I am Brown.
I am the proud daughter of two Indian immigrants.
I AM DIVERSITY.
As a kid I moved around a lot, but I spent my formative years in a small lakeside town in southwest Michigan. When I started middle school, I became the second student in my grade who was Indian. A few months after I joined the class, we had a new student from India. My classroom teacher seated us next to each other because he spoke little English, and she thought I could help him adjust to the new school. The trouble was that he was from an entirely different part of India, so, like my teacher, the only language I shared with him was English. I remember talking to my family about this later, and we laughed at my teacher’s misguided attempt to make the new student feel more comfortable. Looking back on this incident, I realize that we accepted this racial microaggression as a fact of life rather than holding my teacher accountable for learning more about the cultures of her students.
Growing up, my mother made it a priority for me to cultivate a balanced identity. My mother ensured that for every activity that engaged my Indian self, I would join an equivalent that would foster my American self. For example, before moving to southwest Michigan, we lived in India for two years. During this time, I developed a passion for Bharatanatyam, a South Indian classical dance. When we came back to the U.S., my mother found me a dance teacher in a town forty-five minutes away and drove me to classes every weekend. At the same time, she enrolled me in jazz classes, and I went on to learn lyrical jazz and chorus line. In this way, I was a minority learning the culture of the majority as well as the culture I was born into. By engaging in Indian and American culture, I began to appreciate the values that drove each and drew parallels that helped me bridge both aspects of my identity.
I am Brown.
I am a first generation Indian-American.
I AM PART OF A CONTINUUM.
In college at the University of Michigan, I struggled to find the right place for my blended identity. I felt like the students involved in Indian identity groups were judgmental of those students who did not fit their specific idea of what it meant to be Indian. A friend at the time who was involved in one of those groups would refer to me as an “Oreo” – brown on the outside and white on the inside – for not watching Bollywood movies. I felt that this description of me was both superficial and unfair. After all, my culture is so much more than movies. It is respecting elders and honoring family. It is going to the temple and connecting with thousands of years of Vedic traditions. It is speaking my mother-tongue with my grandparents because the unique intricacies of certain words don’t quite translate into English. To me, Indian-American identity occurs on continuum with strict adherence to traditional Indian values on one end, strict adherence to traditional American values on the other, and all forms of blended identity filling the space between. There is no right or wrong position on the spectrum; the range of expressions of identity are all equally valid, welcome, and necessary to adapt to our evolving, increasingly global world.
I am Brown.
I am a proud part of an increasingly colorful country.
I AM FREE TO BE DIFFERENT.
I came to find a voice and a place when I moved to the San Francisco Bay area for work. As soon as I got there, I was overwhelmed by the natural environment of diversity that was not only accepted, but also welcomed. There was an entire radio station dedicated to Hindi music. Walking down the street, I would hear someone speak my mother-tongue of Tamil, another speaking English, and another speaking Telugu. Women confidently wore saris. All forms of cultural expression and language wove together to form the fabric of American life.
The ability to express my identity the way I chose was incredibly freeing and deeply powerful. In the same breath, I could talk about watching Book of Mormon and the Tamil movie, Baahubali. I could openly talk about the value of diversity and be in a place where people intrinsically understood my perspective. There was no need to explain my full journey from the white Midwest to the colorful Bay Area, from a developing identity to uninhibited self-expression. The freedom to be and its value were intrinsically understood.
I did not have to think about the color of my skin or how that was perceived by others. Being the product of immigrants was the norm. My identity as an Indian-American was understood and respected; the people around me understood the realities of having a hyphenated identity. People would call me by my given name instead of just giving up after looking at the spelling on a piece of paper. People understood my drive to make the most of my career, so I could honor the sacrifices my parents made by leaving India in order to give me more opportunities. Truly being seen and understood was a gift.
I am Brown.
I am the proud product of both Indian and American traditions.
I AM MEDICINE IN COLOR.
Coming back to Michigan for medical school was a challenge. Although I have spent most of my life here, I had to transition from being part of a visibly diverse community to a community that was still — years later — learning the language of inclusion. I was, once again, part of the minority. My medical school is in a small town in the center of the lower peninsula. Like my hometown, the population is over 80% white. Living here has meant that my identity and lived experience are no longer implicitly understood; my blended self requires endless explanation and constant clarification.
It has also meant experiencing and witnessing constant microaggressions, much like that of my middle school teacher, as part of everyday interactions. For example, there is an Indian professor whose last name is Pandey (pronounced PAHN-DAY). However, multiple people, including other professors, pronounce her name PAN-DEE. In a conversation with an upperclassman, I said the professor’s name the way it is supposed to be pronounced; the student had no idea who I was talking about. This is not the first time this has happened. When I said the professor’s name again with the incorrect pronunciation, the student responded that she doesn’t call the professor by her “Indian name.” But this isn’t the professor’s Indian name. It’s her name pronounced the way it was intended. In a way, by returning to Michigan, I have returned to my childhood Michigan self — unsure of how to confront racial microaggressions. But now, having lived in the Bay, I am aware of them, and I want to better learn how to confront them.
We are diverse.
We are the products of immigrants across the globe.
WE ARE MEDICINE IN COLOR.
Finding allies who are not people of color requires the hard work of creating allies; it requires teaching others about your experiences, challenging their assumptions, and working together to break the social constructs that divide. This work can be exhausting, and it is difficult to constantly filter and explain yourself instead of being met with understanding right away. However, the need for this work is more important now than ever — especially in medicine. The field is desperately in need of improved cultural competency.
My name is Archana Bharadwaj, and this is “In Color.” In this column, I will explore the unique challenges of training as a provider of color and offer solutions for improving diversity and inclusion in medicine. Through conversations with colleagues of color, including premedical students, medical students in training, and residents, I hope to create a community where we can learn from one another, cultivate allyhood, and find support in our professional journeys.
Thank you for reading, and I look forward to seeing where this will take us!
In this column, I will explore the unique challenges of training as a provider of color and offer solutions for improving diversity and inclusion in medicine. Through conversations with colleagues of color, including premedical students, medical students in training, and residents, I hope to create a community where we can learn from one another, cultivate allyhood, and find support in our professional journeys.