Category Archives: Racism

Why Can’t Americans Learn Other Languages?

Around the world, its a well known fact that Americans are some of the worst language learners in the world. Is it nature? Is it nurture?

I have observed four things which I believe make us the way we are:

#1 Childhood and Education

Lets start by examining the typical American childhood. Our education system is focused on well-roundedness, which is a wonderful thing. However, there are some dangerous omissions in our education process which keep us blinded.

In K-12 education, World History is really more of a smattering of “what formed Western civilization.” We learn about the Greeks, the Romans, the World Wars, and then a few brief chapters on the Crusades, Buddha and vague paragraph or two on Chinese civilization.

Our education system encourage us to take a foreign language in school, but our overall culture espouses xenophobia. Language is best learned from people, not from books. If we demand that people of other cultures “assimilate” to American culture, we lose out. We have stopped giving them permission to be themselves and turn them into a prop of diversity, rather than a living, breathing person to learn from and exchange ideas with.

 

#2 Our Work Culture

We are career and success oriented, because we are addicted to productivity (not to mention dependent on our jobs for health insurance). This motivation makes us some of the most innovative people on the planet since we are always thinking of solutions to problems, but sometimes makes us poor empathizers and incapable of seeing gray in non-black and white situations.

Americans have a reputation to be communication bulldozers. If I say it louder, clearer and more directly, we expect the recipient to  understand us. The rest of the world doesn’t operate like this, and speaking is not how language is learned- listening is.

Learning a language is nuanced. And Americans generally suck at nuances.

We are amazing speech givers and “communicators” – as long as it is one sided. We are not known to be the best listeners in the world. In fact, we are kind of horrible at it.

 

#3 Media

We Americans are very good at thinking that we “fully understand” something if we have read an article about it on the internet or seen a documentary. We generally have a great deal of confidence and a low ability to read between the lines. If someone is taking too long to get to the point, we tune them out and make a mental note to Google it later. These kind of skills retard the ability to learn language.

We have boxes in which other cultures belong in our entertainment media. We have a dominant style of “white English” which is subtlety expected to be spoken and received on the news and in TV/movies. For the most part, other cultures are often portrayed in the media as being “cute” or “sidekicks” as the white Americans continue to be the heroes. I appreciate TV shows and movies which are crossing those barriers and breaking stereotypes and we need more of these in the future to set the stage for a truly multi-cultural media to take flight.

#4 Geography

Yes, its true we are a large country pretty much isolated from other language groups. This is the most common excuse for being a mostly monolingual country. The comparison is often drawn with Europe, where passing from country to country only takes a few hours. We use this as an excuse for why we can’t learn other languages. The size of our country is a factor, but not the only factor.

Geography isn’t a good enough excuse. We have people from every country in the world living inside our borders. Yet, we have an overall expectation for people to assimilate or self-isolate into their own ethnic communities.

Our neighbors to the South are our most likely influencers. We like their burritos, piñatas and Despacito, but the rest we leave for them to keep. A greater deal of cultural exchange needs to take place as we rub shoulders.

When we do attempt to learn Spanish, it is mostly to “use” it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say “oh yeah, you should learn Spanish so you can use it in your job.” Its not a bad idea, but we need to go beyond “using” a language to get our point across, and learn to listen, to understand what is behind the words.

We see Spanish as a language to digest, to use, disconnected from a culture to embody, respect and appreciate.

 

I can almost hear some of you saying- but it isn’t my fault, I’m trying! We are simply not nurtured to be world citizens and our culture makes it difficult. Thats true, but I have great hope for our current and future generations. As we modify our educational systems, work culture and media, we can become more versatile, interconnected and as a result, more truly multi-lingual.

In the near future, our country will not be made up of a white majority. We will be majority minority! How do we want our country to look? Do we want to allow the best of people to come out including their linguistic backgrounds? Or do we continue to force ourselves into a monolingual box?

It won’t happen unless we are intentional. Lets do better together, America!

 

 

 

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Rachel Dolezal is a Product of Extreme Individualism

America is individualism to the extreme. We let the “self” define everything. To us, societal and family ties mean very little compared to other parts of the world where you are defined by your group. In the West, we have this idea that we are the author of our own future, our identity and fate. Some of this is good, but when we take it too far.

There are some cultural trends in Western culture, which in my opinion, have swung in a negative direction:

  • Pursuit of the individual over community (family, group of origin)
  • Breaking from tradition, just for the sake of it

Family – We white people are particularly guilty of this. In general, in many white communities, we seek autonomy with our parents. Parents become friends rather than someone designed to be in authority over us. Respect for parents is considered to be antiquated,  only for the small-minded and religious zealots.

Tradition – We have decided that it is fashionable to break from tradition just for the sake of breaking from tradition. Many people would do anything else rather than to follow the religion of their parents.

