Small Acts of Bias Common at Emory

Before I begin, I would like to give a general disclaimer. Although this article was called to the forefront by the incident regarding the degrading, racist comments towards the Indian-American population (in which members of the AEPi intramural flag football team allegedly told their opponents to “go back to India” among other racially offensive comments), the general message of it is concerning the level of racial tolerance both on campus and within society in general. I am, by no means, belittling what occurred on Monday evening, but I also feel the need to address the many acts of racism that take place on a daily basis in more private settings that do not get as much coverage and support as this recent incident did.

It is important to note that every religious, cultural and ethnic group gets its share of hatred; no one group is immune to the bitterness of the spoken word, and I believe I am speaking for the general student body when I say that each and every one of us knows what it feels like to be discriminated against or looked down upon.

Growing up as an Indian in the United States (as an Indian-American), I have encountered racism both directly and indirectly. The insults ranged from snarky comments about curry and religious traditions to full-on complaints questioning why Indian-Americans are so “white-washed.” Over the years, I learned to desensitize myself to the verbal trash that was being thrown at me. There were moments where people would ask me if I had a husband waiting for me overseas or why I never came to school with a “dot on my forehead.” Time after time, I found myself simply unable to find a way to respond to the stereotype-heavy, ignorant and downright inappropriate questions that were seemingly impossible to avoid. Still, regardless of how hard I tried, the impressions remained. At times, I found myself questioning my racial and ethnic identities, confused as to how I was expected to still “act” and “be” Indian by the general public when I grew up around American food, music, television, customs, friends and classmates.

This, unfortunately, isn’t a singular, unusual situation. I personally have experienced and witnessed hundreds of similar scenarios, with the targets of racism being of all races, religions and ethnicities. Discrimination is an ongoing problem whose occurrence, in a country as diverse as this one, is painfully common. Although it is a practice that is banned or looked down upon legally, public acts of racism are widespread and growing.

Racism and stereotyping — which, although viewed as less extreme than the former, can be equally hurtful — are and have been a commonality of human society for centuries. Sociologist Henry Tajfel defines our tendencies to group people together through a series of processes called “ingroup” and “outgroup” attributions (essentially looking at things based on groups of people we identify with and groups of people we do not identify with). As humans, it is natural for us to see things as “me vs. them,” to generally attempt to understand what we are and what we are not through other people. Still, there remains a fine line between what is natural (or considered natural) and what is socially acceptable — a line that common sense draws in regards to what should and should not be said.

The response by the Emory community in regards to Monday’s racism occurrence was dramatic and relatively surprising; racism is something many of us have become blind to, and the fact that one incident during an intermural sports game blew up into a full-scale rally against discrimination makes me proud to be an Emory student.

Nonetheless, I feel like these community-level realizations that we do not live in a fully-equal, hate-free world come too sporadically.

Yes, we will speak out when a certain racial group gets targeted publicly. But will we do the same when we hear hurtful comments on the elevator, over lunch or in the crowd during a heated soccer game? Or will we simply hope that the words we just listened to will go unheard by those whom they were intended to harm? Yes, most of us have an active, working moral compass. But how many of us will put it to use at risk of being the center of the confrontation?

We highlight racism as a stark problem one day and completely forget about it the next. There needs to be a larger movement to speak out against the smaller happenings, the uninformed stereotyping and the racist humor that appears to be such a commonality within our generation. Why does it take one person shouting in front of a crowd to spark an outrage when this same situation repeats hourly within smaller groups?

If we are living in a society in which “racism is in the past,” why does it still live amongst us?

We may have advanced significantly from where this nation was a 100, or even 50, years ago regarding discrimination, stereotyping or racism. But have we advanced enough? Is this where we want society to stand in how we tolerate each other and our differences? Is this the world we want to pass on to the generations beyond us, a world in which we turn the other cheek depending on whether or not we feel confident enough to speak out?

My argument for a new range of thinking stands within how I would answer these questions; we, as the American population, are midway within the journey towards complete racial equality that began somewhere around the end of the Civil War in 1865. Because it took almost 150 years to get this far, it would be unreasonable to call for immediate change; this will be a long process, a tedious series of efforts and social modifications to ultimately result in full and complete racial acceptance. We must learn to react to the smaller incidents — to speak against racism over that lunch at the DUC, that elevator ride at the library and that heated soccer game.

There is a great deal of room for change and for acceptance. As we progress into a world where there will no longer be a “majority” and a “minority” within this country, we must also adopt changes to our mindsets regarding what it means to be accepting and to be human, rather than specific racial or cultural groups. The general outcry against what happened on Monday is a large step in the direction for change as was the campus-wide support for AEPi’s anti-Semitism incident earlier this month. By standing together and continuing to speak out, we, as a generation, can make strides in resisting prejudice and fostering a color-blind society.

All in all, change is mandatory.

Because there has to be something wrong with a social system that otherwise quietly ignores daily occurrences of racism — a system that ends up leaving an Indian-American girl wondering how she could be seen as “white-washed” when she knows nothing more than the American culture she grew up with her entire life.

Sunidhi Ramesh is a College freshman from Johns Creek, Georgia.