Carnegie Mellon University

"Childhood Innocence, Avatar, and a Mean White Woman"

Honorable Mention for College Prose

While reading an excerpt from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, there was a particular moment that struck me. In fairness, there were a number of moments that did so, but there was one instance in which a white person pushed his son on an escalator in a movie theatre. To Coates, this reflected the assumption that white people still had power and control over black people in this country, with the stranger pushing a small child out of his way without a second thought. What struck me wasn’t the fact that Coates had to endure this unfortunate experience, but the realization that something remarkably similar happened to me.

I lived in a town called Gerrards Cross at the time, a good 30 miles or so outside of London, England. There was a solid community of Hindu-Punjabi people like myself, but we were still firmly in the minority. It was a relatively small town, so we were lucky to have a cinema right on the main high street. Avatar had just come out, and the hype was overwhelming—it took years to make, had a ridiculously high budget, made lots of money, etc. I wasn’t too bothered about all of that due to the fact that I was a nine-year-old, but the movie looked cool enough, and it was an opportunity to feast on the junk food every child craves. I got a small soda, a bag of popcorn, and some candy courtesy of the cinema’s fabled snack pack, and I trotted into the theater with my brother and sister and parents. I found the movie interesting but wasn’t too aware of its intricacies as a result of my age. My attention was being held thanks to the steady rhythm of my hand retrieving popcorn and delivering it to my open mouth, over and over again, until it was interrupted by the lack of substance left in the bag. I felt a few crumbs at the bottom and delved in so that nothing was wasted. This was my mistake. A woman in front of me grunted and turned around to look at me, her face a picture of pure anger, an emotion that was only reaffirmed after homing in on her target. I believe her exact words were, “Can you stop your rustling! You’re being so rude to me and everyone else here!” I always thought that was slightly ironic, as she was the one shouting at the full capacity her lungs would allow. Still, she didn’t stop, continuing to spew ugly words in the direction of my unsuspecting younger self. We were all in a state of shock, but my tear glands took over, causing my eyes to well up and water to stream down my face.

This prompted my father to stand up and take action, simply stating, “Look, if you have a problem you should come to me, not my nine-year-old son.” Her next reply, unbeknownst to me at the time, reaffirmed the motive behind her attack: “What? Am I supposed to go all the way down the line of your extended family?!” This flipped a switch in my father’s brain, and a heated argument between the two ensued, the content of which slips my memory, as the only thing running through my head at the time was pure confusion as to what was occurring. I remember staff entering the theater, followed by the lady storming out along with my parents. I just sat there, sniffling, while my brother and sister consoled me. I have no idea what happened outside of the theater, but it was clear that somewhat drastic action had been taken once my parents returned, for the seat in front of me remained empty. I could tell that no one really enjoyed the rest of the movie, with looks of sadness and anger etched across the faces of my family, while I’m almost certain there was one of tearful bewilderment on my own.

I struggled to comprehend the situation back then, and, in all honesty, it’s something I struggle to comprehend even now. However, the beauty of reliving a moment is that one can learn new things without having to completely understand the rationale behind an event. Firstly, I would’ve never seen this incident as one that involved race until I read Coates’ work, but after doing so, I was able to see the subtleties in the situation that made the woman involved more than just weird and cranky. The power dynamic in America of whites being historically superior to black people is comparable to the situation in England of whites being historically superior to South-Asian people due to colonization. The fact is this woman was exercising her “right” as a white British citizen to put a brown boy in his place. It doesn’t matter that I was so young or that I really wasn’t doing anything wrong—I did something that mildly bothered her, which she saw as an excuse to humiliate and reprimand me. What makes this thought so interesting is that, while I had never considered this an option until recently, after consulting with my father about this essay, he instantly remembered that moment in the cinema, even uttering something along the lines of, “Oh yes, I remember that woman. She was so racist.” In all these years since the event when I hadn’t really reflected, my father had clearly known her intentions, which explains the anger he felt at the time. And thinking about it, it makes sense to me. She was sure to slide in a common stereotype about Indian people, and in the experience I’ve gained in the nine or so years later, I’ve seen that certain people will often try to use their historical superiority to tell a brown person exactly what they think of them. Yet, at the time, I had no idea of this kind of connotation. I had no idea that someone could so harshly admonish another innocent person for no reason other than a higher content of melanin, a symbol of inferiority in the eyes of so many.

Now that I reflect, it’s hilarious to me that this occurred during a showing of Avatar, a movie based on a Hindu principle—avatars are incarnations of deities on earth and a core idea of the religion. The movie uses this principle by having humans go in a simulation where they live in the bodies of aliens on the planet of Pandora. Even the word is Sanskrit, which I doubt most of the audience knew about. That woman was enjoying a movie whose basis wouldn’t exist without my culture, yet she still felt that she harbored power over me. It’s quite odd, isn’t it?

I’d like to think that this small moment hasn’t had a profound effect on my life, but then I wonder why I remember so much of it. If it really was so insignificant, then why would I be putting so much thought into it? I suppose the truth is that this event does matter to me, and quite a lot at that. I hate that this was allowed to happen. I loathe how she yelled at me on the sole basis of skin color, simply because history told her she could. And I realize that people will think I’m overreacting or lying. I realize that many people might see this as another brown guy crying out racism over any bad thing that happens in his life. And I don’t blame them, at least for these initial reactions. But I ask those same people to at least see where I’m coming from, because I bet that they have never seen a look on a fellow human being’s face like the one that was shot at me that day. It was the look in her eyes that told me I was nothing more than a piece of dirt on her shoe that she couldn’t wait to scrape off. I ask those same people when they were first aware that they were different, because I’m sure I was a lot younger. I didn’t know why, but I knew I was different, and discovering the reason made things so much worse.

All this makes me wonder how much of an effect my race continues to have on my life now that I live in America. The dynamic is different, for the racism doesn’t come from the traditional power structure in this country, but rather the fact that a black beard on my brown face makes people think of those who flew planes into the World Trade Center. I accept that the differences are there, and it’s going to be a long while until everyone’s minds are changed, no matter where they are in the world. I still see looks flash across people’s faces, despite how quickly they try to hide them. Writing about this moment was important to me, because it’s important to acknowledge these moments of subtle and blatant racism that occur every day. I know that people may see me as paranoid, but I’m not; I’m just trying to address these problems so that we can finally leave them behind, and I encourage you to do the same.

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