The Crayon Dilemma

I always colored my face with the peach crayon, rather than the tan one.

Photos by Pxhere
Photos by Pxhere

By Rachel Patel

As a child, my sole ambition was to become an artist. I drew majestic landscapes, such as a clumsy rainbow arching over a square house, abstract masterpieces otherwise known as scribbles, but my speciality was in portraits. I would draw my parents, my teacher and myself - especially myself. I had a passion for painting my profile on paper. The background and color of my dress were frequently modified, but one thing remained constant: I always colored my face with the peach crayon, rather than the tan one.

This distinction didn't seem like a big deal. However, my subconscious attraction toward the peach crayon set a precedent for an internal struggle between my Indian and American identities. For an extended period in my life, I believed I was neither Indian nor American enough, because my peers constantly interrogated me on my ethnic identity.

"The background and color of my dress were frequently modified, but one thing remained constant: I always colored my face with the peach crayon, rather than the tan one."

In the first grade I remember a boy coming up to me during recess. His blonde hair was neatly tucked away under a red snapback, and he was wearing a black shirt. He started to ask me questions that I didn't know how to answer - "Why are you here? Where did you come from? Why do you look different?" My heart began beating faster and my palms became sweaty. Even though I was only one of five Indian kids in my elementary school, I had yet to be questioned before, and never really pondered my race. My eloquent response to his inquiries was "Uhh ... Um?" We didn't talk after that, but his questions stuck with me for a long time afterwards, especially because he certainly wasn't the last person to ask them.

America is portrayed to be accepting of all cultures. However as a first generation immigrant, I had to prove my loyalty to the U.S. Society pressured me to assimilate. I traded my "exotic" food for Lunchables, recited the pledge and wore American brands. But I still failed to prove my allegiance and consistently received questions about my racial identity - questions Caucasians wouldn't ever be asked.

I wanted to fit in so desperately that I went so far as to expand my English vocabulary. But the people who made these assumptions didn't care how I spoke. They were content in their conclusions while I was left to piece the fragments of my identities together.

As a child I never knew how to respond when asked "I know you said you're American, but where are you really from? " Was the inquirer asking where I was born? Where my ancestors were from? How babies were made?

I started to question what was wrong with me. Although I was born in America and my passport was filled with U.S. landscapes, it didn't matter. My parents immigrated here and I would never be seen as a real "American." I couldn't even be Asian, either. The term "Asian" was reserved for mostly East Asian people. Instead, I had the race "brown" bestowed upon me. I was to be, as comedian Hasan Minhaj proclaimed, the "color of poop."

For years, I failed to recognize there was nothing wrong with me, but rather with the question itself and its racist undertones.

Race is generally assumed to be the predecessor of racism, and that the shades of our skin keep us naturally separated. However, as, Ta-Nehisi Coates, the author of "Between the World and Me" said, "Race is the child of racism, not the father." Questions of race wouldn't exist without subtle strings of racism woven into conversation. Inquiries about a person's origins would not exist unless a muted "us vs. them" mentality was present.

This was not a conclusion I effortlessly grasped. Questions such as this one plagued me. The idea that I could be similar to an "American" was rejected by society. I could never be a part of the "us."

Between home and school I developed two different facades - the Indian and the American. I was never simultaneously both. Instead, I maneuvered between the two personas.

Trying to accept both personas as my own wasn't an easy process. The facades didn't like each other. They found reasons to clash and protest the existence of one another. "I'm American," I would tell myself as I walked home. "I was born in New York, I primarily speak English, and my name is Rachel." And yet, whenever I got home, my mother knew exactly how to make me a proud Indian: "Roti and Subji is so good. How could anyone not love Indian food?"

I began reading online articles of people who had similar struggles balancing their own heritages, and their outrage over being treated almost as if they were second-class citizens. I began to understand there was nothing wrong with me. It was possible to be proud of being Indian and American. It was around this time I also began noticing my mother's ability to balance her Indian heritage and her now American nationality. She still yelled at me in Hindi and insisted on watching Bollywood films, but she also proudly voted in our elections and cheered louder than anyone when an American athlete would win at the Olympics.

Following her example, I began to find harmony between the two facades. I brought Indian food as lunch again - something I hadn't done since the second grade, and dressed up in Desi clothing for our school's International Festival. When people asked for my "real name," I explained to them "It's Rachel, but I love being 'Rachel Patel' because it's a reflection of my ethnic identities mixing together."

The final confirmation came when I was walking through Target one day in pursuit of a cheap white elephant gift. I saw the beautiful gem that had been missing from my childhood: the Crayola multicultural crayon pack. With a rapidly beating heart, I grabbed the pack full of various skin tones. It was verification for me that it was okay to be Indian and American.

And in case you're wondering - I now reach for that tan crayon.

All photos are copyright

Rachel Patel is a freshman undeclared student at the University of Texas at Austin.