How did our culture become such that each person becomes an individual molder of their own identity?

How do other cultures handle individualism?

Lets consider a place like India- where billions are born into a caste and die in that caste. Nothing can change that. In Indian culture, the young are free to pursue careers to a certain extent, but in many cases, the individual does not have power to make individual choices. Parents and elders dictate the values of the community and values of the individual. The community is more important than the individual. When these young people become the elders of the community, they instill the same values. The idea that you could change your family or racial identity is absurd.

Take a country like South Africa- where race was painfully defined and has carried out a societal structure. From this point of view, where racial identity is so well defined, it seems absurd that someone would “choose” a race for themselves. As if it was that simple.

Extreme Individualism

It is true that race is a “social construct.” But, social constructs are called social constructs because they are defined by society, not the individual. Just because one person have a different idea, doesn’t mean that we can topple a social construct with an individual idea.

This type of extreme individualism that we embody in the West, leads to an internalized belief that “I can be whatever I want.” Taken too far, we get Rachel Dolezal and the idea that one can pick their own race. If we look at the patterns of other societies, this idea of being “transracial” is totally corrupt.

Its like white privilege and Western individualism had a lovechild and Rachel Dolezal is what we get as a result.

The pendulum has swung too far in the direction of “individualism” in the West. I predict in future generations, we may come back to a closer balance between the individual and the community.

 

Colonialism and Self Respect in the 21st Century 

I’ve noticed a peculiar trend. Behind a screen of nationalism, there are two polarized views that the outside world holds about India – simultaneous idolization and distain of Indian culture. Where does this come from?

There is no question that India is a land which pulls the extreme emotions out of nationals and visitors alike, but is there something deeper which affects the perception of the outside world?

Who are the voices who have defined what “India” is? Who are the ones narrating India’s history?macaulay_Colonialist

Thomas Babington Macaulay was one of history’s more unsavory characters and is credited for “divid[ing] the world into civilised nations and barbarism, with Britain representing the high point of civilisation.”

If that doesn’t make your skin crawl, I don’t know what does.

Another blurb from Wikipedia states:

In his Minute on Indian Education of February 1835, he asserted, “It is, I believe, no exaggeration to say that all the historical information which has been collected from all the books written in the Sanskrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgement used at preparatory schools in England”.

Here is the thing, Macaulay never even learned Sanskrit, but relied on English translations of the works to for his analysis. In addition, the most influential colonial historian, James Mill never learned any Indian language and never visited India! He took Macaulay’s false ideas further by publicizing them across the Western world. He was motivated to provoke coercion and dominance so that the British could pillage and rule. These colonialists wanted the intellectual wealth of India for themselves. Macaulay and Mill were people who made conclusions based on assumptions rather than actual knowledge to protect their power.

There has been a false narrative spread, and it is high time to clear it up. Indian Flag Face

Amartya Sen’s “The Argumentative Indian” goes into more detail on how the self-confidence of Indians has been tarnished by these false historical reports.  These views have deeply imbedded into the Western understanding of India, and Indians’ understanding of themselves. Brushing off India’s contributions to merely the spiritual realms is short sighted.

Let’s unravel it a bit.

Sanskritic writings have often been brushed off as simply useful for spiritual purposes.  The West has a perception that yoga and ayurveda are the only relevant contributions of ancient Indian sciences to the world, but this is also shortsighted.

What about India’s ancient contributions in math and science? Aryabhata‘s pioneering astronomical calculations, Pingala’s use of Binary Code and Zero and Chess are just a few. Anyone who has heard Indian classical music recognizes the music as a mathematical wonder to your ears. Architectural concepts pioneered in the Hindu temples of South India and Vedic city planning were foundations that have been used throughout history. The oldest discovered university in the world is in Bihar, India. Oh yeah, and ever heard of the Taj Mahal?

This historical fallacies have been imbedded deep into the Western view of India and certainly the Indian psyche as well. New voices need to rise up and share the beauty and deep history of the subcontinent. The history of India needs to be retold to the world.

Being White in India – Privilege and Power

I recently had an opportunity to share my story of racial identity. This is a much more personal blog than I usually write, so please respect my story in your comments.

Growing up, I didn’t realize white people in America had a “culture” as I was living in a fairly homogenous community. As a young child, even though I had some friends who were not white, it took me a move all the way across the world to crack open my worldview. In my early 20s, living in India, I was given the opportunity to be a minority for the first time in my life. Multiple layers of being different – from the way I looked, to the fact that I had not yet learned the local language, to the fact that I behaved differently from others around me, gave me the opportunity to stand outside of my worldview and look at it from an alternative perspective.

Aside from the stares, getting taken advantage of financially, and being asked all kinds of strange/invasive questions about my life, I realized there was something else peculiar about being white in India.

