Last week I went to the payroll office at the Seattle Community College District to correct a mistake in my paycheck. The young man there was extremely helpful. In no time, he detected the error and informed me I would receive my arrears the next morning. As I thanked him and prepared to leave, he said, "You teach computers."
"No," I said.
"Then you teach mathematics."
"Then it must be one of the sciences."
"What do you teach?"
"Journalism. I am the adviser to the student newspaper."
He stared at me. "How come you teach journalism?" he said. "You are Indian!"
This is simply the most recent example of a conversation I repeat at regular intervals. The setting varies, as does the conversational partner. The import, however, remains the same. Suffice to say the Asian Indian stereotype of the technical professional is so pervasive in Seattle that people are genuinely nonplused to find one teaching journalism.
I have been teaching journalism in Seattle since 1998. I started at Green River Community College in the spring of 1998. In the fall of the same year, I moved over to Seattle Central. Over the last two years, I have taught multiple courses in journalism and mass communication, as well as advised two student newspapers.
Yet to this day I meet people who question my ability to do my job properly, purely on the basis of my ethnic background. I meet others who claim I have the job I have simply because of the minority status inherent in my ethnic background. And I meet still others who wonder as to how I can possibly survive my life. My classes are more than 95 percent white, with nary an Indian in sight. The same can be said for my colleagues - be they journalists or teachers of journalism. Invariably, I am the only Indian in a classroom, newsroom or conference hall; the one Vikram interspersed among a host of Jacks and Dianes. How do I stand being the odd one out every moment of every day?
I chose my career out of a love for language and a basic interest in human stories. The fact I could handle words better than numbers had some bearing on that decision. Not once did I pause to consider my ethnicity. After determining what I wanted to do with my life, I proceeded to prepare for it the way anybody would. I went to college. I got a degree. I did internships. After graduating, I went looking for a job. I thought of myself as a trained journalist who happened to be Indian, not an Indian who happened to be trained as a journalist. I still do.
Yet at every point, my ethnicity has played as big if not a bigger role than my training and ability. It has prompted some people to slam the door in my face, others to look upon me as undeserving, and still others to cast me as a pioneer or some sort of oddity.
My case is not unique. Countless people all over America live out the same experience. Their field may not be journalism or their ethnicity Indian. The basics, however, remain the same. They are defined not by their intrinsic worth as individuals, but instead by a popular stereotype.
Logically speaking, one would not expect to find stereotyping so widespread in a country that celebrates individualism as much as the United States. At first glance, the two concepts appear mutually exclusive. While one defines an individual in terms of attributes ascribed to a particular group, the other values individual attributes over those of any group. The reality, however, is that we judge people on the basis of where they come from and who their parents are in the same breath as we espouse everybody's right to do his own thing. So completely do stereotypes determine the way we see the world that any divergence, however minor, upsets our delicate balance.
Vikram Kapur received a master's degree in mass communications from the University of Georgia. He teaches journalism at Seattle Central Community College.
Essay appears Sundays in Scene, aimed, as all of Scene is, at the styles and vagaries of everyday life.