American girl

I was about seven years old when I learned that entire countries could be categorized as “good” or “bad.” I stood waiting to play four-square at recess when a boy turned to me in line.

“Where are you from?” he asked.
“India,” I replied.
He looked perplexed, as I had evidently named a country that wasn’t one of the few he had committed to memory in his seven or eight years of life. He hesitated, then asked, “Is that a good one or a bad one?”
Now, it was my turn to be perplexed.
“A good one,” I offered, not knowing what else to say. The boy seemed satisfied with this response and ended his interrogation. I didn’t know it at the time, but it would be the first of many for me.

The devastation that came with the 9/11 terrorist attacks was felt by every heart in America. Those who lost loved ones, or whose health was compromised in the aftermath, will mourn those losses for the rest of their lives. I realize how fortunate I am to not know that pain first-hand and continue to offer my empathy and support to those who do. But my life, and the lives of many who look like me in this country, changed that day, too. While I had always been aware of the fact that my family was different than most American families, I was suddenly in a world that wouldn’t let me forget it. This world had eyes that lingered a bit longer on the color of my complexion, a tongue that stumbled over the syllables of my name with suspicion, and a mind that couldn’t quite figure out whether I was a friend or foe. Though I feel thankful to have never experienced the more extreme and violent forms of discrimination others have suffered, I cannot say that I am unscathed. Words and social isolation are powerful weapons that even children wield with great force.

My natural craving for acceptance launched my personal campaign for assimilation. The girl I was simply did not coincide with the girl I wanted to be (or, rather, the girl others were more comfortable with me being), and that needed to change if I had any hope of fitting in. I slowly stopped speaking my native language, Marathi, after being told that “Americans speak English,” and becoming hyper-aware of the angry (or even fearful) looks my family would receive when we would converse in public. I begged my mother to stop packing me Indian food for lunch, the dishes she had learned from her mother and really constituted the only cuisine she knew how to cook, because I didn’t want to endure ridicule from the children in the cafeteria who just couldn’t get over how strange it looked and smelled to them. I stopped finding joy in wearing traditional Indian clothing for family celebrations and was pleased when my mother slowly stopped wearing Indian clothing and accessories, after being told by an aggressive young man in a fast food restaurant that she needed to start “dressing like an American” now that she was in the United States. The final step in our transformation came when my parents and I became naturalized U.S. citizens when I was in high school. I cannot describe the pride I felt to be called an American, a term that I had identified with my entire life but never dared voice aloud out of fear of rejection. But, now, having finally earned the part that I had been auditioning for for so long, no one could deny it. Right?

Wrong. Quite wrong.

Despite playing the part of “American girl” as effectively as I possibly could, it still wasn’t enough for some. As it turns out, hate isn’t logical. It is a visceral response to a perceived threat, fueled by insecurity, that creates problems with absolutely no intent to solve them. Those who choose to propagate racial discrimination will always find a basis for otherization—not because any meaningful one exists, but because believing that one does protects their ego and a status quo that they believe they benefit from. It had nothing to do with me, my family, or my country of origin, but everything to do with their own need to inflate their sense of self by reducing mine. Simply put, the part of “American girl” that I had been playing for so long had been written for me by people who fundamentally misunderstood what it means to be an American. In doing so, I had erased my story and completely lost my sense of self. It was around this time that I began competing in the Miss America Organization.

I didn’t grow up watching Miss America. I didn’t think Miss America represented women like me, nor did she aspire to. It wasn’t until Miss New York Nina Davuluri won the title in 2014 that I began paying attention to the organization—only to be disheartened, once again, when Nina was assailed with discrimination as the result of her historic victory. In the days after her crowning, it became abundantly clear that there were many people in this country who believed that Miss America should be white, or at least not so obviously foreign. It also became abundantly clear to me that these were not the people who were going to define Miss America for me, because they were amongst the same people who had defined far too much of my life for far too long. I remain grateful to Nina for understanding the mission of the Miss America Organization better than most and using every opportunity she had to celebrate the diversity of her experiences as an Indian-American woman. Because of her, I continue to do the same.

Over a year ago, I earned the job of Miss Oregon by singing in an Indian gown—the kind that I had been convinced in my youth that “American girls” didn’t wear. Over half a year ago, I represented my home, the state of Oregon, at the Miss America competition, and shared my pride in being an immigrant-American on national television—because I finally understood that those identities are not mutually exclusive. That moment was cathartic for me, both a public apology to the young Shiv I shamed into nonexistence and a promise to the young girls watching that they are seen, accepted, and celebrated as Americans. When Kamala Harris, the daughter of an Indian immigrant whose first name means “lotus” in Sanskrit, was declared the vice presidential candidate of the Democratic Party for the 2020 presidential election, that promise felt fulfilled. While the progress has been slow, it is now impossible to ignore. I just hope it’s also impossible to take back.

We are living in one of the most chaotic and divisive political climates this country has ever seen, a brutal reality that has only been exacerbated by the fact that we are attempting to survive a global pandemic and the many economical, social, and psychological hardships it has brought as its company. We are all suffering, more than we’re willing to admit to each other—maybe even more than we are willing to admit to ourselves. But for some Americans, this feeling of isolation really isn’t new. The reminders are all around us, at all times. On the playground. At the grocery store. In the news. Some of us are living in a perpetual state of panic, anxious to see if in a week’s time those who choose to hate, those who made me feel like an unwelcome guest in my own home for most of my life, will feel more empowered than ever to continue to do so. But if America is a home, that makes us family. And while I know families fight, sometimes viciously, they come back together because the pain of being divided is so much greater than the pain of compromise.

I know now that countries cannot be categorized as “good” or “bad” because it just isn’t that simple.
But what I do know is that we can all do so much better.
And I am hoping that starting November 3rd, regardless of the outcome, we will.

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