The following is an edited version of a speech I gave at Brooklyn Law School at the South Asian Law Student Association (SALSA) Alumni dinner in April 2016:
I was in 4th grade on the school bus when my classmate peered over his seat, tapped me on the shoulder, and asked me: “What are you?” Although perplexed at this existential question, somehow I had the wherewithal to say, “Um, I’m human?”
Through high school and college, the question became slightly more sophisticated. “Where are you from?”
“I'm from NY.”
“No really. Where you from?”
In my mid-20s after I moved to New York City, the question became slightly more elegant, “ What is your background?”
The answer to that one is: “I’m Indian.”
But what does my answer tell them? What is the point of these questions? It is to label, to classify, to understand me quickly, as if heritage tells the whole story of who I am. "Where are you from?" is shorthand for putting a person in a box. We think it informs us or gives us a broader picture but what actually happens is that it gives us space to plant our biases and assumptions on other people. If someone wanted to really “know” my identity and asked the right question, I would say this:
“I am Indian. My mom is Rajput from Gwalior. My father is Gujurati from Chattisgarh but his parents are from Kutch. They had a love marriage and are the only ones here from India. No, I don’t speak Gujurati or Kutchi but I do speak, read and write Hindi. Oh and I am queer too. I am engaged to my girlfriend. Yes, it was difficult to come out with Indian parents but I think it is hard for a lot of people to come out who do not have Indian parents!” Now that is a lot of identities that cannot be squeezed into the "Where are you from" box.
Identity matters, because our colleagues, our clients, our classmates, our students, and even you have the same complexities. Even if you do not see it on the surface, everyone else is just as complex as you are. Check your assumptions at the door and leave your ears open so that you can truly help your client and personalize your advocacy to them. You will be a much better advocate when you keep your ears open, keep the questions coming and leave your bias at the door. You will be a better advocate than your adversary, than your colleague even, because you will have personalized your representation to each client.