Neil Tambe

I'm a Detroiter who happens to enjoy writing, national parks, orange juice, the performing arts, and fanciful socks. More than anything though, I aspire to be a good husband, father, and citizen.

My Race, In My America

Before this post, a statement:I've grappled with my racial identity, especially because I'm the first person from either side of my family to be born outside of India, my whole life. I'd like to share some of that reflection.

I'm fully aware that this is somewhat narcissistic and that race is a caustic subject. With that in mind, I'd like to qualify this post by saying that I will try to avoid making accusatory statements or speaking in platitudes about race in America. This post is about my experience. I know that my experience is but one of the many entirely unique perspectives on race.

I'm also qualifying this post because I'm tense about backlash. After all, I am recruiting for internships and future employers or business partners may not take too kindly to someone who is so "controversial." Perhaps though, that's exactly why I am writing this...because I feel like I have enough built up rapport to be able to withstand any social consequences which may arise. Not everyone has that luxury. I'm often naive about how my ideas will be received, I hope this isn't one of those times.

What all that said, if you have a thoughtful comment please do post it. I'd love to hear criticism of my perspective, for one. But also, I feel like if there are thoughtful comments it will do two things. First, it will demonstrate - in a small way - that it's possible, in America, to have nuanced, civil discourse about sensitive subjects. Second, it legitimizes this blog post, which will make me feel less vulnerable to social consequences. I admit that the second reason is selfish.

-Neil

And now the post.

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"My Race"

There is no greater identity that has shaped my life than that of my "race." I use quotation marks here to make a point - that race is a social construct. Unfortunately though, it's a construct that feels real, daily. First, a bit about my racial identity.

I categorize myself as an Indian-American. I was born in the late eighties and I was the first person on either side of my family to be born outside of India. My parents, who I love dearly, are immigrants from Madhya Pradesh, a state in the heart of the country. Almost my entire family still resides there. I call my cousins brothers and sisters and most people think this is peculiar at first listen.

Race has colored my life in many ways, but it all comes down to one notion: I don't feel like I belong anywhere. I like hip-hop, but I was brought up speaking Hindi. I am decently good at math but I deferred a career in engineering or medicine. The values of my family make me relate more to practicing Christians than to Bollywood, even though I haven't been baptized and I don't take communion at Catholic Mass. I could continue with more examples, but the point is I'm always somewhat on the outside of a demographic group. I don't quite fit in, for one reason or another. There is never a time where I can comfortably fade into the background of a social setting. There's always something about me that sticks out, and it's often my race.

"My America"

Before I was born, there were lots of efforts to prevent institutional racism in America. Suffrage was greatly expanded. The poll tax was eliminated. The Civil Rights Act was passed. Diversity was written into Supreme Court jurisprudence as a compelling state interest in higher education. The list goes on.

But I still have the lingering feeling that America is too quickly trying to forget about it's race-riddled past. Changing policies is one thing, but changing hearts and minds is entirely another. On this point, here are a few examples illustrating when I've felt tremendously like a minority.

I grew up in Rochester, MI. It's a good town with generally good people. I went to good schools and lived a good life, I won't contest that. After I went to college though, I started noticing things when I returned to Rochester over Christmas vacations. People looked at me differently in public places than they did in Ann Arbor and seemed to be more guarded around me than they were my white friends. Once a woman with a baby brushed by me rudely as I held a door for her at a Thai restaurant. As her husband walked by, he whispered to me, "I'm sorry."

It was the first time I realized the gravity of what being a minority in America was. Yes, I suppose that woman could have been rude to me for any number of reasons and that her husband could have apologized for any number of other reasons. But for my white friends who are currently perplexed at my propensity to "play the race card," know that you begin to develop a "race radar" when you're a minority. You start to be able to decipher when people are treating you differently because of your race and when they aren't. I can't explain it. It's just an intuition that develops over time.

To underscore this point, I can't remember the number of times that people have talked to me like I don't understand English or change their tone of voice when I'm ordering a meal, relative to when my white dinner partners are. It often disgusts me how cashiers behave toward my father - who has a thick accent, still, but is one of the most educated people I know. My mother, who owns a small retail shipping business, has been slandered by angry customers who call her a foreigner and say that she "doesn't belong in this country."

To be fair, some of my mothers customers have defended her in the face of bigotry, and I don't have enough love in my heart to give to those folks. But based on my experiences, it's laughable to think that America is a "post-racial" society.

One final story, and a conclusion

The most recent instance of really feeling my race was at at a previous job. As a bit of context, know that Asian cultures are often more deferential to authority figures, like supervisors. American companies expect more upward management and expect that employees are more outward with their opinions and more aggressive about managing their careers.

I received an invitation to a webinar for Asian employees. It was a straight-talk panel in which more senior Asian managers would talk about how they managed their careers. The description of the webinar indicated that the panel would be giving tips on how Asian employees could learn to speak up and adapt to the culture of the company. This was fine advice, but to me it sent the signal that there was something wrong with me and that I had to change something about my nature/demeanor to be more successful at the company. What I've never seen in the corporate setting is a webinar for white managers to give them insights on how to better adapt their styles to get more out of Asian employees. The responsibility to fit in lies with the minority.

The company, is actually quite progressive with regard to diversity and inclusion, and this instance is only a subtlety. But it's powerful one. It's examples like this - that pervaded my experience growing up in America - that signal to me that there's something wrong with me as a minority. That's it's my responsibility to assimilate. That I have to choose between being who I am and having a healthy and prosperous life. That there are bounds on the type of person I'm allowed to be.

This is the most insidious aspect of race, because it subversively shapes the narrative you can create for your own life. Yes, it's not overt and it's not institutional but this shackle is just as powerful. It's a like a poll tax on your own psyche. And, yes, all the victories of the 20th century were instrumental for making America more equal. But the way I see it, and the way I feel personally is that I'm living with an unshakable feeling that there's something wrong with me because I'm not white. I feel like I'll never be able to be part of the club, because of the implicit attitudes of the country we live in.

Then I realize how lucky I am because of the family I was born into. And then I realize how hard it must be for minority citizens who didn't have as much of a head start as I did. It's a peculiar confluence of feelings.

Finally, let's assume for a second that we've made every institutional change that we need to make to ensure a fair and equal society. My gut tells me this isn't true, but let's assume it. Under this assumption then, I propose we set our sights on the next challenge of changing narratives about race, instead of claiming that race isn't really an issue in America anymore.

How might we ensure that every person in America doesn't feel like the possibilities of their own life aren't constrained by who they were born as? How can we help people change the narratives they create for themselves, for the better?