By Malika Gottfried
When I started kindergarten at my first public school, I had no concept of race or ethnicity. I had no idea that I was different than everybody around me. One day, when I was eating lunch with my new friends in the cafeteria, an older girl came up to our group and asked if I spoke English. She asked me where I was from, and when I said the name of our town, she said, “no, like where are you from from?” Every day, I would walk into a white-majority classroom, and I didn’t think anything of it. It was normal—just the way that things were, and that was that.
In third grade, around MLK Day, we were talking about the history of racism and inequality in the US. During break, someone came up to me and told me that they wished our countries were still segregated so they wouldn’t have to see people like me in their class. Their words shocked me, and I wish I had been strong enough to say something, but what could a 7 or 8 year old do?
Later that year, while we were sitting in the computer lab doing a school survey for the state, I was faced with a list of races to choose from. “White, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, Black and Pacific Islander. What do you identify as? Check one box.” Well, I was half white, but I couldn’t just check that box. Where were the other options? I raised my hand to ask for help, and someone came over to me. I told her that my race wasn’t listed. I told her I was half white, half Indian. She told me to check off Native American (because obviously by saying Indian I couldn’t have meant that I’m from the country India). Again, in fourth grade, I was asked, “what are you?” Not meaning, “who are you?”, but “what are you made of?” When I responded with, “I’m half white and half Indian,” I was again followed with the question, “Oh, what tribe?”
In fifth grade, we were doing an art project when someone asked me to pass them the crayon next to me. “Which one?” I asked. “The skin colored one,” they responded. It was a light, cream colored crayon that looked nothing like my skin color but everything like theirs. Every time somebody would ask for the ‘skin colored crayon’ I would want to disappear, hoping that no one would say anything. Because for some reason, I was embarrassed. I was embarrassed to look different. To be pointed out.
A few years ago when I had my first driving lesson for Driver’s Ed, I found myself in yet another awkward, uncomfortable situation. I was sitting in the back seat of the car while my partner was at the wheel. We were talking about school, and I mentioned that I was taking a Spanish class. Her opinion was that it was unnecessary to speak any language other than English. To my dismay, she said that, ‘if people are in our country, they should just learn to speak English so we don’t have to learn their language’. I quickly shifted the conversation away, not sure how to stand up to this authority figure who was deciding the fate of my driving career. A little while later, out of the blue, she asked me about my race. When I said I was Indian, she asked, “Are you sure? You don’t look Indian.” I didn’t know how to respond to that one either.
Now, all of those conversations that I just shared are horrible and painful to remember, but I share them because people still don’t seem to understand the impact. When those around us act like microaggressions aren’t a big deal, they are actively engaging in white supremacy culture. When people don’t believe us when we share our stories, or when they dismiss them as uneducated comments, it stings. Microaggressions build up, and no matter how small they are, they still hurt so much. If just one person had stuck up for me in any of those situations or the hundreds of more situations that I’ve experienced and that BIPOC communities face every day, I would have been so grateful and I wouldn’t have felt so alone.
If you truly want to be an ally, it is crucial that you are also an ally off the screen. It’s easy to stick up for people and call others out when you’re in the comfort of your own home or own space, as we’ve seen over the past few months, but it is a billion times harder to do it when you are face to face with someone. I urge you to get a little uncomfortable, because your discomfort is so small compared to what Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color feel in their everyday lives.
Racism is real and difficult, but as we face these uncomfortable moments, we create spaces to stand up, educate, and learn from each other.