Friday, June 7, 2013

Being a color

What comes to your mind when you see colors? I see an artist's creative rendition on canvas. To some it means unadulterated nature. To some red means stop, yellow means caution, and green means go displayed on traffic lights. To some color symbolizes heritage, courage, patriotism, peace, truth determined on their national flag. And then there is that kind of color which divided people; that gave rise to segregation; that magnifies racism. That’s the color of the skin.

I was born and brought up in Mumbai, India and have been fortunate to experience a pluralistic society in which people come from different backgrounds, traditions, cultures, religions and speak different languages. Officially there are 22 languages spoken in India and although Hindi is the national language, not everyone in India speaks the language fluently. You can hold the highest position in the executive, judiciary and legislative in India, even if you do not know to speak the national language. In India, skin color is associated more with being attractive. There is a kind of obsession for lighter skin. Beauty products that promise making skin lighter sells like hot cakes in India. Women consider themselves to be attractive in their skin if it is milky white. Even unknowingly society is in favor of lighter looking women.  The media promotes the idea of light skin is beautiful on TV, advertisements, magazines, which reinforces the idea in the mind of young girls who start believing the ideal girl that she sees in the media.

As I live in the United States while I pursue my master’s degree, I see no difference in the value system from that of my home country. Americans are hard working people and America has the same set of challenges that any democracy has to deal with today. It is only relative.  America is a melting pot of different race and religions. There is no other country in the whole wide world that welcomes people from different nationalities, backgrounds and religions that America does.  You could be sitting in a classroom of 60 students of which 25% are Asians, 25% are African Americans, 25% are Caucasians and the remaining 25% are Hispanics and Latinos. You could be riding a public bus or train in which you’ll unavoidably notice demographics of people from different backgrounds. You can’t see this kind of diversity anywhere else other than in the United States. It even surprises me sometimes. Whether a Caucasian, an African American, an Asian, English, a Hispanic, a Latino, everyone immigrated at some point in time in the United States of America.

The United States has fought a long winding road of equality for African Americans. Sir Martin Luther King is the figure that the African American community looks up to. Why only the African American community, in fact everyone who loves her freedom and wants to see the world free from discrimination of any kind respects Sir King, who made it possible for the African American people to be unafraid. Sir King went beyond dreaming for himself and worked hard to fulfill the dreams of the repressed African American community. There are so many social issues that Sir King would want raising his voice against even today if he was alive. The freedom that he fought for 50-years back was just the beginning. But he certainly must be smiling at the never-like-before double presidential victories by President Barack Obama. President Obama’s triumph has motivated so many African Americans and the minority communities to dream big and believe that nothing is really impossible.

Back then, over 150 years ago, the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in America. This proclamation declared that all persons held as slaves will be free. It declared that people who were discriminated and treated as outcast are free to make their own choices in life. And it has been over 50-years since the discriminatory principle of "separate but equal" was rejected which openly rules out racially segregating public places, housing, and accommodations for blacks and whites.

So what is black in America? Is it the color of your skin, the place you live in, the amount of money you have in your bank account, your educational qualification, your profession, or something else? Who really is black in America? The US census defines White as a person having origins in places of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa while the Black are defined as a person with origins in any of the black racial groups of Africa.  So if everyone with origins in Africa is classified as black, why are people from North Africa classified as Whites? Why black or white people. Why make it obligatory for a section of society to spend their life being a color.

Even if people justify black and white classification as the need to maintain population census, how would you classify a kid born to biracial parents. Shouldn’t there be check-box option for this ever growing biracial population in today’s modern America. There was a time in America when there was black and white kind of music. But times have changed. Today Americans listen to all kinds of music. So why should there be a Black, a White, a Hispanic, a gay, a lesbian, a Christian, Hindu, or Muslim kind of arrangement in a country which so magnificently calls itself the United States of America.

Nobody knows who you are and where you come from until you tell them. But if they don’t ask you, there are certain stereotypes formed about you based on your color. If you are black, you are an African American. If you are brown, you are Indian or Middle Eastern. If you are yellow, you are East Asian. While Native Americans simply do not exist. There is a symbolic annihilation of the natives, who the media has stopped representing at all. 

At his landmark speech on August 1963, while calling an end to racism in the United States, Sir King said, "I have a dream that my poor little kids will one day live in a nation where they are not judged by the color of their skin, but the content of their character." Today’s modern America doesn’t really care about the color of your skin. But can we say that the gap that once existed has disappeared. In his book The Audacity of Hope President Barack Obama says that the although there is progress being made over the past four decades, a “stubborn gap” remains between living standards of black, Latino, and white workers. He says that the minorities earn less wages, pay more for insurance, and are less likely to own their home.  “More minorities may be living the American dream, but their hold on that dream remains tenuous,” he says.

But all that said, race should never be used as a crutch to discrimination and the reason for failure. There are many successful minorities who have made their mark. From the little of America that I have seen and experienced in the last nine months, it will be na├»ve for me to comment on this topic. But yes from a few people that I have met and spend time with, I can see each one working hard, some of them working two jobs, striving to make the American dream a reality for themselves and their family.