Reflection: Where Were You Born?

There were many who warned me of the troubles I would encounter at the Friends General Conference Gathering. I took these warnings with a grain of salt. I’ve spent my whole life around people who do not look like me, and I usually do not have problems. I survived attending Catholic school where there were only two other Indian Americans (including my brother) and living in Philadelphia, Pa., where the only Indian Americans I met were at restaurants. While in Philadelphia, I attended Green Street Meeting and found the community there to be more welcoming than I could have imagined, so I did not expect the Gathering to be any different. My parents had always instructed my brother and me to diversify our friend groups. As a result, I’d learned to blend in, to navigate the system, to speak the language of those who do not look like me. I grew up knowing no other way to live.

Attending the Gathering was a wonderful experience. Surrounded by 1,400 Quakers of all ages, I was happy to participate in the various activities: I tried sacred circle dancing, waltzing, and swing dancing. I also played with the youngest of Friends, heard many Friends tell the stories of their lives, and sang many of my favorite songs at the Noon Sing. I laughed a lot, received numerous hugs, and took long walks with new f/Friends.

However, there were several uncomfortable moments which made the Gathering more draining for me. Almost every time I attempted to make a new friend who was European American, the conversation went something like this:

Friend: What’s your name?
Me: Sonali.
Friend: Oh, where were you born? Are you Indian?
Me: I grew up in California.
Friend: Do you know Hindi?

Even if I attempted to deflect the conversation, it would always come back to my ethnicity. I’m so much more than my ethnicity. I’m a sister, a Smith College graduate, a New Mexico resident, an attender at Las Cruces (N.M.) Meeting, and a Quaker Voluntary Service alumna. I love folk music, bookstore browsing, and rock climbing—to name a few of the things that make up me.

One time the conversation became especially uncomfortable. A Friend had kindly given me a ride in her golf cart, and while driving, she asked me a series of questions.

Friend: What’s your name?
Me: Sonali.
Friend: When did you come to the United States?
Me: I was less than a year old.
Friend: Oh, so you were adopted.
Me: (trying not to laugh) No . . .
Friend: Oh, so your whole family came to the United States. When did they adopt Quakerism?

It was times like this when I began to wonder, what am I doing here, in this place filled with people who constantly make assumptions about me and do not take the time or effort to actually get to know me? I could feel my identity being erased as the questions continued. It seemed that these Friends had their own ideas of what I was like before ever meeting me, and their limiting questions felt like an attempt to fit me into a preconceived little box.

Simultaneously I also started to wonder if I was overreacting. The questions themselves were not always inappropriate; it was the rapid fire of presumptive questions that felt alienating. My family is not Quaker and probably will never be Quaker since they either have been hurt by organized religion or are not interested in the spiritual aspects of life. However, there are Quaker meetings in India, so it is not implausible that in other circumstances I may have come from a long line of Indian Quakers.

At times I recognize these same biases in myself. I often catch myself thinking that older Quakers are too conservative for certain topics. I have learned to address these stereotypes with a three-step process.

  1. I question the validity of my assumption, and ask myself where it comes from. Have I met many conservative older Quakers? Why do I believe that older Quakers (or older people in general) are conservative?
  2. I increase my exposure to the people of my stereotype. As I meet more older Quakers and interact with them in a meaningful way, this stereotype will begin to fade away.
  3. I replace my made-up idea with a real person who defies this stereotype. I have replaced my imaginary stereotypical conservative, older Quaker with several real Quakers who are more radically liberal than anyone else I have ever met.

This technique has helped me many times. I also recommend a simpler strategy when getting to know a new person in a shared space: ask open-ended questions. One of the daily bulletins at the 2015 Gathering had a list of suggested questions and conversation prompts that aim to make Gathering a more inclusive place. Here are a few: Which workshops are you taking? Tell me about where you live and which meeting you go to. What do you like to do for fun? When did you first know that the Quaker way was right for you? Sure enough, one European American Friend asked me some of these types of questions; our conversation was very enjoyable and made me feel more welcome.

For the times when my stereotypes do actually seem to be fulfilled by a particular person, I find it helpful to remember a poem by Pat Parker, “For the White Person Who Wants to Know How to Be My Friend.” The first two stanzas are a beautiful start:

The first thing you do is to forget that I’m black. 
Second, you must never forget that I’m black.

You should be able to dig Aretha,
but don’t play her every time I come over.
And if you decide to play Beethoven—don’t tell me
his life story. They make us take music appreciation, too.

We should not forget that the classifications of race, age, gender, and ethnicity work together to make up parts of a person. They do not, however, make up all or even most of a person. As I’ve learned, older folks are so much more than their age, just like I am more than my ethnicity. By inviting people into our lives—especially those who are different from the people we normally socialize with—and by accepting the invitation when others reach out, we often find that we all have more in common than first imagined, which makes sense to me. Isn’t there that of God in everyone?

Sonali Kumar

Sonali Kumar was raised in San Diego, Calif. After attending a few Quaker meetings, she did a year of Quaker Voluntary Service, working at Friends General Conference. Now she works with domestic violence victims in Las Cruces, N.M., as part of Border Servant Corps, and attends Las Cruces Meeting.

2 thoughts on “Reflection: Where Were You Born?

  1. Excellent article! It made me aware that I may have done this myself. At any rate, hopefully it made me more aware that I don’t do it in the future. It was interesting that she may have thought that older people might be more conservative. I’ve know many older radical Friends and others in my community. Raising our consciousness is always welcomed.

  2. Thank you, Sonali, for your words. This article resonates deeply with my own experience.

    I’ve been reflecting on why it bothers me so much when the first thing someone asks me is about my ethnicity and how I can avoid making others feel the same way. I have found it useful to think about it in terms of people’s *immutable* identities vs. their *chosen* identities.

    Immutable identities are things like race, age, gender, disability– characteristics that we can’t change about ourselves, but are often readily visible. It’s easy to start a conversation based on what’s readily visible, but that inherently means making assumptions about a person’s identity based on things they didn’t choose. At worst, it’s offensive– at best, it’s just boring. The conversation starts by flattening a person into a demographic category instead of opening space to learn about their vibrant inner life–what I’m calling *chosen* identity. Chosen identities are the characteristics we grow into– our interests, goals, career, hobbies, joys. It may be an interesting exercise to reflect on the questions we ask when meeting someone, and see if they focus on an immutable identity, or a chosen identity.

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