1) How do you define yourself racially or ethnically and why is it important to you? Please tell us about the racial makeup of your family if you were adopted or come from a colorful family.
When I was a kid I just called myself black as that was what society taught, that if you’re part black then you’re all black. My father is African American, my mother European American. I thought that makes me all American, but people always wanted to know more, esp as I grew older. So in my teens I started to answer that I was half black and half white. Only as an adult, when the biracial tab was added to questionnaires did I start to identify with that.
2) Where do you live? If you have ever moved, whether to another city or the other side of the world, please tell us when and where, and the ways the cultural differences between the places shaped or made you think about your identity.
I grew up in Seattle, Washington (U.S.) where I experienced only subtle forms of racism. White kids if they liked me would say, “You’re not really black,” and black kids if they liked me would say, “You’re all black, man,” as if I didn’t know what I was; it tended to leave me feeling hurt and insecure. I moved to California when I was 19 where I started working and going to college. California was the first place I heard outright racist comments belted without shame.
Because I’m mixed but have an Indian name and a beard, rather than thinking that I’m mixed people would just think that I was an immigrant. So at work I would often hear people talking about black coworkers, calling them lazy asses, and worse. And no matter how many times I would stand up and say that’s not right, people would quickly forget that I was black, having decided that I was something else, and repeat remarks they wouldn’t have otherwise said in front of me. I also received the comments people reserve for immigrants as some said to me, “You people come here and don’t even know the language!” Confused, I would answer, “What people? Me? But I’m from here!” “Sure you are, man,” they would laugh.
Now I live in India which is a different experience altogether. Here, everyone is shades of brown, and all are Indian so they reserve the color of black for really dark skinned, black people. So although I am as dark as many in India, because I am a foreigner and am not black by their standards, they call me white. I was raised as black and this goes against everything I grew up with. All this leaves me with the understanding that race is very much about what others perceive you as and has little to do with who or what you really are.
3) Why do you have an Indian name? What took you to India? Did you know any Indian (language)?
When I was 15 I met a saint from India, Amma, known as the Hugging Saint. The following year wanting to devote my life to her cause I asked her for a name and she gave me the name Sreejit. I immediately changed my legal name from Michael to Sreejit wanting to start my life anew with this idea of service to humanity that Amma espoused. Everyone started calling me Sreejit so I have lived many more years as Sreejit than Michael. I elaborate on the name change and my spiritual journey here. I have been traveling to India since 1992, working and living in Amma’s ashrams.
4) How diverse was the neighborhood and school you grew up in?
All of my schools were completely mixed with all races getting along fairly well during school hours. Seattle is a pretty laid back place compared to other cities, so it was only later that I really experienced the perils of diversity. Though among the older generations I heard very set opinions on the wrongs of race mixing, the kids my age were pretty decent.
5) When did you first become conscious of your race or ethnicity? Please describe the context or a moment when you noticed you were different in color or language. It could be a scene with strangers, the park, school, work. Could have been subtle feelings you recognized or a blatant attack of bigotry. If it was a season or chapter in your life, tell us the impact it had on your sense of self, confidence, or emotional development. Can you share a bit about the fear, loneliness, longing for acceptance?
As I said, there was never really a time when others were not trying to define for me what I was. And if they asked me, I often heard on the heels of my answer, “No you’re not, you’re really [fill in the blank]” when I started to say I’m half black half white. Then an old black person might get offended and say, “No, you’re just black man.” And when I would tell an older white person that I was mixed, “How awful that your parents could do that to you. You should speak out against such things.”
6) Why do you think those people imposed their own race on you? Why do you suppose they wanted to?
My generation is the one that was birthed by the hippies. Both my parents tried to make a more beautiful world than the one they grew up in. For that reason they didn’t talk much, when I was a child, about the horrors of racism, because they didn’t want me to grow up with the same prejudices that they grew up in. Whereas the generation before them was had very strong ideas on what is right and what is wrong with race mixing. There were still segregated eating areas when my parents were kids. Neither of my parents stayed in contact with their own fathers; my mother’s father disowned her for marrying a black man. So when I would talk with someone old enough to be my grandfather, as a kid I was coming in with a very free, there’s no right and wrong attitude, whereas they had a lifetime of education that told them it was better for everyone to stay in their place.
7)) Do you consciously gravitate to certain company? Are you more comfortable, more at home around people of your own ethnicity? Have you observed a social or behavioral tendency in your own people group you would rather not perpetuate?
I can be shy if I don’t know somebody, but I tend to get along with everybody. I grew up in a very international neighborhood where we would have Chinese New Year’s celebrations; I later worked with mostly Latinos and lived with mostly Indians. I feel comfortable with pretty much everybody.
8) Are your most meaningful relationships with people of your own ethnicity?
All relationships are meaningful to me. That doesn’t mean that I fully give of myself to anybody. Most call me a loner but I get along with pretty much everybody.
9) How much does racial affinity give you a sense of belonging compared to a shared faith or interest? Think about the groups you are part of: writers, homeschoolers, mothers, hobbyist, artists, colleagues, church. Would you rather spend time with those who share your cultural food, tradition, and values or those who share your interest or mission? Where do you feel the greatest ease and connection?
I tend to enjoy being around people of similar interest: the artists, musicians, dancers, and writers. These are the things that bring joy to my life. Though I can’t dance I love to watch it. I love to play and listen to music, watch theatre, love to read and to write.
10) Do you consciously try to keep yourself or your family active in diverse circles?
11) How did you set out to secure a sense of acceptance and belonging in social contexts, especially if you have faced hurtful experiences?
I have always been “I am who I am”. Either you accept me or you don’t but I won’t change for your acceptance.
12) Do you feel it is not fully possible or even imperative to shed all racial stereotypes and judgments?
America has a very politically correct sense of handling situations, and even then people step on each other’s toes. But when you step out of America there is no such sense of pretending that you don’t notice the differences. Although people are becoming more accepting of others as our world is shrinking, I don’t see stereotypes and judgments fading anytime soon.
13) What has struck you the most in working through this exercise? Any closing thoughts on race and identity you would like to share?
For many, race creates a sense of belonging, but I think the more the world begins to blend, the more the younger generations will be bound by things other than race, whether it be economics, interests, nationalities, locales, or religions. Still, the sense to divide and fit in seems to be a need that people look for and is sadly not fading anytime soon.
Sreejit in The Seeker’s Dungeon