(HPI notes: Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed out loud of an end to racism. To mark the anniversary of his speech, CNN invited readers to share their personal experiences of "everyday racism," the ways prejudice still creeps into American life. This is one of several essays in a series).
UNITED STATES, August 2013 (CNN): When Sonia Chakrabarty was in the 11th grade, a boy she had a crush on told her she would be really pretty if she were white. Chakrabarty was a socially awkward girl of Indian heritage, the daughter of two doctors, living in rural Tennessee. She didn't take offense to the reference about her brown skin. She concluded that she would be better if she were something else. "I took everything personally," said Sonia. "If I don't belong here, there must be something I'm doing wrong. I never thought it was the other person's fault and not my own."
People made casual comments, jokes and unintentionally insensitive remarks all the time. They would refuse to pronounce her last name, complaining about how foreign it was. She was once called "a lazy (N-word)" by a woman in a store who wanted her to move out of the way. And in her 10th grade AP European history class, a classmate leaned over and teasingly said something like, "Hey Sonia, how does it feel to be a terrorist? You're from Iraq, right?"
That's the way it was growing up looking different from most of her classmates and neighbors. She just didn't quite fit in "the way I was supposed to." But Chakrabarty never talked to her parents or classmates about how she felt. She felt if she could act differently, she "could fix the problem."
She stubbornly refused to learn her parents' regional language, Oriya, and she never spoke or understood Hindi well. After some of her Southern Baptist friends told her they worried she was going to hell because she wasn't Christian, she never again mentioned her Hinduism (and became disillusioned with religion altogether).
By the time she left rural Tennessee for college in Chicago, "I had spent so long trying to be white that I didn't know how to be myself anymore," she wrote in an essay on CNN iReport. "It's embarrassing, really. All I learned from my experiences with racism was how to be as unobtrusive as possible."
"One of the worst consequences of the experiences I had was that I grew up almost ashamed of my Indian culture, and then coming to college, I had spent so long pushing it away and avoiding it. ... All these Indian people I met embraced their culture. Now I feel like I missed out on years being a part of it. It seems awkward now to try to immerse myself in it." Chakrabarty will turn 20 soon and is finally embracing her heritage. She is taking Hindi this fall and trying to give up her hang-ups about not being "Indian enough."