I have mostly sported a clean-shaven look. But, after coming to college, my look began to evolve. I experimented with different looks ranging from stubble to scruff to just short of a short beard. Ahh the joys of being a young, evolving college student…

I recently went home to Connecticut to spend time with my family. Upon arrival, my parents reacted to my one-inch beard with surprise. “It’s only for a little while,”  I explained. This particular long length was not a personal aesthetic choice. I had been rehearsing for a play at school and was interesting in making the character look a little different from my usual self. As a result, many had commented on how much older and different I looked. As someone who had spent most of my life looking younger and more innocent than my age (an advantage in some situations, a disadvantage in others), I was amused by the responses.

Beard chat aside, I was ready for a wonderful weekend with my family. We were planning to go a to a food festival the next day. I was overjoyed at this news. Is there anything more heavenly then sampling various cuisines with people you love? The next day we drove to a quaint but unfamiliar Connecticut town. My heart and stomach could not stand the excitement that was to follow. I could see big tents and smell all kinds of flavors. I walked from station to station, picking up every loaf, cup, or skewer that met my eyes. My appreciation for this special day with my family was boundless, yet it was not lost on me that we were perhaps the only non-white family at the event. I quickly set the fact aside. Growing up in the suburbs, you get used to less diverse environments.

I soon separated from my family to explore more food stands on my own. As I walked around the festival grounds, I began to sense a certain energy being directed at me. As I stood in line, waiting to sample the food, I started to notice people looking at me. At first, I shrugged it off. As far as I was concerned, there was no imaginable reason anyone would be staring at me. More looks. I continued walking. No, something wasn’t right. The people were not acknowledging me in a normal fashion. There was discomfort in their looks. There was uncertainty. There was distrust. There was fear. You can’t miss that. More looks. “Perhaps I should look for my family, “ I thought. More looks. I grew increasingly nervous and tense. As I walked to another food stand, I found myself having to maneuver through the crowd. I accidentally bumped into a woman who was walking with a young child. I promptly said, “Excuse me.” With unbelievable rage and aggression, the woman shot me a look of disgust and hatred, shielded her daughter, and moved away.

I think you should shave,” my mom later said to me. She hadn’t seen this particular incident but she had seen enough. “I noticed people were giving you looks and I am not ok with that.”

I shaved my beard. I didn’t even think about it. I just wanted to erase this memory. I wanted the feeling to go away. I wanted the shame to go away. By growing my beard out, I had inadvertently invited the world to view me as a stereotype: one associated with danger and hate. I was someone to be feared and avoided. I was a potential terrorist.

The more I thought about it, the more disgusted, sad and livid I grew. How dare they antagonize me? How dare they create a narrative for me and erase my own. How dare they make me distrust myself and want to change who I am. My own response was only a microcosm of what some people endure every day, as they travel, commute, work, and exist. In many ways, I am more fortunate than most. I have many friends and even acquaintances who have treated me with complete respect and celebrated every aspect of who I am. I have experienced this profound level of hate only once in my life. But for so many, it is an everyday occurrence; that is not something any of us should ignore. Yet, as some in this world continue to stigmatize and demonize others, there is only one thing I know I can do. And that is to tell my story.

I am writing this to reclaim my identity and reclaim my narrative. I am so much more than the label I was given at that festival. All of us are. This post is me fighting back in the most peaceful, powerful, and productive way I know. I am proud of my skin color. I am proud of my race. I am proud of my ethnicity. I am proud of every piece of history and complexity that comes with it. I am proud of my identity. And I hope when you look at me, that is what you see.

Rishi Mutalik

Originally published in Skintone Stories Blog


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