By Rupal Ramesh Shah
I am proud to say I was born in Tanzania, a predominantly Black and Christian country. My childhood friends consisted of a mixture of Black and brown people practicing various religions such as Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Jainism. As a child, I never felt that I had to explain my race or religion to anyone. My mother was a teacher in our primary school, which was predominantly attended by Black Tanzanians. Those of us of Indian ancestry were in the minority. My father was a medical doctor-turned-businessman. His business colleagues included Black and brown people. My friends were the children of the people that my parents knew in the community. When I played with my Black, Brahmin, or Muslim friends, I never felt discomfort due to the variation of races and religions.
More importantly, we never talked about how “different” we were because of race and religion. We saw each other as the same. We talked about similar issues, such as studying for difficult physics exams, boys we liked in class, and the fact that our parents did not let us go to wild parties. We wore the same uniforms to schools, ate similar foods, and had similar experiences within the community.
While I rarely classified myself based on race in Tanzania, in the U.S. my race is what makes me stand out. I am neither white nor Black. Instead I am a person of color. This has certainly placed me in an interesting position – at times to my advantage, and other times to my disadvantage. As an immigrant, I have certainly had struggles. People have made ignorant comments to me, or have dismissed me because I am a person of color. I often find myself classified as “different” or “other.” Yet I have greatly benefited from being able to live the American dream. I have been able to avail myself of the resources in this country, without facing structural racism. And I have been blessed with deep and respectful friendships with people of all races and religions.
But I know that my experience is very different from the oppression that African Americans face in the U.S. Over the years, I have had lots of conversations with friends of all races, and I have learned a great deal about racism in the U.S. Many of them understand the complexities of racism, including its consequences; others do not. This is largely due to the difference in awareness and experiences.
Currently, what we are talking about in the U.S. is the unfair treatment of Black people. George Floyd’s death, along with the deaths of many Black people, highlighted for us once again the extent to which racism still exists in this country. A key goal of The Black Lives Matter movement is to build a just society, by empowering all of us to intervene during times of violence towards Black people.
As a community, we have a role to play in this movement, and we can start by taking the following points into consideration:
Recognize that unfair treatment of people based on race is injustice. The idea that one race is superior to another and should have different rights is injustice. Oppression of one race places the other race in a position of power and privilege. To achieve the balance of power and privilege will take time. Without a doubt, it is time to address this topic of racism. Not addressing it has led to injustice and senseless deaths. We can no longer remain silent.
Acknowledge that covert racism exists. In my personal and professional life, I have often seen subtle examples of racism. In my observations, people of color feel uncomfortable in the face of subtle racist acts, especially when they involve other people of color. It is time to call out subtle racist actions instead of ignoring them. We need to invite people who are oblivious to acts of racism into open conversations so we can address this topic together.
Embrace the differences and stop the “us versus them” rhetoric. As an immigrant, I am often at the cross section of identities. Whether I am Tanzanian, Indian, or American, first and foremost, I am a human being. If we believe that justice is a basic right, then we can accept that every human being has that right. Instead of propagating the idea that we are different, we need to see each other as the same, all striving to make this world a better place.
I hope that during this challenging time, we will take the opportunity to actively listen to those who have been impacted by racial injustice, genuinely learn from their experiences, and openly discuss and develop solutions so that we will emerge as a strong society where citizens not only respect one another, but also lift each other up.
Rupal Ramesh Shah is a third-generation Tanzanian who grew up in an ethnically Indian family in the town of Moshi, at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro. Her family immigrated to the U.S. when she was a teenager.