Mixing It Up: A Different World

To my absolute horror, my parents moved our family from the outer fringes of Detroit to a small city in Tennessee in the middle of my fifth grade year. Not only was I uprooted from a neighborhood and a school I loved, but I was transplanted from one racially and culturally diverse city to one where some people still believed that the South had won the Civil War.

The 18 students in my Michigan fifth grade class came from a variety of backgrounds. We had one Arab, two Indians, two African-Americans, an Argentinian, a child from England, two East Asians, a girl from France, and a few Jewish children. My new fifth grade class had close to forty, white Tennessee-born children. There was one African American, and as far as I could tell, she was the only African American in the entire school of about 800 children. She was The Black Child named Ebony. I was The Brown Child named Anjali. And so, the first day of class right after Spring Break, when I was seated next to her, I couldn't help but forge our names into a new version of my then favorite duet, "Ebony and Anjaleee, live together in perfect harmoneeee."

Living in perfect harmony was what we had to do. Because really, there was no choice. I often wondered who Ebony hung out with before I came along, because she didn't seem to have any other friends. We were The Black Child and The Brown Child, sitting together in the cafeteria. The Black Child and The Brown Child playing together on the swings at recess. The Black Child and The Brown Child sharing a pair of scissors in homeroom. The Black Child and The Brown Child hanging out in a sea of nothing but White Children.

After I completed the fifth grade, we moved again locally. Instead of continuing to middle school with Ebony, I was thrust into yet another school, where the odds of seeing a brown child were just as slim. The same was true for junior high and high school. In assembly, where 600 students sat in bleachers in the school gym, I peered across hundreds of adolescent faces to find in the crowd one, two, three other Indians, and a few east Asians, and less than a dozen African Americans. The school was primarily white.

This lack of diversity was something that always bothered me. During my school years in Tennessee, I often pulled out my old yearbooks from my school in Michigan, reading off the gloriously ethnic names. I missed the cultural differences. And while I eventually made very close friends at my mostly white schools, I always felt a little out of place.

A little less than two years ago, we learned we would be relocating from Philadelphia to Atlanta. We scoured maps to determine commutability, school district geography, property taxes, and home prices. After we narrowed neighborhoods down, we began researching the ethnic diversity of communities and school districts. Our oldest daughter would be starting kindergarten in the fall.

After we found one school district that seemed like a good fit, I flew down for a visit.

The assistant principal took me on a brief tour. Because it was the last few days of winter break, there were no students around. I asked about the typical class size, the library, and the after school activities offered. The tour ended in the cafeteria. She pointed up.

Encircling my head was a sight to behold -- a sea of international flags from dozens of countries. The assistant principal explained that each flag represented the birth country of the students who attended the school. And when I flipped through the school yearbook, I came across pages upon pages of brown faces. I remembered my school in Michigan.

I nearly started to cry.

One year later, I am looking at my daughter's kindergarten class picture. It's the most beautiful photograph I've ever seen. There are children of every imaginable shade of black and brown. The school, as well as our neighborhood, is a microcosm of the world. Our home is a stone's throw from several Indian families, an Ethiopian family, a Malaysian family, two Korean families, a Chinese family, and a Sri Lankan family.

Someone told me once, "But your kids aren't growing up in the real world. Aren't you afraid that they'll leave the area someday, and be shocked to be an ethnic minority?"

Perhaps I am raising them in a different world. Perhaps, if they move to a less diverse area, they'll resent me for not helping them to understand the intricacies and complexities of life in White America. Perhaps, by selecting a multi-cultural community, I am just as racist as parents who choose the school districts with the least amount of minorities and the fewest children who speak English as a second language. Perhaps, instead, I should stress the importance of being comfortable in one's own skin, despite minority status. I don't know. But while they are young and innocent and sensitive, the last thing I want them to have to struggle with is the issue of appearing different. Because I remember what it's like being a brown child in a multicultural classroom, and I remember what it's like being a brown child in a sea of white. There is, unfortunately, a difference.

In an attempt to meet more people, I held the first meeting of a new book club at my house. There were nine of us total and here was our count: 2 African Americans, 1 Pakastani, 2 Indians, 1 Dominican Republican, 1 Ethiopian, 1 White, and me. Here we all were, sitting around drinking wine and laughing and sharing stories of our youth. We were women who immigrated from other countries, women who had arranged marriages, women who struggled with how to explain racism to our young children. And we were women with the common goal of wanting to raise kids who not just pay lip service to diversity and acceptance, but who hold it close to their hearts, and live it.

And perhaps this small corner of America we have chosen, where cultures collide and then blend, where grocery stores resemble international bazaars and restaurants offer foods that taste just like one's homeland, is a thin bubble of security that bursts when we exit its borders. Or perhaps, while we carry out our day to day activities in this sliver of multicultural utopia, the world around us is changing to be just like us.

The morning after Book Club, as I returned extra chairs in my family room to their rightful place, I realized that our deliberate move to this neighborhood wasn't just about finding diversity for my children. It was the conclusion of my journey to find a place where I can feel comfortable with my own color -- a journey that started 25 years ago, when I said to goodbye to my Michigan classmates. It is a journey that ends here, in a place I love to call home.

column added on 2008-10-11 :: ::

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