, but also utter dismay that I had lived with these feelings for so long. Of course, suppressing painful experiences don’t make a healthy psychologist so I started referring to them when they came up in conversation or obviously, in context. I know I most certainly horrified at least a few people, most were in disbelief, but in one particular situation, something happened that was completely unexpected.
I was at a social gathering and talking to one of my friend’s mom. If you knew my friend, you would know why her mom was this way. Anyway, we started talking about my brief residence in New Jersey. It was 1982 and the movies “E.T.” and “Gandhi” were just nominated for best movies for the Academy Awards. New Jersey was a troubled place during that time, or least that was my perception, as well as reality of it. The trouble manifested itself in the children that we went to school with who engaged in cruelty, the type of raw cruelty that sadly, only children are capable of. At the time I had recently moved back with my family to the United States (from India on a temporary basis). I was still figuring out all the social norms and vacillating between the two countries and cultural contexts, was proving to be challenging.
During this gathering, I was sharing with my friend’s mom some things about my experience with New Jersey at the time. I told her that racially, it was a difficult time. Kids from our school were angry with my brother and I that the movie “Gandhi” had won the Academy Award over E.T. They would yell out “Gandhi” whenever they saw us and a few times, more times than I would care to care to remember, there was name-calling and chasing; rocks and sticks were thrown at us because our differences bothered them immensely, their rage toward us, so misdirected and raw. I was reluctant to tell my parents about these experiences because if you are a child of a recent immigrant, one of the dynamics that you will understand is that initially, you don’t know what is expected of you so you do what you think is expected of you, and you try to make sense of things, and you try to blend in. You also try to take a parentified role in your relationship with your own parents because I know for me; I wanted to protect them from my pain and what was happening to me. There were also elements of shame and self-loathing. I was also sure that they would tell me to accept things, and that they would get better soon.
School was difficult as well especially because I wasn’t sure what the appropriate clothes were. My immigrant parents shopped at Kmart and cheap outlet malls and we were often dressed in possibly the best way that they knew how to dress us, but not in a way that was cool or acceptable. Standing in the locker room before and after gym, hearing chants of “where did you get your underwear? Blue light special! 10 for dollar” became the time that I dreaded most. Eventually, I did what other outsiders do, I found a group of friends that accepted me and did not mock me. As time progressed, even the “mean girls” that would tease me mercilessly would apologize and the distance between us would decrease.
When I shared my experiences at that gathering with my friend’s mom, her eyes filled with tears and utter dismay. Her words, words that no one has ever uttered, came pouring out like balm to the internal wounds that I suppressed for so long, “Manisha, I am so sorry that someone from my race, one of my own people, treated you in such a horrible manner.” At first I couldn’t believe my ears, especially not someone from that generation because I was so used to thinking that these problems were mine, I had to deal with them on my own, in solitude and shame. But when she expressed them in the utterly empathic and horrified way that she did, it gave me so much hope. Hope for generations of children ahead of me from different cultures, sexual orientations, religions that would hear those words and think to themselves, that they aren’t alone, that its going to be okay.
These glimpses of humanity are rare in these times and so I want to share them because we all need to know that despite all the insanity, hatred, self-loathing, and chaos, there is beauty and hope and they come from people that live amongst us. Last year my son was involved in a school play that had some pretty concerning racial undertones. This fellow parent took it upon herself to collaborate with a group of parents (who wrote letters of protest) to make sure that the play was never performed, that the children of a school that prides itself on its diverse student body, never uttered the words of hatred and ignorance.
I always think about this parent with admiration who was able to look at the script and have a reaction to the content of it. This parent is Caucasian and really could have walked on by after reading the script because it was not personally relevant to her. However, she was very much aware of the impact that racial stereotypes have on children, and did not want her children to be part of a play that perpetuated those very stereotypes.
As a person of color, I am always grateful when people step up to advocate or in this case, fight for things that may not necessarily impact them on a personal level (i.e. being from that race or gender, or sexual orientation) because it takes the pressure off of me as the person who is often perceived as the “hysterical person of color” having YET another issue with how things are dealt.
In the chaos and alienation that has become part of the experiences of our youth, these glimpses of humanity and beauty renew my hope. I wish then, in my youth, that I had encountered the type of people that I have now found and embraced over the years. It would have made me feel less alienated, and consequently, more self-love.
“When I despair, I remember that all through history the ways of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants, and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall. Think of it–always.” Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.