The toxicity of “colorblindness”
“Eman, beti. Come here.”
My nani (grandmother) is standing over her gas stove, stirring gently with a wooden spoon. The house smells of masala. Her desi accent is as thick as the spice-infused curry that she is making for the evening’s supper.
“Watch me make this beef dish,” she says in Urdu.
I heave my ten-year-old self off the couch and make my way toward the kitchen. My grandparents’ home in Country Club Estates is well-decorated and comfortable. Visiting Florida for me always meant many things: traditional food every day, having to try on new shalwaar kameez and honing my bilingual skills.
When my nana (grandfather), a pediatrician, comes home shortly after, he likes to recount my family’s history while we eat the food Nani has prepared.
“In India, your great-great grandfather was a very successful man. He was the dean of one of the most prestigious universities in the country,” he begins. “Often he would have lunch with the Prime Minister of England.”
He is very proud of this, as he has told me this story before. Even if he forgets that these words have entered and left my ears more times than I can count, I always let him continue, partially to humor him, but also because it fascinates me.
“This was before the Partition, you know, which brought hardship upon our family,” he continues in our native tongue.
We lost much of what we had in the 1940s, and my relatives were relocated to East Pakistan, which is now Bangladesh.
My nana and his siblings took care of one another while spending any and all of their free time studying. They wanted to shape their futures, to let an education lead them to salvation. For many of them, this “salvation” would later be found in America.
At night, when it became too dark to make sense of the markings on his notes, Nana would trek to find the nearest source of illumination (often a streetlight) to continue revising until dawn.
I take in his words as if I have never heard them before, while gleefully stuffing my face with the fragrant beef stew. I look around their home, seeing how his hard work has made a mark on my life. Without this determination, I might have not been in the privileged position that I am today, eating good food, receiving a good education and being showered with gifts.
It has been nearly a decade since this day, a day in sunny northern Florida that I vividly remember. My grandparents are currently visiting my family in Indiana for about two weeks.
Nana has early-onset dementia. Every time I see him, it becomes worse. His health is not what it was even two years ago, when he sold his office and retired from his medical practice. He would probably continue to tell us stories from his childhood with the same vigor that he used to, but now he has trouble remembering many of the details, so he doesn’t bother.
I still stand next to my grandmother as she cooks, but my time is often cut short, because I have homework to do. Sometimes, I catch her silently weeping as she sautés the potatoes and beans, drying her eyes of tears that tell of hardships past and present.
When I see this, it fills my entire body with a crippling sadness. As our older relatives approach the end of their lives, critical pieces of our identities are lost or forgotten. The good memories, the suffering and the seasoned contributions they made to our peoples’ narratives.
I used to be somewhat ashamed of my background, not wanting to acknowledge the profundity of my family’s trials and tribulations. But I am no longer that person.
My sons and daughters (both literally and figuratively) will have these anecdotes about India, Pakistan and Bangladesh repeated to them, so they can recognize the significance of their race and ancestry, while building upon it themselves. I will honor my culture in the way that it should be, even if some might look down upon me for doing so.
If you are the majority, consider how toxic the notion of being a “colorblind society” is. By claiming you do not see my culture, you are erasing my history. You are mitigating the racism, the traditions the unique experiences of my people. You fail to hear my wavering voice when I say that, more often than not, one of the first things people notice about me is the color of my skin.
Having conversations about our different races and cultural experiences is not a bad thing in the slightest. Try listening to marginalized and minority groups as they express their concerns and struggles instead of reflexively accusing them of “pulling the race card.”
Celebrate your own traditions, if you can. Just try not to talk over anyone. We all deserve to be heard.