Still, in my 19 years, I have never felt remotely isolated due to my ethnicity until coming to American University (located in Washington D.C.) five months ago.
I come from an overwhelmingly diverse part of New Jersey. South Asians populate the area so intensely that our neighboring town, West Windsor, is affectionately referred to as “West Windia.” I grew up with friends who looked like me, and who I would see at family parties, cultural events and when my mom dragged me to go shopping with her at the Indian store. I never really saw myself as brown; my life was so immersed in that identity that I didn’t get a chance to step away from it and see myself for who I was.
Coming to AU was a jarring experience in that respect. My mom always teased me, saying, “as soon as you go to college, you’re gonna wish you had my home-cooked food!”
Honestly, the week I got to AU I realized how right she was (although that might say more about AU Dining than my culture shock). My life went from being surrounded by brown people to struggling to find one person who knew what gulab jamun was.
Growing up where I did, I never understood why people always talked about a divide between white people and everyone else. All my white friends had mostly Asian friends, and we essentially adopted them into our cultures—there was never any reason to feel like they were different.
Now, sitting in a 50-person class where I’m the only brown person and interacting with white people who ask me if I’m “ethnic” to avoid insulting me by assuming my background, it’s clear there is a very real divide. This divide is made even clearer when they assume my whole life story, based entirely on the fact of my ethnicity.
People put minorities in one group, not realizing we all have different experiences that shape our lives. People here treat me like I’ve been through so much just because my parents were born in India. The stereotypical “minority experience in America” doesn’t apply to me and doesn’t apply to lots of people. Yes, we’re diverse, but our diversity doesn’t necessarily unite us and it shouldn’t be expected to.
My ethnicity isn’t my life: it’s a facet of my identity, not the entirety of it. Grouping minorities into one category is more insulting than incorrectly assuming I’m from Pakistan, rather than India. We should see minority individuals for who they are: individuals.
— Riya Kohli
Kohli is a resident of Plainsboro and a graduate of High School North. She is currently a freshman in the AU School of Public Affairs and a columnist for The Eagle. The above article from The Eagle is reprinted with Kohli’s permission.