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Op-Ed: Discovering My Racial Identity in the "Y'all" State

Updated: Jun 3, 2019

Uma Bhat explores how her identity as a Kashmiri-American living in North Carolina helped her understand her parent's heritage, and what it means to be a personal of color living in a diaspora.





“I spy with my little eye, something red, white and blue!”

Easy.


I pointed confidently at the American flag, fluttering ten feet away from the swings that my friend Tristan and I were sitting on. I had worshipped it for as long as I could remember, from the time I watched my mom pledge allegiance to her new home country, to the present morning in class, when just three hours earlier I had reaffirmed my faith in our democracy. American -- it was my identity, the entity I was devoted to wholeheartedly without question.


“Wrong!” My friend Tristan sang, her auburn pigtails cavorting as she spun around, the swing's chains twisting together with an ominous screech. “It’s that one!”


The lush foliage made it difficult to see what Tristan’s finger was pointing at. Then, my stomach plummeted with the speed of a downhill ride on The Griffyn. I saw it clearly: a fluttering sheet of fabric hanging from a small mobile home’s backyard porch. Its unmistakable “X” confirmed my fears -- there it was, hanging in all its vitriolic glory, The Confederate Flag.


A chill ran down my spine. I should have been used to it--our city, Raleigh, was the capital of one of the more famous swing states in history. Already, I was struggling to get used to the lack of diversity after moving to the American South, compared to my beloved home in Northern Virginia. Still, the symbolic image of an unwelcoming society still had the same harrowing affect on me as the time I had learned about the Civil War in the third grade.


Centuries before my family had arrived in America, I knew that the Civil War hadn’t necessarily affected my race directly. But just like music faces no barriers across borders, racism has no preferred skin type. Especially as an Indian-American in North Carolina, where bigotry runs rampant, it was hard to avoid distant stares and uncomfortably ignorant statements. Even though I had been born in the United States, as someone who had grown accustomed to the progressive values of the DMV area, I had never faced any difficulties stemming from my culture or the color of my skin. But when I started school in the Tar Heel state, my teacher pointed at me and a friend -- “Redskin Indian, like Uma and Yash,” she called us. I wasn’t even Native American--not to mention the obvious and awful fact that Redskin is a slur--but the rest of the year was filled with cruel taunts to “go play in the dirt, Pocahontas” and Redskin chants.





I remember coming back from India, only for a boy I played football with comment, “India? I would never want to go there, it’s disgusting.” I chose to bite my tongue. Like most Asian parents, my mom and dad had told me to pick my fights carefully. Still, the anger boiled in me. For the rest of the day, I fantasized about pulling him by his freckled white ears back to his parents and screaming about his “disgusting” attitude.


But the hardest part of moving to North Carolina was my fears that I didn't belong. In Virginia, my dad’s Indian college friends and their kids were my constant company. We went camping together at Virginia beach, huddling in a tent after long summer days and laughing over scary stories. We spent weekends biking with together, and I knew that I had a community. But now, in North Carolina, even among the Indian community, I felt alien and strange. My Kashmiri heritage instantly meant that I was an outlier. My parents had fled Jammu & Kashmir in the 1990s, when clashing Indian and Pakistani armies resulted in large-scale violence.


Although my grandparents settled in Delhi, and my cousins made a new home for themselves in Mumbai, I wasn’t ethnically linked to either of the states. Kashmiri expats like my family moved to America, where my fairer complexion and characteristics meant I was too “white” for other South Asian social groups, and too “brown” for Caucasian ones. Because of my unique cocktail blend of features, it was never unusual for me to be mistaken for a variety of other ethnicities; waiters at Mexican restaurants always spoke to me in Spanish, chefs always mistook me as Iranian while picking up steaming hot kebabs at the local Mediterranean food joint, and white girls asked me where I had my tan done. Whether for better or for worse, I was a free floater without a default friend group, lost in a Southern town that asked me what tribe I was part of when I spoke about my race.


Luckily, North Carolina is consistently growing more diverse every year. But even now, though I have multiple choices of backgrounds to choose from when it comes to forming friendships, I will always remember being pegged for a multitude of identities, and choose the people who I value for their passions, knowledge, and personality, rather than their external attributes.