By Akash Vasishta
Racial and cultural distinctions are embedded in American society. Regardless of how much we try to avoid it, evolution seems to have selected this primitive mental tool that makes it incredibly easy for us to profile and make sweeping generalizations, while also making it difficult to process the complexity of a situation or an individual. It’s easy to be racist, and it’s hard not to be. The dialogue in America about race can be limiting and jarring; it causes racial expectations about peoples’ places in society and culture, and often these pressures create more obstacles.
Astrophysicist and TV personality Neil DeGrasse Tyson (who is black) brings up a profound dilemma in a 2008 interview. He states that he wanted to be an astrophysicist his entire life but was confronted by a black colleague during his first year of college. Why, asked his colleague, should Tyson, a man of such intellect, use it on science (and, astrophysics of all things) when he could be helping the black community? This question haunted Tyson, filling him with guilt and making him question a career he had been pursuing his whole life.
Today, Tyson has moved past this, and removes himself from the pressure of race and racism by just being and doing. Tyson is an astrophysicist. He is not black first, and an astrophysicist second, neither is he an astrophysicist, then black. He is just an astrophysicist because that is what he does. It’s important not to think about race, but to think outside of it. Race labeling brings with it a plethora of connotations and expectations about behavior and immediately limits how much information you can receive from another person. Culture is beautiful and diverse, but fundamentally limiting.
In my own experience, as an Indian brought up in America, I’ve had several expectations placed upon me about what to do in the future— mostly I am expected to study medicine. This stereotypical dilemma is highlighted in “Harold and Kumar go to White Castle,” where Kal Penn’s character, Kumar Patel, is pressured to practice medicine by his own parents. His character in the movie is actually very intelligent and aces his medical exams—he just prefers to be lazy.
This depiction enforces the ideas in the viewers’ minds that Indians are incredibly smart and that many are trying to be doctors. This, of course, is untrue, there are plenty of Indians that do other things, but the pressures to be a medical student still exist. When I was growing up my thoughts about my future career were limited to what type of doctor I wanted to be. However, I realized towards the end of high school that I wasn’t interested in medicine at all and that there wasn’t any logical reason that I should pursue it.
Nonetheless, I felt I wasn’t meeting the expectations of my culture and it created a disconnect in my mind. I hadn’t honestly given it much thought until an “auntie,” who I hadn’t talked to in a few years, asked me a question. She didn’t begin our conversation with “How are you?” or “What have you been up to?” instead the first thing she asked me was “How is pre-med going?”
I honestly thought she was joking. When I realized she wasn’t, those feelings of guilt
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that Tyson brought up began to come back. I decided to be honest and say I don’t care about medicine. Because of the nature of gossip in any culture, I began to worry about what people would say about my parents (which didn’t help with the guilt). When I was growing up, my parents would tell me stories about Indian kids who tried pursuing “nonsense careers” (making movies etc.). They would tell me these kids never made it and were still living off their parent’s money. I realized that this was a way to reinforce the necessity of working hard, but it was also limiting my ability to think independently about my optimal career choice. I want to be a writer, and, though I didn’t tell “auntie” that, it certainly made me feel as if I was becoming the person that my parents warned me about. It made me start to rethink my career choice.
The only thing to do in this situation is stop caring. The expectations that people create for us aren’t always in our best interest. The character Fry from the animated series Futurama once brought up that the great thing about America is that nobody gives you crap for what you’re doing because nobody cares. That’s awesome.
Things like race and culture can bog us down because they limit our perceptions of others and create hierarchies that may be inaccessible to our conscious mind, but certainly dictate the unconscious workings of society. This may come off as a 1970s equality spiel, and it kind of is. Those hippies got something right: we are all equal. We’re the same species. Race and culture are illusory, and they can be hard to get past because we have to fight basic biology, but that’s what we have our intellect for.