Learning to thrive as a minority

We have a tradition at Launchable to have a virtual beer together at the end of the week on Friday. It's a way to connecting with each other to create genuine relationships. This is especially helpful since we are an entirely virtual company. Many times we just chat about the week, tell jokes, and discuss our favorite movies and TV shows. However, sometimes the conversation turns serious.

Last Friday was one of those times. For some reason, we started talking about what it's like to be a minority. I don't usually talk much about this, but this time, I felt that I had something unique to offer. The discussion went so well I thought I'd share it in a blog post.

First a bit about my background.

I am a Sikh by birth. Sikhs account for 1.72% of the Indian population and primarily come from Punjab. We are the most easily identifiable minority because of the turban worn by men who are often addressed as Sardar. My father moved out from Punjab to Mumbai before I was born. I grew up in Mumbai as a Sikh minority where Sikhs account for 0.49% population in Mumbai (a mere 60k in a city of 20million). My parents then moved to Malaysia where they were a minority (Indians are about 10% of the population) in a majority Muslim country. I have now lived in the US for over 20 years where I am a minority as an Indian, Sikh, or a brown man – however you choose to classify! 😄

Challenges of being a minority

Being picked on

I found that being the only Sikh in a school of over a thousand kids (with a “juda” – hair tied on the top of my head) made me a very easy target for bullies. The turban lends to a lot of jokes and I was often on the end of jokes around “Sardars” (a very common experience for Sikhs). Usually, a class story session started with a “Harpreet don’t mind this joke …but there was a Sardar and….”

I found this frustrating growing up and built defense mechanisms that last to this day.

To this date, I can see my father who is in his 70s flagged in the “airport security queue” because of his turban. It’s just something you grow used to. I eventually gave up the turban because I had come to resent it.

Me as a young man.

I don’t think “being picked on” is the right label though. What picking on someone does is to call them out as different and then they are told that they are not equal to others. It is a humiliating experience till you learn to grow thick skin.

In the US, you see this challenge with African Americans, the color of the skin makes you an identifiable target to be picked upon. I was deeply saddened to see that in this day and age, we still have African Americans having to fight for the right of being equal.

Being stereotyped

Matters worsened when Sikh separatists tried to build their own homeland in India in the 1980s. I found that now I was an easily identified “terrorist” in school. I was in a fight pretty much every day of school.

I found that if I f..ked up, I was about to paint a whole bunch of Sikhs in a negative light just as I was painted as a terrorist because of some individuals I know nothing about. It has meant that I had to go extra lengths to prove myself or hold myself to higher standards than the majority population. My experiences here are insignificant to individuals we have seen in the news in the last 6-12 months.

Being excluded

I found that sometimes I was excluded from the playground since I didn’t speak the local language Marathi. To be fair, this was a minor problem because Mumbai is incredibly cosmopolitan. However, I saw this up close (luckily didn’t experience it) in Malaysia where had government policies that excluded non-muslims from being truly integrated. We hear this in the US regularly of getting minorities a fair share of representation and I think this fight for representation is far from over.

Four ways to thrive as a minority

The fact that I have never lived in a place where I have been a majority meant that I have subconsciously developed a small set of principles to not only live by but also to thrive! These are not unique to me, but I think every individual in a minority embraces some version of it.

1. Embrace your and everyone’s uniqueness

It’s ironic that you grow up always trying to be part of a herd but what makes you unique is your difference from the herd. If you are by definition “different” then you are the individual that prevents the “herd mentality”. I find this as my go-to-principle. There are two aspects to this principle.

The first is to embrace your own uniqueness. I learned this from the Sikh way where one of the central tenets is “sewa" (or service) to make a difference. The way it manifests is to provide food (langar) to every human regardless of caste and creed. You can see Sikhs bringing this uniqueness in all sorts of places from conflict zones like Syria or providing food to truckers stranded due to Brexit in England. On a personal level, this has meant that I have the confidence to express my unique point of view and leverage my personal strengths (whatever they might be).

The second aspect of this principle is to embrace everyone’s uniqueness. If I have something unique to offer then so does everyone else. I truly value diverse opinions because they showcase to me something that I cannot see myself.

At Launchable, we have a team that cuts across geographies, religions, skin color, languages (both computer and human). I find it invigorating to hear opinions from my team that helps me approach our problems in a unique way.

2. Find common ground

It’s great to embrace your difference but if you become that one individual who is always the “devil's advocate” then you are no longer fun.

The current political environment in the US is a sad reflection of our inability to find common ground with our neighbors. I see a similar trend in India. People with “divide and rule” policies are savvily using social media to drive a wedge between people. (Sigh… more deserves to be said on this. Perhaps a longer post on this topic is in order one day.)

On a personal front, it implies finding simple interests - cooking, music, art, hobbies, or work ideas. Find the common ground because they help bridge the gap between differences.

3. Recast yourself as a majority

This is counterintuitive but if you constantly view yourself as a minority (vice versa) then you tend to get into the “us versus them” syndrome. The best way is to recast your own personal lens to view yourself as a part of something bigger.

I recognize that this is easier said than done because often the problems are external to you. After all, police targeting African Americans cannot just be wished away by an individual recasting themselves to a wider majority.

The point is more nuanced though, recasting yourself as part of a bigger tribe can often help you build new alliances, bring in fresher perspectives.

A good example is me at Launchable: If I see myself as an Indian then I am the smallest minority. That said, if I recast myself as Asian and/or American then I am part of the majority, and finally, if I view myself as an astronaut at Launchable none of the earlier classifications matter.

4. Build your own tribe & include minorities

I found this to be one of the most liberating principles.

You are moving through life being part of communities. However, not many people think that you are sub-consciously building your own tribe. Go out and build your own tribe bring in people that you absolutely love to interact with, people who support you, people you enjoy supporting, bring in different opinions – including majorities and minorities in your community.

At Launchable, we have explicitly set the intention to find a group of really smart individuals who share four of our core values: play as a team, be the change you seek, be fair and do the right thing and make customers our fans. Along the way, we found that we recruited people in Japan (includes men and a woman), on the west coast (Japanese/Indian co-founders), midwest and east coast (Caucasians if you want to ask) who shared these principles.

These classifications are immaterial, to be honest, and I hope that I have got that point across. What makes this fun for me is that we are a tribe that is bound together by common ideals that are representative of a wide array of groups.

Final words

I have written some words on my personal experience of being and thriving as a minority. I suspect that a lot of “majority” individuals will read this post. If you are one of the majority who has not yet reached across to get to know a minority well – please do so. Sometimes it can be as simple as discovering how they say "hello" in their community. I, for one, would be delighted if you addressed me with the Sikh way of saying hello. It can be as simple as that.

Interested in chatting more about diversity? Join our Discord and message us in the #spacebar channel.

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