I saw what it was like to be in a position of power without having to work for it. 

julia-roberts in saree

Being a white woman gave me a status that I didn’t earn. Whether it is the history of British colonization in India or the social power of Hollywood, white equates power, wealth and beauty in the Subcontinent (none of which I was really considered to have a whole lot of in my own country.) This presented me with an internal dilemma. I didn’t feel like I identified with this stereotype of white woman “power, beauty and class,” but I wasn’t Indian either.

In Indian culture, it is often a compliment to an outsider when they are told “You are so Indian.” or “You are becoming Indian.” I also used to find this a great compliment as I was working hard to learn the Hindi language, and be able to adapt to live in India without too much unnecessary struggle. Now I find it unsettling when someone says “You are so Indian.” Because the fact of the matter is, I’m not. 

Playing skimpy Indian dress up? Or appreciating the culture?

In recent events, a white woman was sexually harassed in Mumbai and took her abuser down when her social media post went viral. News outlets ran the story like wildfire, but many Indian women were left feeling outed. “How come when we Indian woman try to do this, no one listens. One white lady posts about her harassment, and the internet lights up.”

There is a painful truth of white privilege in this story.

I think about the Indian women I know. Many who have had to overcome family expectations to delay marriage and get an education, women who struggle against stereotypes of the subservient daughter-in-law, women who bridge two worlds- fulfill family obligations and succeed in the workforce. I haven’t participated in these struggles, but still reap the benefits.

When the Rachel Dolezal scandal went down, I had an epiphany. I can actually say that some part of me related to Rachel Dolezal and her wrestle with the pain of being a white person when she so badly wanted to disconnect herself from the story of white privilege. However by pretending she was something she was not, Dolezal disrespected not only black people across our country, but herself.

When I face someone who flippantly says “You’re so Indian” I know they may actually mean “Wow, you’ve adapted very well to Indian culture,” but the comment scrapes at the root of white privilege. Making perfect rotis, speaking Hindi, wearing a saree, or even marrying an Indian – does NOT make a person Indian. One can appreciate all things Indian, while still maintaining their own identity. 

Respect for Indian people and my own family, keeps me from trying to imitate something that I am not. My family raised me with values that I deeply appreciate. I will never forget the rugged individualism and creativity that they allowed me to have – things which make me very American deep down inside. I can never forget that when I put on a saree or attend a Diwali celebration. An American is who I am, and yet I can love Indian culture and appreciate the deep traditions, history and ancient cultural practices without trying to paint on a facade of “being Indian” to be accepted.

In fact, I have so much reverence for India, that I would never flippantly claim to be Indian when I have not shared in the struggles of what that truly means.

Jai Hind! 

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Thank you to my family for accepting me and walking with me on this journey of racial and cultural identity. Thank you to my Indian friends and family who accept me for who I am and yet generously invite me to experience their culture alongside them. 

For more on my thoughts on racial identity see Why I’m Ok Being White.

An Easier Route – Black Americans Paved the Way for South Asian Immigrants

Gandhiji, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. are the three most well known social reformers and freedom fighters of the last century. Each of these men represented an oppressed people whose land and/or livelihood was occupied or stolen by white people. Each of these leaders fought against the unjust nature of white dominance. During Black History month, I’ve been reflecting on the contributions of those such as Dr. King, and the ripple effects which the civil rights movement caused for other Americans of color.

gandhi-king-mandiba

Even though the United States has had South Asian immigrants for at least 100 years, Indians in America today have a complex way  of fitting into the race and cultural wars in America. With so many Indians in the media who own their cultural heritage, including Preet BhararaNina Davuluri, Mindy Kaling, Indra Nooyi, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Fareed Zakaria, Ravi Zacharias, and many more, there are still some who publicly chose to shy away from their Indian-American identity.

Governor Bobby Jindal is a prime example of a confused Indian-American.  In a recent statement, he encouraged NRIs (non-resident Indians) not distinguish themselves according to their ethnic background, but to call themselves “Americans” rather than Indian-Americans. He thinks somehow distinguishing and appreciating the cultures we came from will lead to discord among people groups, rather than fostering an appreciation.

The rhetoric of “America as a melting pot” is outdated and inaccurate. America should be described as a chunky stew where each bite gives you a variety of tastes, as individuals own their unique identities. Jindal’s one-size-fits-all philosophy is very 1970s where we were taught not to see color, but just hold hands and sing kumbaya while pretending we have all been given the same social power.  So called “colorblindness” as we attempt to form into one singular identity, has clearly not worked.

Instead of a adopting a one-size-fits-all identity, we should be inspired to own each of our ethnic identities and embrace the freedom to be who we are. This kind of freedom has only been made possible by respectable people like Dr. King, and all those who fought, and continue to fight for equality in our country.

The road of immigration to the US has been built on the civil rights movement. Not only the rights of black Americans were fought for, but an opening for many more people of color to gain access to the American dream was also created.