In April of this year, like many other ninth graders across the United States, I read Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. The novel’s central plot revolves around George Milton and Lennie Small, two friends living in the 1930s, getting work on any ranch they find. George and Lennie share the typical “American Dream” of that time: owning their own plot of land, only having each other to look after, and not constantly moving around. Their American Dream was one that had little to do with their race, background, or the rest of their peers’ dreams. In fact, it was solely based on what the two individuals wanted out of their lives, regardless of who they were.
After finishing the book, my English teacher gave us a project in which we were to discuss our culture’s American Dream. The project’s prompts asked us to answer questions like “What struggles did your culture face when trying to achieve the American Dream?” and “Did they accomplish their dream?” On the day it was assigned, I couldn’t help but raise my hand and ask a question. What did she mean by culture? Looking at how the project was formatted, it seemed obvious that she was talking about race, not culture. In fact, one of the questions even said “Why did they (your culture) come to the U.S and/or to California?” as if everybody in our so called “culture” had one, unified reason for moving here. I asked my teacher if when she said culture, she meant race. She replied hesitantly that culture could also mean religion or gender. It wasn’t limited to just race. I couldn’t figure out how I was supposed to incorporate gender into a project that wanted me to describe the American Dream.
A week later, my English teacher asked us to form groups based on our culture and discuss a video we had watched the day before. Since we couldn’t figure out how to group into anything else but our ethnicities, my class clustered into a group of Indians, a group of Koreans, and so on. My teacher, upon realizing that the “culture” of Hispanics only had two people, she called over to the group of Indians. “Indians!” she yelled, drawing the attention of the rest of the class.“Do you have room for two Hispanics?” I shook my head in disbelief, and watched as two people of a different “culture” joined our group. After seeing how my teacher referred to these so called cultures as an ethnicity, it became apparent to me that this project had nothing to do with culture; instead, it was about the American Dream in relation to race, which stresses the idea that your race is what defines your American Dream.
The project asked me to interview my parents about how they came to America, and wanted me to write essays talking about “if my family accomplished their American Dream.” These were just a few of the parts of the project that wanted me to discuss my race, and amplified insecurities that I’ve always felt about my race, this thought that it will always be the first thing people will see about me. It made me feel like my real dreams could only be validated by my race, that any dream I had would be judged because of the color of my skin. Furthermore, this project had not once asked us to discuss the novel that we spent 3 months reading. Nowhere in the project were George and Lennie even mentioned, or the fact that George and Lennie’s race was not something that factored into their American Dream, and that their hurdles had nothing to do with the color of their skin. Instead of doing a project that discussed these elements of the novel, I was given a project that only wanted me to talk about how my race was the biggest hurdle I faced when trying to accomplish my dreams.
My parents were immigrants, and I am proud to call myself an Indian American. I am proud of my race, religion, and gender. I love to discuss the accomplishments of my culture, but not my race. My dream is not the same as the dreams of people of the same ethnic background. My American Dream has to do with my abilities. To me, my culture is not the same as my race; my culture is who I am, how I was raised, and the beliefs that I hold. My race is the color of my skin. I will not be put into the box of stereotypes that many people make about my race. My American Dream has nothing to do with how I or my parents came here, or the color of my skin. It has to do with me as an individual. As a person, not a “culture.”