'I am an Immigrant. Racism in America Almost Killed Me'

Though I have many intersectional identities, I am most proudly American. I immigrated to the U.S. from India in the mid-90s when I was 10 years old.

Because of my skin color, my name, my accent, and my ethnic background, I became an outsider. In America, my new home, apparently many thought I worshipped cows and monkeys, I was called dirty, ugly, and stupid. These attributes were accepted as fact.

As a young person, I was brutally bullied for being "different", for coming from a different country, for being a "savage", for being a "Hindu-heathen", and in addition to the numerous racial slurs thrown my way, I was even physically beaten.

Despite this harsh treatment, I rarely spoke up against these attacks and focused on my education and my work. As someone with immigrant parents of little means, I wanted to make them proud by making something of myself. For me, the best way to do that was to assimilate and be as close as possible to what I understood America to value: whiteness.

I changed everything about myself. I altered the way I looked, I lost my Indian accent, and I even went by the name Andy to appear more white. Andy was actually a name given to me by a volunteer supervisor at a Methodist hospital in Brooklyn because she felt my name was too hard to pronounce.

My young mind couldn't comprehend at the time how destructive this all could be, and so instead I went along with these newfound identities simply to fit in. Yet, in the early 2000s, all too often I would be walking down the street in New York and hear a voice shout out: "Hey! Osama, go back to where you came from!" My heart would sink. At that point, I felt I had changed everything I could about myself. All I could do was shove those remarks deep within, continue on and ignore it.

This only lasted until my early-20s when the accumulation of the racial trauma and self-hatred I experienced came to a head and I came close to taking my own life. I found myself on the window ledge of my 18th story apartment, contemplating jumping off. As I stood there, I thought of a queer, Asian American woman I had just met a few days prior. I looked at the tiny cars below me, and fortunately had a moment of insight: that the stereotypes I had been reduced to were just ideas that have been perpetuated for centuries.

For some reason, I got off the ledge and was compelled to call that same woman. Within a few minutes she was in my apartment, sitting with me, consoling me. The fact that she happened to be in my neighborhood at that exact time; the fact that I had her number; and the fact that I called her—a virtual stranger—and she picked up and showed up remains a mystery to me to this day. I don't remember much of what happened the remainder of that night. All I remember is feeling deep compassion from her and her asking me to promise her to go to my university's counseling center.

I did. I sought out therapy and it was incredibly helpful. At the time, I was working in a pressure cooker environment, law school, and experiencing this racial trauma on a daily basis. Back then, and even today, there were so many stigmas attached to therapy, particularly as an Indian immigrant and a person of color. But when you hit rock bottom, you need a safe space and I began to stop thinking about the stigmas attached to getting help. I tried a variety of different modes, including traditional talk therapy, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), somatic experiencing (SE), and Indigenous-focused oriented therapy (IFOT).

Additionally, I attended a variety of silent meditation retreats and built a daily meditation practice, particularly around loving-kindness for myself. For two years straight, I would meditate at least 20 minutes a day, sending well wishes to myself and the parts of myself that were still wounded. I truly feel that this practice by itself helped me come into my being like no other. I also became a certified yoga teacher to feel more embodied and to know my body in a way that I can feel comfortable living in it. I became a member of two celebratory social justice oriented spiritual communities: Middle Collegiate Church and Insight Meditation Society. Lastly, I began my journey with antidepressants. There is still so much shame around medication and I want to dispel that myth. They were a crucial part of my journey, and I went on them with the conscious understanding that this was a temporary solution. I really wanted to heal.

Anu Gupta immigrated to the U.S.
Anu Gupta immigrated to the U.S. in the '90s, aged 10. The racist abuse he received severely impacted his mental health. Anu Gupta

Coming so close to suicide woke me up to my suffering and gave me another chance to truly celebrate the life I was given. As I began to heal my own racial trauma, I experienced a transformation into how I related to the racial bias I experienced. Growing up in India, I was oblivious to the caste system that permeated society because I was born into India's dominant caste. I never interacted with those of the lowest caste, Dalits, historically known as "the untouchables" and was told from an early age: "Don't touch them. They're dirty." It wasn't always this explicit, but there were coded messages everywhere that signified their diminished status in our society. When my family moved to America, the tables turned and I slowly became the "untouchable caste" due to my ethnic background. This experience of felt sense and the understanding I developed has led me to explore the relationship between the ideas of race and caste in America. No human being is born racist. Racism is learned, and I truly believe that just as racism is learned, it can be unlearned. This is what I now do every day with my education technology company. I train hundreds of professionals in empathy and compassion skills to transform systemic racism and unconscious bias within their workplaces and communities.

Unlike many Black, Latinx, Indigenous, or Asian people, in the past decade, I have not experienced the trauma of being physically assaulted or losing a family member to police killings. But I have experienced numerous instances of racial gaslighting and microaggressions just because of my being, and that still happens now.

The anti-racism movement we've seen grow exponentially over the past year or so has been a long time coming. I am so grateful for all of the people—of all colors—who are speaking out and demanding that we live in a society without racism or caste. For me, an antiracist is simply a person who is able to say: "I love you because you're a human being." Race and racism force us to rank human beings based on our differences. They create a "better than" or a "worse than."

I continue to engage with curiosity. And in turn, this has fuelled my passion for educating others about caste, bias, and racial trauma. For me, unlearning racism and all forms of biases holds the key for us to truly unleash full human potential. I believe that coming to terms with our racial bias is how we'll propel economies and societies forward. I hope others are brave enough to join me on that journey.

Anu Gupta is an activist, scientist, lawyer and the founder of BE More with Anu. BE MORE is an edtech company that has trained over 20,000 business professionals at organizations like Amazon and Kaiser Permanente to break bias and advance diversity and justice. His work has been featured on Oprah and TED.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

If you have thoughts of suicide, confidential help is available for free at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Call 1-800-273-8255. The line is available 24 hours every day.