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Racism and xenophobia are on the rise as the coronavirus spreads
05:56 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Priya Singh is the Chief Strategy Officer of Stanford Health Care and Senior Associate Dean of Stanford Medicine. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers. View more opinion at CNN.he views expressed here are hers.

CNN  — 

My journey began 8,290 miles away, in India. I grew up in Mumbai, completed my studies, and first set foot in the United States as a young woman in my 20s. When I boarded that flight to California, I did so with my sister’s advice booming in my head: wear long sleeves to hide the henna ink from a recent wedding. But she was really making a bigger point: hide who you are, because they won’t understand you.

My sister’s advice was jarring but well-intentioned. The truth was, I didn’t even need the warning: already, for months, standing in front of my mirror practicing each night, I’d worked to stifle my Indian accent. It was the start of my journey as a performer –learning when and how to shed my identity, and trying to anticipate when it was safe to let my guard down and reveal my true self. I call it “the Great Pretend.”

I feel lucky that I’ve made America my home for many reasons. I’m blessed because I’ve been embraced by so many American mentors, leaders, colleagues and friends. I’m also blessed because only here would my story be possible. My naturalization ceremony 13 years ago was a deeply emotional experience, a moment of incredible belonging. But like so many immigrants, I have always cherished the fact that America wasn’t just a place but also an idea: unmatched possibilities ever in search of their own perfection, for new and next generations to write.

America, by definition, isn’t a finished product – it’s a high ideal purposefully set just out of reach so we can all, – generation by generation, help to pull the country ever closer to its founding ideals.

And for my daughters’ generation if not for mine, I’ve realized that I have some work to do, myself.

It starts with a confession. For all my years in America, I’ve been acting out “the great pretend” – the code-switching, concealing, and compromising that women like me have subjected ourselves to for decades, voluntarily. After 20 years, I wish I could say this daily ritual of cultural camouflage is gone, but it’s not. My Indian code-switching is now as much a part of my identity as the henna ink I’d once tried to hide from passersby in my new home.

But now I realize how important it is for all of us to shed those masks, to recognize the unique situations and unconscious biases experienced by multi-hyphenated professionals, so that we can all be better, do better and work together better.

The bottom line: empowering others begins by empowering yourself.

“The Great Pretend” doesn’t just encapsulate the actions many immigrants take to avoid making others uncomfortable. It’s the often unconscious and unintended– but nonetheless injurious –interactions with peers and even allies that we let go or let slide because we don’t want to rock the boat.

Act I. A cherished colleague compliments my work and my leadership, by suggesting “it must stem from” my “service-oriented culture.” Another colleague assumes I was skilled at math because I’m Indian. A new acquaintance mentions how “polite” Asian cultures are. And of course, there are the many times I walk into a meeting as a senior executive, and a stranger assumes that my younger and more junior, white male colleague is the senior leader and my boss.

Act II. I am invited to be among the feted at a summit celebrating powerful women. I enter the big ballroom to meet my fellow honorees. I feel instantly like a tiny drop of cocoa in a frothy blonde latté. The organizers have assembled us to celebrate a future which is decidedly female, but the participants are dominantly white and native born. How does this continue to happen in the United States when women of color will outnumber white women 53% to 44% by 2060?

Act III. I’m in a meeting of my peers, discussing a vexing issue, working to form a consensus. We think we’ve arrived at an answer. One of my colleagues invokes the old LIFE Cereal ad: “He likes it! Hey Mikey!” The room erupts in laughter, and I join in too. But in my head, unspoken, all I can think is: Who the heck is Mikey? Growing up in India, television was a once or twice a month luxury, usually a chance to see movies released years before in the United States.

1970s, nostalgic commercial pop culture is lost on me, as it is to many of the 17% of the American workforce who are foreign-born and raised. Isn’t it time our shorthand and colloquialisms evolve to include the nearly one in five workers who have lived something approximating my immigrant experience?

I want Act IV of my story to wrap up the plot with a twist: it’s time to stop acting – acting surprised, acting oblivious, or acting like someone else – to blend in.

Empowering ourselves means ending “the great pretend” and pointing out our perspectives to well-intentioned people—because it’s the only way we will all learn.

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Empowering ourselves means incorporating the reality of intersectional identities – among increasingly heterogenous workplaces – into the core human relations and culture-building functions of any organization. Not because it’s politically correct, but because it benefits productivity and morale. Not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s the smart thing to do.

It shouldn’t take a tragedy like the mass shooting in Atlanta and the many other recent examples of anti-Asian violence for us to recognize that some life lessons need to be discussed openly – every day. Why? Very simply, because I want my Indian-American daughters to grow up knowing that pretending is never normal. And when the day comes, I don’t want them to wear long sleeves to cover the Henna drawing. I want them to write their story in bold ink the whole world can see and understand. That’s what we owe each other – and that’s what we owe the America we love.