To understand racism, one has to encounter it

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By Om Desai

Younger generation has the force to check racism by spreading information about the evil.

Knowing the definition of racism is one thing, truly grasping its meaning is another. One can do so only by encountering and experiencing racism firsthand.

I lived in two different places in diverse neighborhoods, surrounded by a mixture of cultures, races, religions, and nationalities. I first encountered racism in my second elementary school.

This school was only five miles away from my first school, but the two were worlds apart. It was here that I first encountered religious discrimination.

Transferring to this school in the 4th grade, I described myself as Hindu while playing introduction games and meeting all our new classmates and teachers.

Later during recess, a group of kids came up to me and started making fun of me and my religion calling it “fake” and “just dumb stories.” In fifth grade, classmates mocked my name calling it “weird.”

This is when I realized that racism has many shades. I don’t have to be a big action; it can even be in the form of a few hurtful words or just a side glance – representing the larger issue.

Growing up, a group of Indian kids including myself were often dismissed as “brown trash team” and the “Indian nerds.” But our football team still made it to the finals to the surprise of everyone.

I also learnt that we would have to work twice as hard to succeed not only in sports, but the real world as well due to the color of our skin. Yet I had no idea what African Americans were going through despite reading and watching on TV stories about race tirades and hate crimes.

This changed on one fateful bus ride with a diverse group of students from different demographics. Amid heated conversations about racism’s ties to police brutality, a black sixth grader piped up.

She started reciting what sounded like a memorized plea in monotone: “Hello my name is Jane Doe, I am 11-year-old and I do not have any weapons on me. I am not carrying any ID and I will not resist.”

We all sat in shock. Her parents had made her memorize these statements when she was six. This girl had learned how to deal with the police before she had learned how to ride a bike. She knew these sentences before she knew multiplication.

The stark contrast in what we were taught about the police surprised me. Since I was little, I recognized the police as a group of individuals who would help me in any situation.

If I was lost, find the police. If I was being chased, find the police. If I was scared for my safety, find the police. But for this 11-year-old girl, the police represented something totally different.

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A danger to her life, a danger to her family, a dangerous group who would shoot first and ask questions later. I recognized the gun that the police carried as an object that could be used to save me.

She recognized the gun as an object that could be used to harm her. What caught my attention the most was our variance for the meaning of the same symbols.

The police’s gun, handcuffs, their sirens were interpreted with such differing meanings. For her, these symbols were representations of racism.

This is when I started to understand that racism is different for everybody. Racism as a concept consisted of experiences. A slightly different experience could completely change the perspective.

In high school, walking the halls, I would hear students throwing around racist expletives. But this school also showed me how working together could help stop this issue.

After the cruel treatment of George Floyd and countless others, I saw many people working together to go to protests. I saw online posts about racism.

I saw people educating others. I saw racists getting what they deserved. I saw ignorance being replaced by knowledge. I saw the force that we, as the upcoming generation, had.

People are now spreading information about how to help victims of racism. Videos, links, photos, and petitions were dispersed through Instagram, Snap-chat, and other social media platforms.

The older generations started realizing this wasn’t a phase, but rather a motion. A motion of power. A motion of equality. A motion of righteousness.

And this is where I learned that racism wasn’t a norm. It never should have become a norm, but we couldn’t focus on the past.

We had to learn from it and control what we wanted the norm to become. Racism was a phase that had passed.

As I mentioned previously, racism isn’t a word. It is a concept. One that can’t be elucidated but rather can only be understood.

(Om Desai, 16, is an 11th Grade student of Poolesville High School,  Maryland)


Voices: Black lives must matter before all lives can matter (September 2, 2020)

Voices: Why do Americans tolerate racism? (August 31, 2020)

Voices: BLM movement targets systemic racism in the US (September 1, 2020)

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