Monday, November 19, 2018

Melting Pots and Salad Bowls

The pulse of the current times is laced with different forms of outrage. Everywhere I look and hear, everyone I know and don't know are being louder and more distraught, more vociferous to express their views, and far more distressed that they would not be heard, if only because their view is not the popular one, the liberal one, the "right" one, or because their voice was always ignored.

I was born and raised in a country where I'm considered to be part of the privileged class, the section of upper crust that has soiled history with its poor treatment of other sections of society. As much as I reaped some benefits of my "privilege", I was always made to feel equal measures of pride and guilt on behalf of my tribe, and experienced the demoralizing effect of the fierce uphill battle to compete for good education mostly reserved for those from less privileged classes of society. How is the discrimination of another class and compromised quality equate to all the noble goals  of uplifting the under-privileged, I asked amongst the thousands. "Under privileged" is heavily loaded of course, its definition far more nuanced than the law makers recognize. In any case, that was my narrative in one country; a country that regarded my birth caste as a boon, but my gender as female somehow neutralized the boon with its unfortunate prejudices and perceived limitations.

I now inhabit a country where after having lapped up its academic opportunities, I pursue a quiet but fulfilling profession. Here, I am a woman of color, a minority, someone, who I am constantly told, deserves a push, a helping hand, for my journey is assumed to be harder. My workplace wants 50% of the workforce to be women very soon, pushing recruiters to seek people like me to help them in their quest to reach out to candidates. This was a naive revelation to me who comes from the other side, who had always been taken for granted because of my privileged caste and non-worthy gender. Was I hired because my candidacy checked boxes other than my talent or skill? Is that why my Imposter Syndrome still shows up during important meetings? What irony that I'm apparently favored by a set of policies in one country that mirror those that I resented in another country. What do I stand for now?

The role reversal makes me dizzy sometimes. When I shift from work to home and back to work, the dizziness intensifies. One place celebrates me as a woman, encourages me to speak louder and be more assertive, while one place wants to "put me in my place" for being just a woman, for my newfound audacity; I find myself in gatherings and music concerts receiving flak for their elitism, their lack of inclusiveness, and then the next day I fully realize the loneliness and the subtle exclusivity around me when I try to find my voice in a room full of middle-aged white men. I get both sides of the argument, the pain, the confusion, the difficult to articulate nuances, because my existence oscillates between both sides - a supposed elitism and a struggle to assimilate. Am I being part of a community that wants to possessively retain certain aspects of its art and culture to the point of being exclusive, while I selfishly want inclusivity in other environments and communities? 

This complicated mountain of race/caste, feminism, and identity is piling up with voices and movements, teetering to a sharp and steep precipice. We are on the edge of something - both within my native country, and my inhabiting country. True to the spirit of Occam's Razor, the clarity among this chaos is alarmingly straightforward and simple - everyone just wants to belong.  All through this ruckus and polarizing march, everyone is asking the questions - Who am I without the definitions of my race/caste/religion? Do I belong?  The muted question is: Am I good enough to belong?

It's straightforward for me to favor the country and policies that support and celebrate me, but that doesn't mean my viewpoint is therefore "right", or objective. However, I reconciled that despite the loopholes and numerous execution flaws, the reservation policies in my native country that limited my own opportunities made sense for the bigger purpose. While I'm convinced that inclusiveness everywhere is the universal way to live and lead our lives, I realize that as with anything in life, it comes at a cost. I never stopped to consider the latent cost of inclusiveness that goes beyond thwarted opportunities; in some cases, the cost is somebody else's sense of self and identity. The kernel of fear and panic threading through the seeming diatribes from the opposition throbs with these questions:
"Who am I without the definitions of my race/caste/religion? Where do I then belong?" This is a heavier threat, and so much more difficult to express and measure than lost opportunities or falling standards of quality.

I also didn't realize there are different ways to include, different steps to take on a non-linear path. The goal of inclusion does not automatically make the strategies right. One cannot find their voice without having a healthy sense of self. One develops their sense of self, painstakingly, through their own stories, their own flawed but genuine narratives that they believe to be valuable. Privilege also plays a role in the stories we construct - privilege that has nothing to do with race or caste, and everything to do with the fates and furies of our randomly churning lives and circumstances. No one can judge anybody else's story or the narrative they have stitched together. We can only judge the consequences of that narrative on other people's lives. So, if somebody's identity comes from their race/caste or religion, there is no moral or meaningful way to repudiate that or even change that, other than suggesting a complete revamping of their beliefs, and a slow process of re-evolving their identity. How does one do that? It's not a matter of beseeching them to see the light from darkness on a few beliefs. It is as improbable as asking someone to pick up a sledgehammer and knock down every pillar and wall of their carefully constructed home, and rebuild a new one in a new place. We seem to suggest that's the only choice they have, nothing in between. 

Viewed from that perspective, it does seem quite drastic and unrealistic, and not very liberal. Isn't there a middle ground? Do we need to melt and stir everyone and everything together in a melting pot all the time? Can't some aspects exist as distinct flavors and ingredients that do not mix but that co-exist on a salad bowl? Perhaps there is more harmony and beauty in the integrity of the independent structures and textures; uniqueness is also valued. Inclusiveness does not always mean complete integration to the point of disintegrating every wholesome thing to fuse and meld into a bubbling melting pot of external homogeneity that swallows diversity and allows only the most nuanced expert to pick up the individual components. I have come to realize that the deepest agony for many people is this - seeing parts of their identity and belonging being melted into a formless puddle for the sake of integration... be it a form of music or language or something else that gives them a solid sense of belonging and pride. All that these people see is ruthless annihilation, not inclusiveness. Many of them are not being elitists or racists; they are mostly desolate at the prospect of losing something that gives them meaning.

And this is what I predominantly hear as the middle ground - live and let live; let me be who I am, let me preserve what matters to me, let me keep some fences and boundaries while I respect yours and will not interfere with what matters to you. Seems fair and reasonable, but I am also well aware that my analogies of a melting fondue pot and a salad breakdown when applied to several of the issues. If only things could be categorized so neatly. 

But, to me at least, the analogies bear remembering while sorting through the reasoning and intense emotions radiating from these debates. Are we suggesting something that is adversely affecting a whole swath of people's sense of self because all they see is disintegration? If so, the bigger picture only grows murkier if the noble objective of embracing everyone leaves another set of people feeling kicked out. Is there a way to alleviate or mitigate these feelings of threat in our proposals for inclusion - reassure that things are not being melted and dissolved but only augmented without losing its core? This is a whole philosophical debate in itself - at what point does something change its inherent attribute?

Perhaps this is all idealism, and everything is a see-saw in life, or would be a see-saw for a transient period where compromises need to be made by certain people hoping that equilibrium will be eventually reached... at least for a brief time, before someone or something upends the delicate balance all over again. In the meanwhile, I am content to be in a salad bowl some days, and happily meld into a melting pot on other days, or other occasions. Context, and the varied stories and faiths of people around me matter as much as my own. It's a good perspective to hold onto when I sometimes feel isolated in my corner of the bowl or when I feel utterly lost in a pool of too many flavors.