When I wrote my application for Michigan in Color my freshman year, I was asked why I was interested in writing and sharing stories. This question lingers in the back of my mind, even though I am no longer a columnist at The Michigan Daily. On the surface, I have multiple answers. The simple answer is that writing has been my safe place since I could pick up a pencil. A different answer is that I want to write because even though I’m not the best at it, I understand that I don’t always have to be the best at something to want to do it. Another option is that I want to write because I love to read works that I wish I could write, and Michigan in Color columnists never fail to remind me that I wish I could write like them.
After nearly four months of no longer writing bi-weekly columns for Michigan in Color, I’ve realized that my writing has slowed down to the point where I am starting to wonder why I really wanted to write. Why did I want to write badly enough to share the thoughts that were only meant for my journal? I re-read my MiC application in an attempt to figure out why freshman me wanted to write, but my application revealed nothing. I lied about the real reason I wanted to write. I lied because if I really wrote down why I wanted to write, I didn’t know if Michigan in Color would have wanted me. I didn’t know if they would have wanted someone so insecure in their identity as a woman of Color. I didn’t know if they would want someone to write for them when the reason they wanted to write was to prove to other people that they weren’t whitewashed — that they were a “good person of Color.”
I was born and raised in Rochester Hills, Michigan, which is a predominantly white area. Growing up, I never cared too much about constantly being immersed in white culture. This was my norm. This was all I had ever known. I had been best friends with three of my neighbors, all of whom were white, since I was around 3 years old. As the years went by, we went from playing with Barbies to adventuring in the mall to lying to our parents so we could go to parties. We were so inseparable that my sister would have to drag me out of their homes when Amma didn’t want me to sleep over.
For so long, I thought this little bubble of a life in Rochester was nearly perfect. I say “nearly” because I knew I was a little different from my neighbors. I knew that I didn’t want them to see me eat with my hands when we had dinner at my house. I knew that their grandparents didn’t wear the same kinds of clothes that my grandparents did when they came to visit. I knew that some things were different between us, but I chose to ignore them, thinking that these differences weren’t significant enough for me to be the odd one out. However, in high school, my seemingly perfect bubble “popped.” But “popped” feels like an understatement. My bubble was shattered at the hands of one of my friends’ dad.
My friend’s dad was the one person who would constantly let me know that I wasn’t quite like the rest of my friends. He would mask his racial microaggressions as curiosity. He casually asked me at the dinner table, in front of all of my friends, whether I would be getting an arranged marriage. I was only 13 years old and had never even thought about getting married. I bet he doesn’t even remember how embarrassed I was when I told him no. When I made small talk with him and briefly mentioned my older sister would be attending the University of Michigan, he went on about how that university has such a high Asian population, implying that the University is innately unfair. Though he didn’t use these words, my brain rearranged his sentence to show what he really meant to say: “It’s not fair to let so many Asians in when they’re all just naturally smart.” I uncomfortably stood there while he spoke, thinking that maybe if I tried hard enough to forget, these memories would go away.
But as time went on, snippets of these events stayed with me. I was too naive to know that the things he was saying to me were racial microaggressions. All I knew was that it didn’t feel right. These memories, along with others, haunted me all throughout high school. I couldn’t go back to trying to fit in with the white crowd when it was made so obvious to me that I was not, and could never truly be, one of them. Now that I think about it, I wonder if the only way to truly fit in with the type of white people I was around was to be white. Regardless, I was unable to forget what he said to me to the point where I began to rethink my friendship with my neighbors.
I couldn’t blame my friends for not sticking up for me because I didn’t even stick up for myself. But did they even think that anything he said was wrong? Do they even know that I think about what he said to me seven years after he said it? The fear in me took over, and I realized that I never really wanted to find out. I still don’t. I don’t want to find out whether or not they think I was, or still am, being dramatic about these events. It would hurt too badly — not because I would feel betrayed or disappointed but because I know there’s a small part of me that would believe them if they told me I was overreacting. Although I don’t like to admit it, I know that deep down, if someone were to tell me that what happened to me was not racism but rather a “miscommunication,” I might question myself enough to believe them. People of Color, especially women, are conditioned and trained to believe that they are dramatic when retelling their experiences. This tactic is typically used to silence marginalized voices, especially when it is employed by someone in a higher position of power. Growing up, I was taught to respect my elders, given that they are more knowledgeable. However, experiencing racism from an elder — a white man, too — was uncharted territory for me. It contradicted what I was taught. It was, and still is, one of the reasons why I tend to invalidate myself. If someone were to confirm my doubt, I don’t know how this would affect me in terms of my growth.
Once I moved to college, I searched for better, more worthwhile friendships. Friendships where I wouldn’t have to spend my time debating whether or not I actually endured racism at the hands of one of their family members. It had all just grown too difficult to pretend like my heart didn’t beat faster walking into some of their homes. I was ready for something new.
Upon moving to the University of Michigan, it didn’t surprise me that all of the friends I made were people of Color. I found myself gravitating to people who made me feel comfortable and didn’t constantly pick out the parts of me that didn’t match the University’s white majority. I was, and still am, so grateful to have met such an amazing and irreplaceable group of people that I’m lucky enough to call my friends.
