Abroad in America: when race is something new

I have lived in several different countries, yet I never had any idea of race issues or race relations. My knowledge of the subject was limited. Race relations in America: I had heard of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X; that was it. Outside America, certainly I knew about apartheid in South Africa. My grandparents used to tell us stories of the time when the British ruled India, and we were “natives.” It is not as if I were not raised in a diverse environment. Elementary school in the Middle East was a kaleidoscope of people from all over – Germans, British, Indians, Australians, Chinese, Arabs – yet that was a time of innocent childhood. Race was not important; it did not matter.

High school in Pakistan was basically a bunch of Pakistani people: we were all the same. Here in the United States, I added new words to my vocabulary. “Minority,” for one, defined me. “Brown” now had another meaning. At first I struggled to shrug off this alien identification imposed upon me. Sometimes I felt closeted. At social events, I did not interact; I told myself, “I am a minority, I am different.” Some of this inner conflict was self-imposed; some of it was not. Imagine never having had to think about an issue like the color of your skin and suddenly be confronted by the fact that “yes, it does matter.”

I myself come from a rather strange family. My youngest brother is white and blond. The other is darker-skinned than I am. We ourselves never had any issues concerning skin color. As brothers, we never talked about such stuff. When I went back home for this summer, for the first time, I consciously thought about the difference between my youngest brother and me.

Did this difference in color affect us as brothers? Upon reflection, no, it did not. Were we raised in America, we might have interacted differently. Sure, we talk with the same accent, think the same, but a year in America had made me think for the first time about small minor differences that had never mattered.

I have an uncle who married an American. They have two children; one is white, the other is brown. And both children are conscious of this fact. One child is resentful of the fact that he can never be a member of mainstream white American culture. The other sometimes ribs his brother for not being white.

Just I was writing this article, I got around to talking with a friend from Jamaica about how race had become an issue in our lives here and how much it intruded in our daily existence. Back home, the issues are not about race; they are about class structures, entrenched colonial legacies. In Pakistan, it is very difficult to move up in society. Merit matters little. A son of a clerk cannot become a manager. Society is structured too heavily against that.

My friends from high school are also confronted with similar situations. Many tend to segregate themselves into large South Asian societies at their campuses, something which I have consciously avoided, easily done as the South Asian community here is rather small.

What scares me most is that I have started seeing the world through a different lens. For example, I was in Times Square on Dec. 31. It was a huge party. As I looked around me, I noticed that there were people from all over the world there. We met a student from France who had driven all the way from college in Oklahoma, a bunch of Romanians, Brazilian soccer fans, basically everybody in the world except English-speaking Caucasians. It was a fact that filled me with wonder. And yet, suddenly, I was filled with an intense sense of sadness. Somehow, somewhere deep within me, I knew I would never have noticed that had I never come to America.