I grew up in the United Kingdom at a time when institutional racism was prevalent. My parents didn’t want my brother and me to endure such oppression, so they selflessly compromised their already financially-strapped lives to send us to an expensive Catholic private school, a place they felt we could be safe and happy. As my father’s paycheck barely covered rent and household expenditures, my mother took up a full-time professorship to afford our school fees.
So there I was, of Indian origin, living in the United Kingdom, attending a Catholic private school, where most of the students came from wealthier families. At that age, I did not possess the cognition nor the interest to comprehend such details. All I knew was my best friend was named Paul, I liked mathematics, and I thought Rachel was cute.
This was the beauty of being young. Our cognitions were sheltered from the knowledge of social constructs. We engaged with people simply because we were curious about them. We engaged in activities simply because we enjoyed them. There existed no additional layer of over-analytical thought to validate an alternative approach.
As we age, we develop that additional layer of over-analytical thought. We develop the cognition to understand our individualities, construct our identities, and characterize ourselves. And though this type of intelligence is essential for finding what makes us uniquely happy, it also becomes our new default lens with which to view the world. It’s a lens that condones identifying someone as a Christian, Muslim, or Atheist, not as a human who also believes in being kind and compassionate. It’s a lens that condones identifying someone as a Caucasian, African-American, or Indian, not as a human who also has storied familial and cultural history. It’s a lens that condones identifying someone as wealthy, middle-class, or poor, not as a human who also desires to contribute to society and meet basic living standards. It’s a lens that condones identifying someone as Republican, Democrat, or politically-disenchanted, not as a human who also thinks Donald Trump is hiding Russian operatives under his wig.
When friends ask what I’ve learned from twelve months of traveling and living around the globe, I tell them the old lens still exists. It’s one that allows us to embrace people for who they are, not spurn for who they are not. It’s one that doesn’t serve to categorize humankind, but rather serves humankind. It’s one that provides the understanding that despite any exhibited uniqueness, human beings still have more in common than not.
As I reflect on my childhood, I can’t help but recognize the parental sacrifice that afforded me the experience of diversity without classification and oppression. And I can’t help but think about how a desire to revisit that space propelled me to notice the commonalities among human beings around the globe.
Classification is a human construct. Likeness is a human condition. I hope the lens we choose to wear allows us to see that.