The Cost of Choosing Invisibility

Part of 7 of in
by Chris Chacko
PHOTOGRAPHY BY E.S. RO
Dec 01, 2016 | min read
Part of 50: Homeland
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TO MY NEPHEW: 

You're 2 years old as I write this letter. You're beginning to burst forth with the occasional phrase and idea, mixing your words with excited gibberish. I love watching the way you eagerly explore the world with uninhibited wonder — you're becoming your own being. 

I'm also writing this in an age of turbulence, when America's original sin of racism has once again risen from its premature grave  — where it's normal to have news of a mass shooting or killing every day. In this time, I've been forced to contemplate certain questions: Where do we, as Indian Americans, fit in the preset narrative of Black versus white in America? Should we remain invisible? If we do, will that same system turn on us one day?  

Should we remain invisible? If we do, will that same system turn on us one day?  

I know you're only 2 right now, and these questions are weighty. But as a grandchild of immigrants, you will soon face the tension of being an Indian American. Sadly, you'll probably have had to think about these questions by the time you're reading this letter.

• • •

Growing up, I've realized that the racist underbelly of America and the insular hierarchy of Indian American conservatism have more in common than they think. All that matters is appearance. It may be the color of your skin or your educational or financial worth — nonetheless, these two groups will sum you up in a perfunctory glance or by a few words on a resume.

As an Indian who is both Canadian and American, you are an alien. Your mere existence keeps you from fully belonging anywhere. Many places will not accept you; even those who are "your own kind" will reject you. If you're like me, there's a nagging question that will haunt you for years: Is this where I truly belong? Can I ever belong here? 

Is this where I truly belong? Can I ever belong here? 

I remember one of the first times I asked myself this question. It was the first day of fifth grade. I was standing uncertainly by myself, wearing a white polo that was too long and navy blue shorts that were too short.

A classmate approached me and began to pepper me with questions: Was I Greek? Mexican? Black? I went along with the racial roulette because I needed an icebreaker; I wanted an in, some way to belong. But as I looked around into the sea of predominantly white faces, the hope of being truly accepted began to wither away.

A month later, an inconspicuous Tuesday came creakingly to a halt when a voice over the PA announced that the World Trade Center had been attacked. 

The first realization of the gravity of the situation came when I was picked up after scrambling out of the school's back entrance — my entire family was present. Due to the intensity of your grandfather's job, this was highly abnormal. 

In the months and years that followed, it seemed that all that mattered was my appearance. My friends and I were scrutinized differently. Life became much more harrowing for my friends who were Arabic or Muslim. As time passed, I would hear stories of physical assaults, of death threats, of home windows being shattered in drive-bys. 

The Cost of Choosing Invisibility

I was also drawing a higher degree of scrutiny because of my skin color. This mostly consisted of threats and racial epithets yelled at me and my family as we went through our daily lives. Now, one of us could get pulled over, searched, or worse for having a scraggly beard or for daring to wear ethnic clothing — just because we were brown.

It was no coincidence that many of my non-Indian friends could only connect me with the only other Indian people they knew. I was the math nerd from "Mean Girls"; I was Kumar; I was Slumdog. We shouldn't have been surprised that it took the worst attack on American soil to awaken the latent suspicion of the brown outsider. Hollywood had been feeding the general public this idea for years. The media had just tweaked the perspective of the brown outsider from joke to a new nomenclature synonymous with fear: terrorist. 

This spotlight of newfound visibility forced a new question on my community — whether to pursue safety or the vulnerability of visibility.

This spotlight of newfound visibility forced a new question on my community — whether to pursue safety or the vulnerability of visibility.

I wonder if you've seen it in yourself yet: The American Dream for the Indian community is not merely for the pursuit of happiness, but ultimately one of safety. After sacrificing everything to get into this country, to start a career, a family, to survive, why would anyone jeopardize losing what we have gained? 

So, we're told to dress well and speak eloquently. If we sacrifice, it's only to protect ourselves and the family name. We adhere our beauty to their standards, aligning our racial prejudices with "fair" as good and "dark" as bad. If we are to be model minorities, we will prove ourselves by what we produce with our sweat, blood, and tears. We worship safety in our effort to prove we are one of them.   

• • •

My dear nephew, as you grow older, people inside and outside your family will try to force invisibility onto you. Life is filled with boundaries, real and defined. These are the boundaries caused by the entrenchments of institutionalized thoughts that have turned into policies and cultural practices over centuries. It is the caste system — which we once thought had faded away — that has made the unmarried, jobless, and uneducated our new diluted version of the untouchables in cultural circles. 

For my entire life, I yearned to connect with the world. I tried so hard for people to see me. But when life became filled with physical and mental pain, all I wanted was to fade away, content to live out my future for my own desires. The Indian American dream had won — I became invisible, only being vulnerable within my home and with my immediate family.

But I had to learn that invisibility isn't sustainable; it cannot be a permanent shelter. While the walls may give a perception of safety, the protection that these walls often give is an atrophy of the mind and heart. Do not create internal barriers by thinking you will be safe if you choose invisibility by assimilation. If you do, you will lose an intrinsically human aspect — the joy of entering into the chaos of the lives of others, to see the beautifully wretched picture of humanity and God's glorious design for us.

Invisibility isn't sustainable; it cannot be a permanent shelter.

I'm just now beginning to embrace my identity as an imperfect alien, not through lens of skin and credit, but as a soul that has been washed clean in Calvary's blood. In your search for safety, you will be tempted to desire acceptance into your destination by larger institutions or smaller niches like your friends, family, or loved ones. The alienation you feel may make you want to run solely into their arms for comfort. 

But in the paraphrased words of C.S. Lewis, embracing the tension of being an alien and finding want will give you the knowledge that you were created for another world. Choosing to use your voice for those who are forced to be invisible won't be easy. And redefining what it means to be an Indian in North America will be an arduous process. But it is here where you will come to treasure that true safety only lies in the arms of a perfect Savior.

I hope for joy for you. For you to know that invisibility forced on you by a country, and desired by a culture, is not your only option. But that there is a joy in truly knowing Jesus out there in the uncharted waters. For it is out there, without the siren song of the American Dream, where you will truly meet Him and find true joy that no safety can provide.

Love always,
Your uncle 

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Chris Chacko

Chris Chacko is currently trying to figure out what artists this generation's Oldies radio station will consist of in the next twenty years. He's hoping Outkast will always be a safe bet.

E.S. Ro

E.S. Ro is a firm believer in the power of young people, good storytelling and Jesus Christ. She currently lives and serves in Memphis, Tennessee.

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