I was born and raised in India.
I emigrated to the United States as an adult at the age of 20. I moved from a small town near Bombay to, of all places in the world, Indiana, to pursue a degree in Computer Science at Purdue University. At the time of this writing, I've been living in the US for 12 years.
If you've met me and didn't already know this about me, you're probably very surprised right now. Why? Because I don't fit the stereotype at all. I don't even have the accent. People are generally shocked when they find out I grew up in India. Most people think I was born and raised in the US, and when I tell them I wasn't, they guess that I'm from Canada. Incidentally, my wife is Canadian, and I have a strong suspicion that my mirror neurons are too smart for their own good. But I digress.
"So… err… why and how did you lose your accent?"
Ah, if only I could earn a dime each time I am asked that. I have a standard response. It's a little crass, but it was certainly true at the time.
"I wanted to date different ethnicities but most women I encountered seemed be turned off by the Indian accent."
It's true. And consequently, I taught myself to speak like an American over the span of a year or so. Not only did it enable the love life I'd romanticized, but it dramatically improved my quality of life in areas that I hadn't remotely anticipated.
Purdue University is located in the small town of West Lafayette, IN. It's literally in the middle of nowhere and is surrounded by corn fields and farming communities. Gary (the city that gave us Michael Jackson) and the international students attending Purdue made up most of the minority non-Caucasian population in a 100 mile radius. The area was far from stereotypical "White America", but it was certainly no melting pot of ethnicities. And while most people were tolerant of cultural differences, you didn't stand a chance at getting the red carpet when you sounded like Apu. If you had aspirations of being treated like an American, your only choice was to be more American.
While most immigrants are mortified by this, I was mostly fine with it given my natural chameleon tendencies and curious nature. Over time, I embraced numerous "superficial" changes — knowledge of local pop culture, non-verbal signaling tactics, fashion, diet, the company I kept, etc. — and reaped the countless benefits that resulted from these changes. I didn't know it then because I hadn't read the research that I've read in recent years, but I was learning, in the words of Daniel Kahneman, the most important lesson about being a human being: we can be blind to the obvious, and we are also blind to our blindness.
In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman — the Economics Nobel laureate who is credited to have literally flipped how we think about our own rationality; a torch now brilliantly carried by folks like Dan Ariely — turns mythologized musings about humanity into facts. Take the question, for instance: If someone attractive walks up on stage to give a talk, do you take their points more seriously? Our intuition suggests the answer is "yes", at least as it applies to other people. After all, you and I don't judge a book by its cover, right?
As it turns out, and thanks to the work of Kahneman and others, the answer is, in fact, an emphatic, but more importantly, a scientifically binding "yes". The phenomenon is well-documented in the form a cognitive bias known as the Halo Effect. And I hate to break it to you, you and I fall prey to it as well. If you are convinced you don't, it's only because you're designed to tell yourself that story thanks to the wonder that is your left hemisphere. But now we're slowly veering into the realm of neuroscience, so let's reel ourselves back in.
The point is this: humans suffer from hundreds of biases that cause us to discriminate against each other not only based on race and gender, but also socio-economic status, smell, height, accent, political affiliation, attire, and countless other attributes. And our conscious minds are designed to hide our biases from us; hyper-awareness of many of these biases would defeat the very reasons they evolved. Once you consider this alongside the undeniable reality that some of us are born less fortunate than others, it becomes difficult to argue that racism or sexism or ageism don't exist or that "you are to blame for all that is shitty in your life" without driving even a red squirrel to call you a "bonerfart". After all, the evidence to the contrary is so accessible. Here's my reading list to get you started.
With that said, I do fear that our propensity to publicly hang the bigots often stems from a romanticization of the utopian dream of a true meritocracy: the idea that somewhere in the distant future is a world in which rewards are directly proportional to true talent and contribution. While that's an intoxicating dream, it is nothing more and nothing less than just a dream, and from a scientific perspective, a dream that is most likely unachievable. I fully acknowledge that many among us are fueled by lofty, seemingly unachievable goals. I used to be, too.
But as of late, thanks to another fantastic book by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi titled Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, I've come to believe that the true secret to happiness lies in setting challenging, yet achievable goals like the ones Sara and PPK advocate.
The ultimate goal, after all, is finding a happy medium.