All. My. Life. I’ve been a people-pleaser. The person who constantly considers context and intentions, who gives the benefit of the doubt, who hates to see anyone feel embarrassed or uncomfortable. Even when it’s at the expense of my own feelings and well-being.
Maybe it’s because I know what it’s like to truly, genuinely, painfully hurt because of someone else’s words or actions. Maybe it’s because I know what it’s like to constantly second-guess my own words or actions to the point of silencing myself to be sure I don’t put anything hurtful out into the world. Maybe it’s because I just cannot stop myself from being empathic, compassionate, and understanding because that’s what I so desperately want from my interactions with others.
It’s why I’ve spent countless years of my life enduring almost every form of racism possible. Racist jokes, racist observations, racist phrasing, racist questions, racist compliments, racist assumptions, racist expectations, racist justifications. Some microaggressions and some not-so-micro. Some overt and some covert. But the result is always the same. It kills me a little inside each time I endure in silence.
For the majority of my life, I hid my hurt so that others could feel comfortable being hurtful. I didn’t want them to feel uncomfortable, so I just sat with my own discomfort, letting it grow and define me, little by little. Until being hurt and silenced was the norm, and I believed I deserved it.
I started to believe my opinions, feelings, and beliefs did not matter. They weren’t worthy of being heard. They weren’t valuable input, so why bother sharing? My words were a waste of otherwise valuable conversation time and space. I found that when I did share, I spoke very quickly and only offered the briefest information.
Because when I shared in the past, I was shut down. I was told I was “too sensitive,” “too serious,” “couldn’t take a joke,” “didn’t get it,” “needed to lighten up,” and “Why can’t you ever just have fun?” I was told “that wasn’t my intention,” “I didn’t mean it that way,” “no one thinks that,” and “you know I’m not racist.” The things I felt passionate about were belittled as unimportant, dismissed as ridiculous, and judged as wrong.
Because what would a brown girl know about race? What could she possibly understand about racism in our country, when she was adopted and raised by White parents? When she had such a supposedly easy life because she “never experienced racism?” What does she really know?
I’ll tell you what I know. I know the only reason you think my life is charmed and untouched by racism is because I hid my hurt. Because I didn’t speak up with dissent, because I pretended to smile and laugh, because I found a way to walk away in silence and avoid it. All because I didn’t want to cause YOU discomfort. I didn’t want to call you out and make you feel embarrassed. I didn’t want you to feel ashamed of your ignorance. I didn’t want you to feel like you were worthless. I didn’t want you to feel misunderstood or mischaracterized.
And I didn’t want to get into an argument about what racism is or isn’t with a person who would tell me that everything I felt and believed was wrong, who would leave me feeling uncomfortable, embarrassed, ashamed, worthless, misunderstood, and mischaracterized – all of the things I was so desperately trying to avoid causing you to feel. But here’s the thing: By not speaking up, I created a world in which I WAS those feelings, and I likely deserved them.
Because no one ever told me differently. When you’re told that 2+2=5 over and over and over again, you can’t help but wonder if you were wrong for thinking it should equal 4; that self-doubt is inevitable. I was an Indian adoptee raised by White parents, in a White school, in a White community, in a society that values Whiteness. I wasn’t around other people of color who would validate what I inherently believed, who felt what I felt, who experienced what I experienced on a daily basis. In place of relationships with people of color, my relationship with self-doubt grew stronger.
It wasn’t until adulthood, when I finally genuinely connected with other people of color, that my self-doubt faded. It’s still a voice in my head, but now it’s a whisper instead of a scream. I know that what I believe, what I feel, and what I experience is true when it comes to racism.
I know that it’s smart for me to trust my intuition even when I can’t articulate what feels racist in a particular interaction or atmosphere. I know that there’s a good reason I feel uncomfortable when people imply that I’m a “foreigner” by asking, “Where are you from?” but really mean, “What’s your ethnicity?” I know that describing my appearance as “exotic” is not actually a compliment. I know that I have a right to be offended when someone asks whether I speak English simply because my skin is brown. I know that I deserve to feel irritated when people assume I know everything about Indian culture, languages, religion, holidays, traditions, food, and customs. I know that I am not being too sensitive when you tell me “I’m not really Indian, I’m like a White person.” I know that I’m not taking things too seriously when you make a joke about the Kama Sutra. I know that when I speak up to tell you that something you said or did is hurtful and racist, you have no excuse not to listen and trust what I’m telling you as the absolute truth.
This is what it’s like when I stop hiding my hurt so that others can feel comfortable being hurtful, and when I stop sacrificing any part of myself to ensure that others can walk through the world comfortably ignorant about racism.