I was born in the United States of America. I am a navy blue passport-carrying American citizen. English is my native tongue. Yet many people treat me like I don’t belong here.
I am of Indian descent. My parents are from the south of India. I am a tall woman. My skin is a darker shade of brown, my hair is jet black with wildish curly tendencies, giving me what has been called an “ethnically ambiguous” appearance. My dark eyes reflect the experience of a life lived outside of what is considered ordinary.
Since I was a very young child, I have been asked the question, “Where are you from?” Ninety-nine percent of people are unsatisfied with my answer: “I’m from New York.” Without fail, they all proceed to ask the following question: “No, where are you really from?” My further explanation (in clearly unaccented English) of being an American (born and raised) is met with sheer incredulity. As if someone who looks like me cannot possibly be from the same place that they are. The icing on the cake is this: “How do you speak English so well?”
My earliest memory of this line of questioning was from teachers and classmates at the age of 5. Yes, 5 years old. Imagine that. Before my identity was even fully formed, I was essentially told that I didn’t belong. Not only did I not belong, but my answers of my own identity were not acceptable and required further questioning.
At the age of 5, I had to ask myself difficult questions. Why don’t they believe me when I tell them who I am? Am I not trustworthy? Could it be possible that they don’t accept what I have to say just because I don’t look like them? Can I trust them? If I wasn’t really an American, what was I? When I held my hand over my heart with my classmates each morning to pledge my allegiance to the flag, I had to ask myself if I was really part of this “one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
Three decades of fielding these nearly daily questions has certainly not fostered a sense of confidence and belonging as an American. I’ve just learned to tolerate the little indignities, to keep my head up, and to go on about my life. Because who has the time or energy to focus on anything else other than working to move forward?
I know I am not the only American who has felt this way. There are millions of people in our country who look like me and millions who don’t. Millions who were born here and millions who were born elsewhere and made the choice to become American citizens. There are the millions of marginalized people of all ages, genders, ethnicities, abilities, sexual orientations, and religious affiliations who have fought and are still fighting tirelessly to be seen and have their voices heard equally.
There are millions of us who have been told by fellow Americans and certain presidential candidates that our voices aren’t the ones that really matter, that we don’t really matter.
That is why I’ve been so cynical about politics and politicians. That is until I met Hillary Clinton.
My husband, Peter Daou, is a former adviser to Hillary. He is of Lebanese-American descent. At first glance, we are not your typical couple, and our marriage added another layer of questioning and scrutiny from the judgmental, exclusionary public to our life. It’s not easy to be on the receiving end of disapproving looks every time you walk down the street with the person you love. Having become accustomed to not being accepted by society at large, this was just another unpleasant aspect of my life that I had to deal with.
One evening, very unexpectedly, Peter and I ran into Hillary and a few of his former colleagues. Peter always spoke of Hillary with the utmost respect and admiration. He spoke of how intelligent and disciplined she is, and of how kind and thoughtful she is, always, even in the midst of a world of never ending work and incessant attacks on her integrity.
Seeing her in person for the first time, I could see all these things in the way she carried herself with such ease and dignity. Though she was on her way out of the building, though she was surrounded by a large group of people, she walked over and embraced Peter then took a moment to shake my hand, look into my eyes with a smile, and connect with me.
The former Secretary of State, Senator and First Lady, one of the most accomplished and admired women in the world, genuinely and wholeheartedly acknowledged me in a room where I would otherwise be overlooked. She welcomed and embraced me and my husband. She made me feel for that moment, that my presence really mattered.
That is something that I see in the faces of the millions of Americans who support Hillary. Looking through photos of Hillary on the campaign trail, I see a beautiful mix of faces, a mix that America was always meant to be. And I see women who look like me beaming with pride and hope.
You can feel the emotion of Americans from all walks of life, who are finally being acknowledged and embraced for who they are, just as they are. That the lives and concerns of all Americans are valid and valuable. We feel, some of us for the very first time in our lives, that we truly matter and our voices are being heard.
And it’s why, despite the unceasing personal attacks on her, the non-stop media chatter about her supposed “unlikability,” the horrible insults from her political rivals, we stand strong for her and always will.
Because of Hillary Clinton, many of us finally feel that we belong, that we’re truly Americans. In the deepest and most enlightened sense of that word.