When you are discriminated against because of how you look, where you are from and your culture, it stays with you
Kshama Alur has lived all over the world and is now based in Singapore with her multiracial family. She is Indian, her husband is South African and they are raising their four-year-old son to be race-conscious and proud of who he is. Kshama has suffered the gut-punch of being discriminated against because of her race. Here is what she has learnt and how she decided to use her experiences of racial discrimination to teach her son about the beauty in our differences and help others start the conversation on diversity.
My heart sank as the words hurled toward me like a rock. “Let’s go sit over there.…” said the lady, dragging her daughter hurriedly to some seats on the other side of the train. It might not seem like much, except that I had just sat down next to them on a cold and rainy morning in London, extremely excited about my first day of the new job that I had moved there for. I promptly started checking myself… Was there something funny on me? Was I smelling of something? Nope. I was not. There was nothing wrong with me at all – it was just their perception of me.
The first time you’re discriminated against will always stay with you.
Read More: Two Mamas Share Their Experience with Racism
I was raised in India, in a fairly homogenous environment. I wasn’t exposed to too many other cultures or “different looking” people. We had the occasional aunt or uncle who married outside the community or lived abroad and married someone from another country. We always welcomed them with warmth and respect. During my university years, I joined the world’s largest global youth organization, AIESEC, and facilitated international experiences of young people from over 50 countries. That was a real window into different cultures for me. I made some wonderful connections and friends for life. I travelled to over 80 countries and went on to live and work in The Netherlands, UK, South Africa and now Singapore. During this time, of course, I faced a certain amount of discrimination.
When I tried to rent a flat… “The landlord says we can’t rent this flat to you because the house will smell of Indian food”.
When I was denied a promised promotion ….“The real reason you aren’t getting this much-deserved promotion is because there is an Indian already on the team”.
When we moved into a new neighbourhood ….“This neighbourhood is not for people like you, go back to where you’re from”.
Some of these stories are from many moons ago, and some from as recently as a year ago. But here is the thing. Every city in the world is getting more global and more diverse. There are people of all cultural backgrounds mingling with each other. This is the most diverse our world has ever been.
Every time I feel the anger surge when something like this happens, I take a breath and remind myself that this isn’t about me. It is a lack of exposure and world view from the other person. But instead of pushing it under the carpet or saying “It’s ok, this happens to everyone”… I feel we need to talk about it, and have conversations not just with adults, but also with children. We need to foster an open-minded, empathetic and kind environment.
I now live in Singapore with my South African husband, and 4-year-old son, Neil. My son came to me a few months ago and said “Mama, why do I look different from you?” He looks a little more like his dad and has a fairer skin tone compared to me. It turned out that someone in school asked him this question. He was also asked, “You aren’t from here, right? When are you going back home?”
Read More: Parent Resources on How To Talk to Your Kids About Racism
For little Neil, Singapore is home, so the question confused him. It is home for us too. This is where we have chosen to live, it is where we want our family to grow. Although there are some undercurrents of racial discrimination in every major melting pot in the world, we feel safe and happy here. I have not known a global city that celebrates as many cultural festivals with equal passion, be it Lunar New Year, Deepavali, Christmas, Eid, Vesak Day or other cultural celebrations. There is a strong encouragement of racial harmony and discouragement of marginalization. The rest is up to us.
So how am I teaching my son about acceptance of others and how to handle discrimination?
Exposure to diversity is key when raising a cross-cultural child in an international environment. We make a conscious effort to diversify our playroom. We have books and games representing different races, faiths, physical features, food types – you name it. This automatically sparks conversations at bedtime and playtime about differences and similarities which gives us a chance to talk about how our family or Neil himself, is different. We also speak to him about his cultural background – where Mama is from, where Dada is from and why we made Singapore our home. Neil actually says with great delight and pride – “I am half Indian, half Singaporean, half South African”. As you can see he has yet to learn fractions!
Neil’s friend circle spans many different countries, giving him a chance to appreciate varied habits and traditions. The other day we had a Singaporean friend of his over and at dinner time, Neil spontaneously started teaching him to eat Indian food with his hands. Although hesitant at first, his friend quickly adapted to it and they had so much fun! It’s so important to share your culture because that’s how other kids learn to be inclusive. There are two things we keep in mind when raising Neil. First is to be confident of who he is, in every aspect. Second is to be kind to everyone.
Differences are meant to be celebrated, we tell him. That’s what makes you, you! Some families and people look different from each other but that’s what makes the world beautiful.
These are just a few of the experiences and conversations that inspired me to quit my corporate job and start my company, indigrowkids where we create multicultural books, games and resources to help parents, educators and kids navigate an increasingly global world from a young age.