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Ann Arbor racism: alive and well

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Read below for Anuja’s November 2013 column in the Ann. The Ann is the informative, critical, and inspiring magazine distributed monthly in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and annarbor.com.  

 

 

“You’re darker than I am so you are my slave,” the taller boy, “Eric,” barked at my nimble 7-year-old after shoving him earthside at an after-school sports practice at the start of the school year.

 
This declaration was the culmination of the boy’s chastising. It started the week before with him cutting in front of my little guy in lunch line and successfully pushing him out of place in practice so that each time my son hung his head and headed to the back of all the boys.

 
“But Mama,” my little guy contemplated as he confessed to me about the “color slave” incident that he was too embarrassed to bring up to the coach, “why did Eric say I was his slave but he played with Joe? Joe is darker than me!”

 
I took a deep breath and assuaged my son that what Eric said and did was completely unacceptable regardless of pigment.

 
Had Eric seen or heard this behavior and categorization at home and unfortunately thought it was OK? I idealistically hoped Eric had simply learned bits about our harrowed history and not contextualized past pitfalls with current culture and laws. Several conversations later – coach, teacher, school principal, Eric’s mom – I felt assured that the principal and Eric’s family were equally concerned and working together to teach him the truth before archaic assumptions were set in stone. A few weeks later, Eric and my son seem to have a collegial acquaintance and, thankfully, there have not been repeat occurrences.

 
When my son came home a couple of weeks ago and told me about another similar exchange at school, my sappy mommy smile shriveled. This time another 7-year-old, “Carter,” told my guy he wanted to be friends with him. “Zack,” a smaller kid in the same grade, heard this and in front of my son told Carter, “You shouldn’t be friends with him, he’s black.” Upset but bolstered by each other’s presence, Carter and my son promptly paraded to the teacher and proclaimed what happened instead of holding it in. Zack denied he said anything but the teacher, when he called me that evening to express concern, told me he believed Carter and my son’s concurring complaints.

 

I wonder what these incidents mean about my son, the school and society. Are they worth being upset about or just kids being kids? Whether we label these incidents as bullying, racism, ignorance or insignificant (what’s really the difference – each of these terms to me reflects not seeing ourselves while at the same time seeing our biggest fears of ourselves in others) they are creating a slowly simmering shock and shudder within me and the few friends I shared them with.

 

The fact that this is happening in Ann Arbor, which many consider a utopic oasis in America, unbroken from bias, feels naively strange. If this happened twice already in this school year, we wonder how many more kinders are playground perpetrators or victims of slurs and shoves in districts that do not have Ann Arbor’s egalitarian reputation.

 

I know (well, really hope and pray and will do everything in my power to make sure) that my son will be OK in the long run. There are many lessons for him, including how he can defend himself if someone is physically violent or speaks such scathing words to him again. I hope he also remembers how it felt to have a human being treat him this way and to always show compassion for other children, regardless of pigment or size.

 

 

Yes, of course I will always worry for my son’s safety and self-security.  But I worry more about the kids no one has the energy to snuggle and support, whether they were bullied or the bully.  I anguish about the 7-year-olds whose juvenile ideas may permanently jade if left unchecked by schools, families and communities.

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Facing Future Challenges…Together

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Recently, I had the honor of emceeing the Second Annual Leadership Summit for the Asian Indian Women’s Association (AIWA) of Michigan.  After being a keynote speaker for the leadership summit in 2012, I happily joined these strong, inspiring and extremely positive thinking women from India, America and around the world to discuss something that hits home for everyone at some point in time.  These leading ladies organized a fantastic day where legislators, leaders from the public and private sectors and citizens discussed “Facing Future Challenges…Together”.  As many first generation Indian-Americans are aging, we are faced as a community with how to take action.  While not everyone is experiencing the related challenges right now, at some point we will all have loved ones who are growing old, as will we ourselves of course.  With the help of AIWA everyone at that event is now a little more prepared.  These issues affect everyone across the spectrum, regardless of ethnicity. For immigrant populations, the issues can be more challenging however, as the needs of the population – from food to friendship to family expectations – may differ.

 

One of the many topics covered at the summit hit home relating to Indian culture.  Traditionally most people of Indian descent prefer to live with family as they grow older, but it is important to know all of the options.  Will parents go into nursing homes, have health care aides visit them if they live in home, or will someone from the family become a part or full-time caregiver?  These questions may make us uneasy but I feel that preparation is key in all of life’s hard times.

 

Again, I’m very pleased with the summit again this year and I hope that it has drawn attention to the needs of our aging population.  In the meantime I wish you all the opportunity to swirl through life with as much health and happiness as possible!