August 31,2023
By Geetanjali Sharma
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Sometimes, I wish I knew less and cared less. I wish I could have the blissful ignorance of hearing something racially insensitive and finding it funny, or never thinking about it again.
My problem is that I remember too much. I hold onto all of it. I don’t know how or where to put it down.

I’ve spent a lot of my 20’s unlearning hate towards myself, my culture and my skin colour. Growing up in Canberra, Australia often meant I was the butt of jokes. Kids would put on thick Indian accents, make fun of my mother wearing a salwar-kameez when she dropped me off to school, or ask me if I was Apu’s wife from the Simpsons. Now, as a 26-year-old, I can roll my eyes at these instances. But a younger Geeta wanted to desperately fit in. She hated her name. She hated being associated with ‘those Indians’ (bookish, accented, ‘cheap’, or any other harmful stereotype people considered Indians to be).

In year 9, the most popular girl in school was talking about her trip to the shopping mall, before adding how she couldn’t understand the cashier because of their thick Indian accent. This story went on, only to end with her pronouncing that she hated Indians, finding them rude and annoying. After a moment to gather her bearings, she paused, looked at me then laughed. “Not you Geeta. Honestly, I don’t even think of you as Indian.” She’d said. At the time, I absolutely glowed at these words. Being not seen as Indian, or different, was exactly what I wanted. “You’re actually quite pretty for an Indian.” The popular girl added.
I wore those words like a badge of pride.
Not Indian. Not Indian.
Pretty! Pretty for an Indian!
I didn’t want to be seen as Indian, or ‘other’. I begged my mum to stop walking me to school. I asked her to pack me sandwiches and chips, instead of roti’s.
It never bothered me that nobody stuck up for me or said anything. I couldn’t even stick up for myself.

It took me a lot of self-learning on feminism, intersectionality, racism and microaggressions to begin to understand that my life experiences weren’t always ‘common’ or even particularly ‘funny’.
“Yeah, and then he asked me for some curry, which was SO bizarre,” I’d laugh, regaling tales of Tinder gone wrong.
“That’s so fucked up!”

I began to learn that life had done a 180 on me. Before, I could be proud of not being seen as Indian, but now, white people were shocked by my stories, and telling me it was racist.
Stories that had previously made people laugh in high school, weren’t as funny outside of it. It seemed that white people had changed the rules from the transition of high school into university, and somehow, I was still left behind. In university, I was suddenly thrust into the spotlight in a class called ‘Cultures and Diversity’ that I’d picked for an easy elective. Here was a 20-year-old confused Geeta being side-eyed by her white pupils and teacher every time the word ‘racism’ was mentioned.

I spent a lot of time at university, learning about Black Lives Matter, systemic racism and police brutality. I mainly found myself focusing on black people in the United States and how disproportionately they were murdered. It took me a while to slowly realise that this wasn’t a United States-only-matter. It happens in Australia, too, but our media reporting isn’t nearly as powerful. All of these were steppingstones into realising racism was pervasive and ingrained in Australian culture. ‘Jokes’ that I’d taken part in, during high school, made me just as much the problem as anyone else.

Taking pride in not being Indian and rejecting my own Indian culture meant that I had enabled racism towards myself.

I felt disappointed in myself. I suddenly wanted to grab my mum and hug her, apologise for telling her not to walk me to school, not to wear a salwar-kameez or a bindi, or pack me roti’s. I wanted to apologise to the other Indians that I had made fun of for their accents. I wanted to apologise to 14-year-old me. I wanted to be better.

When I watched Buzzfeed’s Indian People Review Indian Characters From TV and Film, I found my own thoughts being articulated in a way that I couldn’t even articulate myself. For the first time, I watched Indian people talk about the good representation (Quantico, Master of None) versus the bad representation (The Simpsons, The Big Bang Theory). I began to put together the pieces of how media had helped skew what Indians are and how it had affected my life, growing up.

