These were the hurtful words that a colleague said to me at work a 3 years ago. I gathered that her statement was meant to be, “I forgot you were Tamil.” I doubt she knew the difference between the different South Indian languages and groups of people. I know it’s not exactly her fault, but it did leave a scar, so to speak. After a few days of recovering from the hurt of the statement, I thought to myself, “What does it mean to be Tamil?”
The reason I thought this, was because to this person, my physical appearance was not enough to distinguish me as being Tamil or even “Indian” for that matter. In my life and the workplace, I’ve faced so many racial challenges together with discrimination that it became overwhelming at times. For some people, I was “too Indian” and for others I was “not Indian enough” as I noted earlier. I was stuck between a rock and stale Ladoo.
Is being Tamil having a certain way of speaking? A certain physical dress code? A love for a certain type of food? Perhaps a certain taste in music or movies? Being Tamil actually, is just that. Simply being. Is a tiger only a tiger if it is in India? Surely tigers in Malaysia don’t tell tigers from India, “I forgot you were a tiger.” Tigers hold a special place in India for their magnificence and power, as do we, the Tamil people.
Shaming someone for not fitting a cultural stereotype should never be allowed and ignorance cannot be used as the excuse anymore. In 2020, there are multiple resources for people to educate themselves about race, culture and profiling. I struggled to find my place in the world and to embrace my culture and heritage largely for reasons out of my control. This is something many Tamils of the younger generation and largely, the younger South Indian community struggle with.
I grew up in a strict traditional Tamil home in South Africa where academic achievement and working towards a stable and secure future were the key priorities. In other words, every Tamil home then. Granted, I understand where my parents were coming from as every parent does not want their child to experience any hardships they had to endure. This I came to understand over the years.
During my pursuit across those years, I was never able to fully identify with my culture and heritage as much as I wanted to due to a lack of time and a general “Anti-South Indian” culture in the world. From Primary School, to High School, then University and immediately into the workplace, there was not enough “free time” to make up for the lost years.
Fast forward to the statement I mentioned in earlier in this article. Since then, I made a conscious effort to learn about my culture, my heritage and embrace all the pride it holds to be Tamil. This was not to prove anything to that colleague or anyone else for that matter. It was for me. Learning about our history, language and values has been deeply fulfilling and wholesome. Being Tamil is not a burden, it is a celebration.
Embrace and learn about your culture for yourself, on your own terms and at your own pace. Don’t let anyone shame you or make you feel self-conscious about being Tamil. Tigers don’t apologize for being tigers and you don’t have to either. In short? Yes, I’m Tamil and don’t you forget it.