Peeling the Onion

The Peeling of Onions

One of my favorite things to compare an individual’s personality happens to be the humble vegetable Onion. I remember studying human beings in conjunction to onions in my 11th standard psychology class. “Human beings are like Onions, as you peel out each layer of an onion you explore or discover a different layer… Humans are like that as well,” said my psychology professor. I do not think we discussed the multiple identities or multiple layers that human beings possess ever after in the two-years of Psychology that I learnt.

However, I talked about human beings, onions and the multiple identities in a mandatory diversity workshop I had to take before I began my Masters Program. I think that workshop was probably the most educative experience of my life yet! We were a randomly put together group of about 30 people and none of us knew each other from before. As the facilitator of the group called out different identities, we had to step in front of the circle if we identified with the category she called out. Some of the categories included general stuff – Male, Female, Race, Sexual Identity and then it got more complicated – things like “have you ever been homeless” “have you ever been randomly stopped and frisked,” “have you been discriminated against because of your race?”

When I walked into that room I had a different perspective about the folks in that room with me but as I walked out, I no longer viewed them as isolated identities. Why do we use just one word or identity to define a person when there is so much more to them. And every identity is accompanied with certain privileges and sometimes with certain marginalizations.

I remember one of my mentors, when I first began working – one of my male colleagues, adopted me as a child. I think he saw me as a lost child trying to come to terms with the fact that real world journalism is different from journalism learnt in classrooms.

As we sat in front of our computer desks racking our brains and trying to think of writing captions for over-the-top celebrity pictures, we talked mostly about stupid stuff and in rare times about meaningful stuff. In one of those meaningful talks, we spoke about religion and my friend who was a non-practicing Muslim told me about having difficulty in buying an apartment. And I asked him because he was not religious did it bother him that he had to bear the brunt of someone else’s action! Because I certainly have a lot of resentment and issues with Catholics and my friend told me, “I am so much more privileged than other Muslims who live in low income neighborhoods. I know the police will not come knocking at my door each time a terror attack happens. In fact, I feel guilty that I am so privileged while others like me are not…We often like to see ourselves as victims but we forget the times when we have enjoyed a certain privilege when compared to others. Especially those of us, privileged minorities – educated women do that and minorities with privilege do that.”

I have always wondered how my life would be different if years ago my ancestors would not have converted to Christianity. While I think growing up as a Christian has been challenging because of the stereotypes associated with my religion, it has also accorded me many privileges. I have tried to list some : 1)I was able to go to a place of worship of my choice 2) Friends and alike did not have a problem touching me or playing with me 3) Nobody ever thought twice about coming home and having food with us…4) If I received admission in a course I sought after nobody would blame it on my caste…

In 2010, I visited Uttar Pradesh, where my father-in-law is from for the first time. I visited one of the families, in the kitchen a 15-year-old girl was cooking and cleaning. She was the house-help. The lady of the house called me and asked me to give leftovers from lunch to the teenager, whose face I could not even see, because it was covered by a ragged ghoonghat. I started conversing with the girl asking her where she lived, much to the amazement of other women around me. As I walked to handover the food to her, the lady of the house pulled me back and told me I was not supposed to touch the person I am giving food to because she was a “chamar.” It was explained to me that the girl would extend her shawl and I would throw two rotis into her shawl…. disgusted, I refused to do so; they said that as a new daughter-in-law I should not touch such “unlucky” and “lowly” people. I wonder what these people would say if they learn that, I am as “lowly” as that child…is.

Strangely, I have never attended a diversity training or workshop in India. Strange because we are a very diverse country and are proud of our “cosmopolitan” “secular” and “tolerant” attitudes. I think it we need a reality check; we need to peel the layers of our onions to understand ourselves better and look at how we perceive others.

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