Beyond Racism: Creating Identity in a New Paradigm
It was July 11, 2014. As I sat in Cline Library Assembly Hall at the Northern Arizona University listening to Dr. Sandra Fox speak about racism in American Indian education, I realized: it’s my story. The details are different, certainly, but the thread of racism is the same.
I was attending the Fifth American Indian/Indigenous Teacher Education Conference in Flagstaff, Arizona. I felt humbled to learn there, as I did at the World Indigenous People’s Conference on Education (WiPC:E) last May in Honolulu, about the profound wisdom embedded in indigenous ways of knowing and doing – wisdom that all humans could benefit from as we face an increasingly warming, dis-eased, and perilous world. I feel sad that indigenous wisdom has, over time, been quashed, ridiculed, and forced into a cookie-cutter model of “education.”
As a high school student, I felt the sting of racism when my application for a government scholarship was declined. My indigenous friends all received scholarships and went abroad. How did I know I was being discriminated against?
I had the highest test scores in that year.
I am ethnically Indian, born and raised in Fiji. I remember the day I opened the rejection letter and cried; I felt uncertain, unworthy and small. I did not know why, except, perhaps, because I was not indigenous. I didn’t understand.
I was wounded but I refused to do what was done to me. I adopted a global identity, never rejecting my identity as a Fijian but transcending the limits of judgment that tend to surround race, ethnicity, and nationality. I embraced humanity and began to value myself as an indigenous earthling with unique talents. I wanted to serve Ma Earth, and I was going to find a way to develop myself so that I could fulfill my purpose.
I knew I could never stop being Fijian. I had to find ways to cultivate a resilient identity, strong self-esteem, and consistent self-worth. I am by no means there yet; it is a lifetime’s worth of practice. I am driven by the fact that there is no longer any room for racism and injustice in our development as a species. We must transcend this ignorant madness. We are bigger than this. We are wired to connect with each other.
Fast forward a year. At nineteen, after mixed experiences at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji, I traveled to the United States, seeking college education and acceptance. I found both in the San Francisco Bay Area through exemplary teachers and diverse friends. More than fifteen years later, with unwavering support from my parents despite political upheavals in Fiji that led to financial hardships, and interfered with my international student visa and my ability to stay in school, I managed to pull through with degrees in graphic design and environmental resource management. Later, I returned to California to earn a PhD in climate change and behavioral science.
Despite these academic milestones, I felt like a misfit in academia; I found the fear of failure, overcommitted and exhausted culture, perfectionism, and hierarchy stifling. Again, I found myself responding by looking inward to discover who I wanted to be and how I wanted to work and grow.
Following my inner compass, I co-founded a company that empowered leaders around the world to face the challenges posed by climate change, lifestyle diseases, and failing educational systems. I realized then with gratitude that I had begun to live my dream. As I formulate a new company now with a focus on leveraging human ingenuity to synchronize business with nature, I continue to work toward my dreams of a better world.
Importantly, I have forgiven those that discriminated against me. These days I am based in California and visiting Fiji as much as I can to be with my parents and to serve communities there. I have felt appreciated and accepted in my homeland once again through my work, which is a blessing. On the outside, I am a dual citizen; on the inside, I am a citizen of the world.
Crucially, I have accepted myself, despite the labels that others still use for me when they fail to see me. As I continue to explore my identity, learn new skills, and grow as a human being, I realize that I enjoy learning from the teachings of many cultures and traditions. My spirituality is one of connectedness that allows all life to be.
We are living in a new paradigm even as the old one, built upon the precarious sticks of short-sightedness, greed, violence and injustice, crumbles. This time is one of sharing, compassion, creativity, and above all, collaboration.
The next time you feel devalued, show compassion for that person who isn’t able to see you, and remind yourself of your identity based on who you know yourself to be, and how you know you can grow.
No one else can define you. Create yourself based on your passion, purpose, and service to the world!