In the last week of January, my co-producer Sharat Raju and I traveled with our film Divided We Fall around the state of Michigan — from a screening at Wayne State University in Detroit, to a workshop at the South Asian American Network conference at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, to a day at an all-girls Catholic high school, the Academy of the Sacred Heart in Bloomfield. Our audiences were diverse, but a central theme seemed to rise throughout our visit: young people learning to own the space between.
In my childhood, I grew up in what I call an in-between space. With brown skin and a religion no one had heard of before, I did not fit in with the other kids at school in my small conservative hometown of Clovis California. At the same time, with an American name and parents who had no accidents, I became aware that I was an outsider at the local Sikh gurdwara (house of worship).
Not fully American, not fully Indian, not fully Sikh, not really Christian, I grew up in the space between major national, ethnic, and religious communities. And like any kid, I hated it. I imagine that it was much easier to wrap oneself in a monolithic identity than sense your own complex strangeness.
Slowly, I learned how to see this in-between space as a source of strength, power, and creativity. I learned to own this space and speak from this space. From standing here, I could see things others could not. I could tell my stories.
I was not alone. An entire generation of kids like me have grown up in the in-between spaces. In our increasingly multiracial multi-religious country, we are navigating multiple identities, and instead of hiding our differences as perhaps our parents needed to, we are learning how to own our strangeness in this in-between space and speak from it.
This was clear to me during my tour in Michigan.
WAYNE STATE UNIVERSITY
We began at Wayne State University in Detroit where our audience was filled with students who shared the space between many identities: Sikh, Muslim, Arab, South Asian, white, American. Some wore turbans, some wore veils, and I was reminded of the sheer diversity of greater Detroit: the largest Arab-American community resides in neighboring Dearborn, MI.
I watched this audience and noticed the laughter was harder, the silence deeper, the tears more difficult, perhaps because many of these students related directly to the stories on the screen.
“Diversity doesn’t mean uplifting certain minorities,” I responded. “Diversity means all of us. It means all of us have differences and stories that ought to be recognized as part of the American Mosaic. We have all been outsiders at some point, we have all been guilty of biases, we all have a stake in the fight.”
Sharat went on to talk about the need for diverse stories in the media as a way to promote diversity.
“It’s time for us to start telling our own stories,” he began. “There are few South Asian Americans in the newsroom, on television, or in the filmmaking business, for example. It takes time, but our own underrepresented communities need to push the next generation into these professions.”
At the end of the hour, Amrik Khalsa, the student who first brought us to University of Michigan last year, spoke: “It is important to share our stories with the wider public, but we can be willing to start with their friends. It only takes one or two people to make a change. The burden is on us to speak, listen, and educate.”
Afterward, the students in the audience wrote down their reflections and their own stories, which you can read here.
SOUTH ASIAN AMERICAN NETWORK CONFERENCE
After Wayne State, we headed into a weekend-long conference called “Catalysts for Change” hosted by the South Asian American Network at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The conference was bursting with e
nergy. In workshops and over the dinner table, college students engaged distinguished professors, artists, and activists on issues of social justice, creative expression, and the future of our community and country.
Sharat and I were honored to present a workshop with our personal hero, Amar Bhalla, Director of the Sikh Coalition (pictured). I first met Amar when I interviewed him for the film just weeks after 9/11. He was sitting at a roundtable in a Manhattan office, working with a group of young Sikh professionals on responding to the crisis of hate violence in our community. Six years later, his leadership has resulted in the most important civil rights organization for the Sikh community: The Sikh Coalition.
Imagine how honored we were to have Amar introduce us at the beginning of the workshop: “After 9/11, when our community’s stories were not worthy of being on CNN or NBC, these filmmakers went out and captured them. It was an amazing service to our community. Our children and your children will be watching and remembering and learning from what happened in this moment in our history.”
It nearly choked me up. Six years ago, we simply shared the desire to do something about the injustice happening around us, and now we stand with what that desire has produced: a feature-length film, a civil rights organization. It became clear to me that anyone who owns their own voice can act on their desire to do good — and the impossible becomes possible.
We showed our audience of mostly South Asian American college students clips from the film and asked them to tell one another their own stories. As I walked around the room, I heard many different voices blending together:
“When 9/11 happens, I was a freshman…”
“I was a New Yorker.”
“It was the first time in my life that…”
“I saw myself as an object.”
“People saw me as an enemy.”
“And I got off the bus and felt the stares.”
“I no longer feel comfortable flying.”
“There are so many stories, I don’t know where to start.”
We ended with asking what gave people hope. One student looked up, face shining, voice steady, and said: “Ours is not the silent generation. Our parents were, we are not. Everyone in this room, gives me hope.”
This was confirmed that night at the conference banquet, where I heard Aasif Mandvi of The Daily Show fame, perform his spoken word pieces. Deftly exploring identity, confusion, pilgrimage, longing, his storytelling resides and flourishes in this space between — a space we are all beginning to share.
ACADEMY OF THE SACRED HEART
Our last stop was at the Academy of the Sacred Heart‘s, an all-girls Catholic high school, just outside of Detroit in Bloomfield. A teacher had invited me to present the film and speak on the school’s Diversity Day. Before I knew it, I was standing on the stage of a high school cafeteria before several hundred 14 to 18-year-old high school girls, hearing their bubbly conversations quiet down as their teacher introduced me.
I told them I was honored to be here for a high school Diversity Day, a first in the history of the film tour. I sat down as the film began and wondered what impact it would have on these young women with mostly white, Christian, middle-class upbringings. They watched quietly, attentively. After the film, the applause shook the cafeteria.
“Did you ever want to give up and go home?” asks Elayna.
“What was it like the first time you got in your car to do the first interview?” asks Emma.
“Were you scared when you were talking to the bigoted man in the train station?” asks Alex.
“Did you feel at home in India after seeing all the racism here?” asks Casey.
“This is the first time I’ve heard of the Sikh religion.” says Hayley. “Why?”
“My grandmother used a whites-only bathroom when she was a girl,” a young African-American student tells me, “and she was afraid that her brother would be hung if anyone found out. Now I’m thinking I need to tell my family’s stories.”
“I have a plain name and nondescript identity,” a young white student tells me, “but I feel like I’m in-between, because I don’t feel part of the larger culture, and I don’t belong to any other culture.”
These young women could respond to my story so personally, because even though they do not share my same skin color or religion or upbringing, they know what it is like to figure out who you are. They too have been thrown into identities that may not be able to hold them, and when they question their surroundings, they find themselves nestling into the spaces between, like me. Here we craft their own identities, find own own voices, as young women terrified and courageous enough to be ourselves:
We can be born into this in-between space between, we can choose it for ourselves, but once we are here, it becomes a borderland — a meeting of ideas and stories and questions, a community of storytellers, saying the unsayable, one breath at a time. It is a space where we can recognize one another. Let there be no limit to who stands here with us. For this is where we can learn to speak our own truth and stand as one.
Special thank you to Amarinder Kaur and the Sikh Student Association of Wayne State University (pictured below at dinner), the entire organizing team at the SAAN Conference, and Chaise Ewert-Meyer at the Academy of the Sacred Heart for hosting an incredible Michigan tour!