Beyond the Racial Binary: My Experience as a Brown Woman in America

The following post was originally published on and republished here with permission.

Antiracism work is uncomfortable, challenging, and a journey that has no finish line. It requires us to “look in the mirror” and examine our relationships to race and racism. My journey into the antiracism space was not strategic or planned. It was my own experiences of racism endured as a South Asian person navigating a white world that led me to this work. In guiding others to develop their racial consciousness and anti-racism lens, I’ve come to realize that storytelling is a powerful and necessary tool. It is when we tell our personal stories, that we affirm our existence and lived experiences, but most importantly, it is our stories that help us heal from the traumas of racism.

While I do not have the time or space to write about all the incidents of overt and covert racism I’ve endured throughout my life, my early experiences of growing up in a predominantly white community were profound enough that they caused me to feel a deep shame towards my Indian ethnicity. As a result of the shame I learned to feel towards my “Indian-ness,” I spent many years of my life thinking that my culture, my family and my own identity were inferior to white culture, white families, and my white peers. As a brown person, I have been guilty of upholding the system of white supremacy but I’ve come to realize that my complicity and white adjacency were due to the invisible omnipresence of whiteness that surrounded me.

In my seventeen years of working as a diversity practitioner, I’ve had to spend an incredible amount of time unlearning and unpacking the whiteness that I consumed in the first half of my life. In doing so, I’ve also had to revisit my hurtful experiences of racism while simultaneously acknowledging that I enter the conversation about race and racism from a place of racial privilege. My antiracism journey as a South Asian American has been complex, insightful, and painful.

Although it can be emotionally exhausting to revisit my personal experiences, telling my story to bring forth awareness about the complexity of racism, holds a silver lining. Though my experiences of racism have left scars, they’ve also made me a stronger person. In fact, many of my early racist experiences helped me to prepare for the onset of racially oppressive realities I would endure as an adult, both in professional and personal contexts. However, unlike systemic racism that many communities of color in the U.S. face, the interpersonal racism I’ve endured hasn’t physically killed me or denied me opportunities for upward mobility. While I’ve been unsurprised by most of the racism I’ve experienced as an adult, twelve years ago, I experienced one incident that was painfully debilitating.

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This racist incident happened at the wedding of one of my (at that time) closest and dearest friends. She was someone I had known for over a decade and had become like family. We were close, so much so that I was a bridesmaid at her wedding. It was during her wedding reception that one of her guests made it a point to frequently walk past the head table where I and the other members of the bridal party were seated. He would walk by our table to harass me by saying “Cindu the Hindu,” “Sand *****” and “Go Back to your Country.” This was not a random act of hate. This was a racist perpetrator I knew. This was Jeff.

Jeff and I attended the same high school and even happened to be social acquaintances for a brief period during my college years. In high school, Jeff never missed an opportunity to call me “Cindu the Hindu.” In college, he continued with this badgering on occasion when we were in the same social setting but did so “jokingly” to make his overt racism more palatable for others in the room.

It had been a decade since I had last seen Jeff but he was still reveling in his use of racial slurs against me. Now, at almost 30 years old, I saw he hadn’t changed much since his days of being a racist high-school kid. While I wasn’t shocked by his words, I remember feeling confused as to why he would harass me with these words during his own cousin’s wedding.

Jeff continued berating me throughout the night as he and his brother, whom I never met before that night, became increasingly intoxicated. The name-calling didn’t bother me as much as it bothered my friends and my husband, who were shocked to witness such blatant racism. As the slurs continued, the confrontation escalated. I encouraged everyone to ignore what was happening because I didn’t want this incident to ruin my friend’s wedding day.

At this point in my life, I had been so conditioned to accept racism that the slurs and name-calling didn’t hurt me nearly as much as they hurt those around me. My husband could not ignore what he was witnessing. He approached the brothers and asked them to leave me alone. Despite my husband’s request, I continued to be harassed, being called “Sand-******” and told to “Go back to my country.”

My husband eventually lost his cool and got into Jeff’s face, demanding they stop their behavior at which point my friends quickly pulled my husband back before the conflict could become physical. The bartenders working the wedding took note of the conflict and were so appalled by the racist language that they then refused to serve Jeff and his brother. While my husband’s demand didn’t seem to phase Jeff, once the bartenders refused to serve them, Jeff, his brother and their wives decided to leave the reception early.

I felt a sense of relief watching the scene deescalate. While my friends were calming my husband down at the back of the reception hall my friend Claudia and I went outside to get some fresh air. Just when I felt confident that the worst of the night was behind me, the unthinkable happened.
As Jeff, his brother and their wives were leaving the reception, Jeff’s brother approached me closing in on my face to say,

“I’m going to find out where you live and kill your fucking husband.”

