Celebrating the richness of plural identities

I met Mina in the lunchroom of our international students’ residence in Morningside Heights, Harlem, in the fall of 2011. I was doing my master’s in public health at the time, contextualized by the history of the HIV epidemic that had ripped through Harlem in the 1980s. Mina was a journalist from Lahore on a Fulbright Scholarship to New York.

I had grown up in New Delhi and I cannot describe the joy I felt to meet a fellow South Asian from the historic twin cities of Lahore and Delhi – cities and people long separated by a border and a painful shared colonial history. To meet in Harlem, the historic epicentre of the Civil Rights Movement and African American identity, felt cathartic. It felt right.

My time in Harlem was short, a mere two years, but they were transformative. I took the Washington Heights 1 train in the morning to class surrounded by young Dominican mothers taking their lively children to school. I felt safe on the streets, blending into the beauty of the hodgepodge of street shops, older Black men playing chess on the sidewalk, pastors rushing to work, and kind Black women smiling as I said hello. I no longer felt like an Other; it was comforting to feel so accepted, so embraced, part of a larger joie de vivre. I sincerely hoped that I could somehow give back to the community that gave me so much; the recent Black History Month and International Women’s Day have been opportunities to reflect on how much both groups have brought to my life since immigrating to North America.

My first class in public health started with an older professor discussing the similarities between civil resistance and public health advocacy. I was in awe as he described going door to door during the civil rights movement. It was the 1960s and he was a young Black activist canvassing to overturn Jim Crow laws. He described the fear, the violence against his fellow activists, the shared resistance, and the desire to create a better world. He spent the rest of his career similarly advocating for safe sex practices in Harlem, again going door to door, this time sharing expertise about HIV prevention and supporting families affected by the epidemic. HIV had taken a disproportionate toll on the Black population, exacerbated by the higher rate of incarceration among young Black men. Harlem was the epicentre. Entire communities were left without fathers, but he spoke also of the strength of Black mothers. This was a civilization, much like my own, that had endured and survived.

During this time, I started volunteering at a pediatric clinic in Harlem. My attending was a brilliant and accomplished Black woman, loved by her patients and exceedingly respected by her colleagues. She was a prominent community member as well as a proficient academic clinician. I admired her ability to engage with her patients, to speak multiple languages – I saw how she gently guided a Ghanaian woman to breastfeed her newborn, discussed community-based strategies for active living for children with obesity, and translated complex medical evidence into steps that fit into people’s lives. She demonstrated that the role of the clinician was not simply to prescribe, but to listen, to captivate, and to break the sterile barrier of miscommunication. Her tenacity struck me; never judge when expectations are not met, but rather set goals that are meaningful to the patient rather than those determined by the doctor. She became my role model and helped push away my doubts of pursuing clinical medicine as a woman of colour.

Mina later introduced me to another fellow South Asian – Rohini from Dhaka, Bangladesh, studying climate change. We became close, shared laughter, food and understanding of what it’s like to be a female from similar patriarchal cultures. The word minority was difficult to accept, knowing that we came from the second most populous region in the world. At the time, New Delhi was a city of 30 million and a unified South Asia 1.8 billion. We brought a majority perspective to the world. But in North America, we would be termed minorities of colour and placed into a colour-coded box of races: we were simply Brown. I personally could never identify with this label; it could not capture the complexity of my identity. Technically, everyone in South Asia was Brown (though we have myriad shades and colours), but we had unique identifiers that were somehow not visible to America. The labels we identified with were Indian-Canadian of Assamese descent, Pakistani of Kashmiri descent, and Bengali-Bangladeshi, a nuanced representation of a complex subcontinent.

The most valuable part of my friendships with Mina and Rohini was our understanding of South Asian feminism and our ability to exist as feminists within contradictions. It was astounding to us that Americans had never elected a woman to represent them. The first female democratically elected heads of state in the world were South Asian: Sirimavo Bandaranaike, prime minister of Sri Lanka in 1960, and the fiery Indira Gandhi, prime minister of India in 1966. Pakistan later had Benazir Bhutto in 1988, the first woman prime minister of a democratic Muslim-majority nation. Bangladesh elected Khaleda Zia in 1991 and the prime minister at the time was Sheikh Hasina. India’s head of the opposition party was Sonia Gandhi from Luciana, Italy – an Italian woman who married Indira Gandhi’s son. Ironically, Italy still has not yet elected a female head of state. In short, South Asians long ago became comfortable with women leading them.

And yet, during this time in New York, the world was shaken by the heinous gang rape of a young female student in New Delhi. I remember coming home from class, reading the news, and crying in my dorm room. A single act had taken away our collective freedom, our confidence. I started asking my friends to text me when they went to parties; I stopped going to social events altogether. It was a reminder that for South Asian women without power or privilege, it was still the Middle Ages. It was the understanding of these contradictions, of intersectionality, that I could discuss freely with my friends. It was also heartening to see South Asian men and women take to the streets to demand justice, to want a better future for all women, not just the ones in power.

Years later, I would feel the same guttural reaction hearing about Breonna Taylor’s death. This time, I took to the streets too, in desire of a better outcome.

I really grew into myself those years in Harlem. I do not know if any other place could have fostered this coalition of young “Brown” women and their ideas, their self-acceptance, self-love, or recognition of self-power. The men and women of Harlem were kind, loving, generous, warm. They had strength in their endurance and their community – a resilience I also saw in South Asia. I am forever grateful to the generosity of Black women and how they fostered my growth.

It is of no surprise to me that Americans have finally elected a woman half Black, half Indian to represent the beauty of their collective experience.

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Shohinee Sarma


Shohinee Sarma, MD, MPH, FRCPC, is chief resident, Adult Endocrinology and Metabolism, University of Toronto and a PhD Student, Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation, University of Toronto.

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