A young Geetanjali and with her parents graduating (photos supplied)

A young Geetanjali and with her parents graduating (photos supplied)

Now, I’m 26-years-old. I can stick up for myself. I can be seen as the ‘rah rah’ girl, or the ‘diversity champion’. I can get the ‘likes’ on my story when I post about racism and my  experiences. When I write about it, I can get people saying, ‘I’m sorry that happened!’ and ‘that’s awful!’. When I mention I’m Indian, I can get people commenting ‘oh I love biryani!’ or ‘OMG Indians are so pretty!’ I’ve got to deal with people overcompensating to show me how good of a white person they are. How learned and educated they are. How they’re trying their best.

I get to overhear two white people bickering about race at a party (I just wanted to enjoy my G&T and chat with my friends). I get to meet my then-partner’s friend, who grills me about cultural appropriation (I just wanted to give a good first impression). I get the people asking me ‘hey is this insensitive?’ (I just wanted to mindlessly scroll on social media). I get the ‘I had an Indian coworker, and she was the best coworker I ever had!’ (I just asked about your previous work life). I get the ‘I’d describe your skin as mocha’ (I just was silently listening to my female coworkers talk about tanning).

Caring about my culture and how I’m treated has become synonymous with unpaid labour and ever-lasting patience to inform and teach white people. It’s also come with the description of being ‘difficult’, ‘abrasive’ and ‘overly political’. I must deal with this consistent commentary and accept it with a smile and a ‘thank you!’ or ‘wow that’s so cool!’, otherwise I’m mean and stand-offish. I am too political at the wrong times for white people (when it makes them uncomfortable), but I am perfectly intelligent at the right times for white people (when they want someone to back them up).

Unfortunately for some, my skin colour does not wash off. I do not hang up my Indian-ness on a coat hanger at the end of the day. I do not get the joy or reassurance that I’ve been provided something because I deserve it, but rather the knowledge that some people will always think I received it because I’m ‘diverse’. On the other side, I get the worry and self-gaslighting of wondering whether someone has unconscious bias and racism when they offer ‘feedback’ or speak in a particularly harsh way. Would they have treated me differently if I was white? Is a question that plays on repeat in my own mind, constantly. In the same hypocritical breath, I don’t want to be treated differently.

The issue is never knowing.

The issue is having lived a life where years later, I get the reassurance that my sense of somebody saying something racially charged to me wasn’t just a ‘rude comment’ or me being ‘sensitive’. The issue is the gaslighting and the ‘I didn’t mean it like that!’, so it must be my problem for taking it the wrong way. The issue is the self-actualisation, years later, of people saying ‘actually, now I get it’ or ‘you’re right – that was racist’. The issue is that I must constantly wait for white people to catch up and learn about racism, when I’ve had to deal with it since I was a child.

That little girl that got laughed at for her mum wearing Indian clothing and bindi’s, bringing roti’s and dahl to school and Indian accents is an adult now. That little girl who got a letter in her family mailbox calling them ‘curry munchers’ and was called Apu’s wife is now 26-years old. That little girl grew up quickly and learned quickly. Why should I be patient and silent? White people never afforded me the same.

I’m tired of being digestible enough for white people.

I’m tired of applauding their faux-allyship, or their overcompensation.

The only thing I need, have ever needed, from white people is for them to stick up for me and other minorities when they know something’s wrong.

The only thing I need, have ever needed, from white people is for them to listen and understand.
The only thing I need, have ever needed, is somebody to help that little girl who thought being called ‘pretty for an Indian’ was a compliment.

Geetanjali as a young child

About the Author:

Geetanjali Sharma (she/her) is a 26 year old cis-female living on Ngunnawal country. She holds a Bachelor in Writing and often writes about culture and social issues. She’s also currently in the midst of writing her own first fictional novel. 

Socials: Instagram @gs_ninetysix
Resources: Indian People Review Indian Characters From TV and Film

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