Up until this point of the night, I had stayed calm, but when Jeff’s brother threatened my husband’s life, I lost my cool. I began yelling every profanity I could think of at them when suddenly Jeff’s brother grabbed me by the arms and threw me to the ground. My friend Claudia tried to defend me when Jeff’s brother abruptly grabbed her by the neck in a chokehold, lifting her off her feet, before throwing her to the ground next to me. When Jeff, his brother, and their wives realized what they had done, they fled the scene.

What started with racist remarks ended with physical violence, leaving me with a ripped bridesmaid’s dress and Claudia with a bruise on her neck from the chokehold. To say I was mortified would be an understatement. I was in shock and it was hard to comprehend what had happened. The pain I felt from being thrown to the ground was nothing compared to the pain I experienced seeing the parents of the bride, Jeff’s mother — who I knew very well, along with dozens of bystanders, sit back and watch Claudia and I get physically assaulted. Not a single bystander took action to stop the violence. It was a friend who witnessed the tail end of the incident who frantically called the police. What hurt the most was that not a single person came over to ask us if we were okay.

Soon after, the police arrived and informed us that because the wedding was being held on a college campus, the wedding would be shut down if a report was filed. Moments later, the groom approached me accusing me of “race-baiting” saying, “you better not fucking ruin this wedding.” I felt conflicted, but due to my love and loyalty to the bride, I opted out of making a report. Instead, I went to the bar and took a shot of tequila to numb my pain. Putting my game face on, I went back to the wedding reception smiling and dancing the night away trying to un-remember what I had just experienced. I did what I thought any good friend would do, which I now deeply regret.

The heartache I felt when I awoke the next morning is one that is indescribable. It was, and still is, a pain that I have only experienced one other time in my life after a close friend of mine died unexpectedly at the age of twenty-eight. This excruciating pain didn’t come from the racist name-calling. It didn’t even come from the physical violence that Claudia or I endured. It came from realizing that these white people whom I genuinely loved and cared for, stood by and watched me get physically assaulted without even asking if I was okay. It was from the groom accusing me of race-baiting and blaming me for the racism I experienced at his wedding instead of apologizing for what happened.

The wounds of my pain grew deeper when I didn’t hear from the bride herself after she knew what occurred. The bride didn’t return my calls for over a month and then blamed me for the fact her wedding guests were talking about this incident of racism instead of wedding details she spent an entire year planning. It was as if she was rubbing salt into my deep wounds. My friends who witnessed the events of that horrific night went out of their way to explain I had no part in instigating racism and violence. However, regardless of their efforts, it was clear that me being an “angry, brown, diversity educator who enjoyed race-baiting” was the narrative that would stick.

I spent at least a year after the wedding in a daze of sadness and depression. My mind was consumed with what I had experienced. I spent countless hours replaying the incidents, questioning if I indeed had done something to instigate the violence. I questioned if I was to blame for losing the relationship of one of my closest and dearest friends. The incident I endured at this wedding was triggering and caused me to relive some of my childhood racial trauma, but it also created new trauma, one that I carry with me to this day. This incident re-awoke my racial consciousness and made me aware of something I had been blind to as the “token” Brown person in the room. For the first time since childhood, I was reminded that as a person of color I was not always welcomed or safe in the predominately white spaces I operated in.

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For years after the wedding, I was hyper-aware when I was the only person of color in the room, whether it was a Chicago street festival that was happening in a white neighborhood, a gathering with my white girlfriends, or a meeting with the white executive leadership of my college. In these situations, I experienced an uncomfortable feeling in my gut, a feeling that I hadn’t experienced since I was bullied during my school-aged days. I’ve spent the past twelve years trying to disrupt this feeling that happens when I am the “only” in the room and trying to remember that just because I experienced racism at the hands of white people, not all white people are the same. Not all white people are intentionally racist and there is no benefit that comes from me harboring racial bias or hate towards every white person I come across.

Due to my past racist experiences, I cannot deny that I do often feel myself walking on shards of broken glass when I am in the process of building a trusting and close relationship with a white person. I know, however, that if I stereotype every white person that comes into my life to be the same vile, hateful, and ignorant person like Jeff, I am contributing to the racial divides that plague our country.

Audre Lorde once stated, “for the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

Instead of using my oppressive experiences of hate to justify hating others, I’ve chosen to use my experiences to create awareness about the pervasiveness of racism that ravages our society. I use my experiences to encourage others to engage in cross-racial allyship and cultivate a racially inclusive society in which all of us truly belong.

I share my story not because I want your pity, but because it is important to know that racism happens to ordinary folks like myself. It is through personal stories that we can better understand the complexity of racism and the ways it manifests. I’ve tried writing about this experience many times in the last several years, but I could never bring myself to recount this experience with more than just a few sentences at a time. It was agonizing. It still is. However, I realize now, when I am willing to get comfortable with being uncomfortable and share my painful personal stories with others, I receive the valuable reward of continued self-growth and healing.

By Cindu Thomas-George

Cindu Thomas-George is the Founder and Principal Trainer of Shakti Diversity and Equity Training and a tenured Professor at the … Read more ›

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