Essay: My race is not yours to decide

This is The Hatchet’s first personal essay – a new type of opinions content that explores students’ experiences and stories. Read a more detailed explanation from The Hatchet’s opinions editor here.

Meghana Aghi, a freshman majoring in international affairs, is a Hatchet opinions writer.

To my friends and family, I am a first-generation, diasporic Indian. To the man in the Gelman Starbucks who muttered “killer” under his breath as he passed by me, to the parent on my campus tour who was angry at me for being “an immigrant who unnecessarily took away a spot at GW” and to the girl whose nose I shouldn’t have impulsively dislocated for repeatedly calling my friends and me “terrorists,” I am something else.

It’s not my fault that you did not take the time to ask me about my race. Instead, you looked at me like I was racially ambiguous and decided that you would be responsible for creating my identity, taking away my chance to create one for myself.

On the surface, GW surely seems like a diverse and welcoming place. There are plenty of student groups that focus on racial and cultural awareness, and our politically engaged environment helps to fuel students’ passion. However, when you experience blatant racism on your own college campus, you begin to realize that things aren’t always the way they seem.

As an institution, the University is committed to creating a unique environment that includes all types of people. But it isn’t just up to administrators. “All members and units of the George Washington University community must advance the institution’s commitment to diversity and inclusion as a strategic priority,” according to the University’s statement on diversity and inclusion.

To some, GW may appear to be successful in its attempts to glamorize inclusion and celebrate the beauty of diversity. But there still is a significant portion of students, including myself, who experience the ugliness of racial profiling. In a school that prides itself on students from a spectrum of various racial, social and economic backgrounds, there is still so much more to be done.

This exclusion is more than just the glances of disgust and the stares that come from strangers as they play mental guessing games with themselves, trying to figure out where I am from. This exclusion is the idea that I am looked down upon because those people mislabel my identity as Middle Eastern.

Suddenly, there are hundreds of preconceived notions flooding their minds about what ethnicity I may be. I notice how they anxiously shuffle away as I walk closer to them, tighten their grip on their backpacks and otherwise unsuccessfully try to pretend that they’re OK with who they think I am.

Then, there are those who will breathe a sigh of relief when they realize that I am not from the Middle East, because any other ethnicity would be perfectly alright. In an instant, I am greeted with a friendly smile and perhaps even a small “hello” because for them, I am no longer a representation of Islam.

As a young girl of color who attended several international schools in Singapore and India, I had the privilege to learn about a plethora of identities. It was this diversity that carried through to how I behaved in the classroom and at home.

I didn’t idolize Barbie dolls like many of my friends. Instead, I would take hours to sift through countless pictures of women with dark hair and colored skin, the majority of whom happened to be Middle Eastern. Of course, some of the girls would question why I didn’t want the blonde hair and blue eyes, sometimes even going as far as to ask why I didn’t look like the dolls with which they played.

They are instances like these that make the 21st century appear to be just a marker of time, rather than a symbol of racial equality. As someone who is not Muslim, yet still faces the repercussions of sharing physical similarities, it pains me to think about what people who are easily recognized as Middle Eastern must experience.

As a result of the small percentage of people on campus who still engage in racial profiling, ethnic pride begins to disappear. Minorities are fed the idea that the “American dream” should be the pinnacle of achievement, and this notion becomes conflated with monolingual fluency in English. People are suddenly scared to celebrate their diversities and the world seems to become colorless.

But a college campus is supposed to be a place that is rich with diversity. We all should have the opportunity to explore our identities freely, rather than feel constant worry about how others perceive us. College isn’t supposed to be about conforming – it’s about embracing the strengths and imperfections that we all have.

To those who attempt to make me feel ashamed of myself or anyone else, know that even in the midst of all the stares and slurs, we will continue to stand tall and plant the roots of identity into the soil of diversity. We will patiently wait for the day where you will blossom – when you will understand that being different is not a punishment, but a rare beauty that will make you unforgettable.

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