On the first day of first grade at the Doha British School in Qatar, I discovered that recess was hot, dusty and not entirely pleasant. What it was not, was cool, green Nairobi where I had lived until recently. I found myself shunning the overheated, running, shrieking kids in favor of the small playground area where the metal play equipment baked quietly in the desert sun. I was testing the creaky swing with my hand (before trusting it with the rest of me) when my new classmate, Jennifer Bentle, approached. My heart leaped at the thought of making a first friend and I offered Jennifer a shy “Hello” as the swing groaned to and fro, on its own now.
She looked at me with a frown, scrunched up her freckled, button nose and whispered into my ear, “I hate you. You have brown skin.”
I remember reflexively examining my standard-issue, Indian-brown arm, to see what might be so repulsive. Skin color was an unexamined idea in my life until then, so I assumed her distaste was valid, perhaps requiring some action. When the self-inspection yielded no clues, I looked up with an honest query on my lips.
But I had addressed the back of Jennifer’s blue gingham frock: she was walking away, her neatly bobbed brown hair swinging triumphantly with every step
Maa responded to my tears that night by arming me for the playground the next day with a script. She was driven by a dark, retaliatory rage that I understand only now, as a parent myself.. Braiding my long, black hair with extra gentleness at bedtime, she promised that the next day would be better. Not convinced, I went to bed with a heart full of dread but mind steeled with resolve to make a stand.
I still remember the nervous ring of my feet on the metal stairs that brought me from class to the school yard at the next recess. Jennifer was standing by the see-saw when I marched up and tapped on her shoulder. She turned around and recoiled slightly at the sight of me. My resolve started crumbling at the imminent rain of horrible words, and before my courage could desert me completely, I blurted out:
“I hate YOU, Jennifer, because YOUR skin is white!”
It was exactly what my outraged mother had coached me to say. It didn’t occur to me until recently that she must have also been smarting from echoes of the ‘brownie’ Colonial insults that had haunted her freedom-fighter father. My mother is not usually given to vitriol of this kind.
Thankfully Jennifer didn’t hear my hateful little speech. She was, at that moment, blurting out her own nervous script right over mine. More than one mother had been coaching the previous night, apparently. It went something like this:
“I don’t hate your skin! I was nervous about the first day of school yesterday and grumpy. I’m really sorry, Chandreyee: I didn’t mean it! My Mum’s SO cross!”
The fact was that six year old Jennifer Bentle had just come from England to this bright, hot, desert country and was utterly unnerved by the otherness of everything. This included her first day of school and…me. I know this because of many subsequent recesses worth of chattering, games, and playdates. She became one of my best friends for the next 7 years I spent in Doha. Our fathers knew each other professionally, so polite notes inviting each to the other’s home to play passed between our moms via our grubby little hands as often as our fathers’ cooler ones. She came to my birthday parties and I, to hers. In the photo at the top of this post, she’s wearing two ponytails (just like my two braids) and is seated next to me. It was my last day at that school before I moved to Saudi Arabia.
Of course my friend Jenny was parroting over-heard racism, but what’s important in this story is her self-awareness of being wrong and most importantly…that she communicated it to me.
Before Jenny apologized, I had been on the offensive and thus, on the path to hostility and division. My inevitable aggression was for the sake of my dignity; had she not spoken up and had I not listened, ours would have been a familiar tale of division and hate.
That was my first brush with empathy: a look at how feeling for someone else can turn perceptions on their head. If Jenny’s words scarred, they also showed me that first impressions are not always the whole ball game. My blundering discovery of empathy and understanding was in addition, the path to coping: with the otherness I would face as well as being the ‘other’.
We are each of us, ‘other’ to one another: urban/rural/ex-urban, black/white/shades-in-between, white/blue/pink colors-of-collars, all degrees of ability/disability and the spectrum of sexuality. Whichever groups we occupy, the others are different, discordant in the moment, with our worldview, values, and lives. But only until shared human experience cuts through the noise, reducing the primacy of differences, rather than their existence.
Since the 2016 Presidential election, I find myself continually revisiting this idea of ‘otherness’: of the need to open ourselves to similarities as well as differences, to ask, respond and engage so we can understand what can be understood and co-exist with the rest of it. Neither gloss over ‘otherness’, nor pretend to accept it fully, but to know that we all have the capacity of holding more than one opinion in our heads without shuttering our hearts.
I’ll never forget my first day of school and I hope you who are reading this, don’t either. If for no other reason than when you meet your Jennifer Bentle and hear her hard words, you will ask, or at least think, “Why?” and try to understand, rather than dismiss, her.
You might be surprised at what happens next.
Chandreyee Lahiri is a geographer and GIS Specialist (Geographic Info. Systems) who works in environmental conservation. Originally from Kolkata, India, she made her way to the U.S. via Africa and the Middle-east, making ‘home’ a slippery idea. Right now, home is Waltham, MA with her husband and 10 year old son. Chandreyee dabbles in short fiction, children’s literature and story telling and believes that Faith in human goodness is the only kind she needs. Her blog silverliningscloudydays.blogspot.com, focuses mainly on valuable moments that fall between moments. She hopes we’ll all keep trying to reach and help one other because even ‘a little bit of something is more than a whole lot of nothing’.