Still, I found myself unintentionally comparing myself to them. One of my South Asian friends knows how to play the sitar. One of my South Indian friends took bharatanatyam classes growing up. One of my East Asian friends speaks Cantonese. As I made more friends, the list of things they did that embodied certain characteristics of their culture grew as well. And while I know that “you shouldn’t compare yourself to other people” and that “everyone is different,” I couldn’t help but feel like I was a hollowed out, disappointment of a South Indian. I only understand Kannada, I can’t speak it. I grew up singing Taylor Swift instead of Carnatic music. I took ballet and tap classes instead of bharatanatyam classes. I grew up internally begging not to be pointed out as someone who was, and will forever be, a part of a marked category. Though my friends never made me feel “less” of a South Indian, I couldn’t help but believe that I was truly less.
But I knew how to fix this. All I had to do was prove to everyone that I’m not whitewashed, that the way I was brought up doesn’t mean anything because I know my roots. The first and only step I took to proving myself was applying to The Michigan Daily as a columnist for Michigan in Color. Now, I guess this brings me back to the infamous question: “What makes you interested in writing and sharing stories?” When I wrote my answer to this question during my freshman year, I gushed about how I didn’t understand what it meant to be a person of Color. I didn’t know what it meant to be “normal” because I was always picked out as the one that didn’t quite match. I wrote about how I tried to deny the fact that I was different, but I have come to accept it. All of the things I wrote were valid and true to my experiences, but I hid the fact that my response was coming from a place of insecurity for not being a good enough woman of Color.
A few weeks later, I got an email saying that I got into Michigan in Color as a columnist. Not only did I have a platform, but I could finally say that I was a part of an organization that viewed me as a person of Color who’s “good enough” to share her stories with a large audience. I remember feeling so wanted. I immediately punched in my phone password and opened my notes app to jot down story ideas for my future publications. I ended up writing most of them. I primarily wrote about my parents and how they shared our culture and family morals through story-telling. I wrote poems about my core memories with my parents. I wrote the tales of how I learned love through my mother. I wrote about my family and for my family, so I could show them and the world that even though I couldn’t speak Kannada, I still held my culture close to me. I sat in my bed writing stories for MiC about my family and myself as my uncompleted assignments piled up on my desk. I wrote, I edited, I published and I shared it with my family. It was a cycle that I not only loved but also craved.
On a random day in April of my freshman year, though, I had a bad case of “writer’s block” — only it felt a little different this time. I had the list of story ideas in my notes app of the things I wanted to write. After my eyes scanned the list of half-thought-out stories, I realized that I didn’t really want to always write about who I am in regards to my family. I wanted to write about something else … but what exactly is that? I thought to myself. What does it mean to write in a way where I don’t have to prove myself? Do you even know where to start?
I had no idea where I wanted to start, so I did the assignments that were gathering on my desk. I started cleaning my apartment. I started doing anything and everything besides the column that was due that Saturday at noon. I eventually threw something together. And I edited, I published and I shared it with my family, just as I did before. Only this time, I didn’t really love what I had published. I was just happy that it was over. I began to wish the cycle would give me a break, so I could figure out the question that was stuck in my head. What do I write about when I’m not trying to prove myself?
As I continued writing for The Michigan Daily, I found the cycle that I once craved was turning sour. I convinced myself that I scammed my way into being a columnist for Michigan in Color. I had a good run. My writing days are just coming to a natural end, I told myself. And so I quit.
I’m not sure when I came to the realization that my bad case of “writer’s block” was not writer’s block in the slightest regard. It could have been on one of the countless nights I spent talking to my roommate about how I have nothing left to say or share. It could have been a few months later, when I was talking to my sister about the reemergence of my journal writing. I’m not sure when it happened, but I realized the reason why I felt like I had nothing left to write about was because writing for Michigan in Color healed the part of me that had something to prove. The part of me that was aching to show that I wasn’t whitewashed.
I set out to share stories to prove something, but writing about my family and my culture served as a healing mechanism. I don’t know when I truly started believing that I didn’t have to show other people that I was worthy of my identity. Maybe it was when I recalled the time Amma gave me the first gold she had ever bought. I was writing poems for Michigan in Color. Or maybe it was when I looked back on Amma putting jaji (jasmine) in my hair when we were in Bangalore. I was writing a piece on the five senses for Michigan in Color. Though I’m not sure when I gained confidence, I truly think the process of recalling and writing the memories of how my parents taught me our culture felt less like something for me to prove, and more like something I was choosing to share because I wanted to, not because I felt like I had to. In all honesty, I’m unsure if I could have grown this much without the help of Michigan in Color.
Now that I no longer feel the need to prove anything, I’m not sure why I feel compelled to write and share stories. Maybe I’m overthinking what was just supposed to be a simple question on an application for a student newspaper. In all honesty, I’m not sure what drives me to continue writing. But I know that writing has been a safe space for me for as long as I can remember. I know that writing has served as a remedy for my insecurity revolving around my race. I’m not sure whether or not this is an appropriate answer, given that I need to rediscover why I want to share stories. But I wanted to share this one as a massive thank you to Michigan in Color. During my freshman year, I set out thinking I was going to publish my writing for the school newspaper. Not only did I do that, but I also think I came out a more whole, more secure person. So, thank you.
MiC Contributor Meghan Dodaballapur can be reached at email@example.com