As a little Brown girl, I treasured the crap out of my culture.
I loved everything and anything that tied in with my culture - the music, movies, dances, clothing - you name it.
But when I started my first year of high school, I promptly began to disconnect myself from my identity, culture and heritage.
As someone who has always wanted to fit in, I even refused to use my last name, “Jeet,” as I felt it was an embarrassment, after being bullied for it.
Even after correcting my peers on how my name is supposed to be said: first name Shivani, last name Jeet, it still brought confusion to others who would interrogate how an Indo-Fijian woman can have a “Punjabi” last name.
I’ve heard it all.
“Are you from India?”
“You don’t look Punjabi so why is your last name Punjabi”
“Are you sure your name is Shivani Jeet and not Shivanijeet?”
People judged my name for not sounding “Hindu enough,” and made people think I was Punjabi, or passed judgement around my identity as a result.
I felt excluded from the South Asian community -- not fitting in with either of those identities, and being made to feel like an outsider. Even after correcting them on how my name is pronounced, or how I would prefer it to be said, it simply became a mockery of who I was during my teen years.
Even if my name was Shivanijeet as a whole, I could never understand how this was a source of ridicule or embarrassment, or came with the automatic assumption or insult that I was a “dipper,” which is a derogatory term.
The bullying made me want to change my identity entirely, and dissociate from my name and I began to use my middle name instead - Devika.
The fact that the name flowed more, and made me sound more “Hindu,” brought me a sense of comfort -- a comfort I actually did not like.
AlthoughI I could finally avoid questions that bothered me throughout all of high school about my last name, guilt consumed me because of what I had to do to deal with the internalized racism from others and within myself.
I rejected the use of my last name and ignored it for 6 years, until it became non-existent, erasing a huge part of my identity.
Coming to terms with my family name was always a lengthy and difficult process. I’ve always wanted to embrace my name as a whole, but everytime the thought crossed my mind, memories of taunting from the hallways of my school flooded my consciousness, and I became reluctant.
The relentless, aggravating questioning became too much for me, and having to remind everyone that yes I was Brown, but a different Brown.
At the age of 20, I finally acknowledged how bitter and ignorant I become, and how I was erasing part of what makes me who I am.
My last name isn’t one I should be humiliated of. My last name isn’t something I should escape from either. As I gradually begin to learn about my ancestors, my views on my last name changed drastically, and I’m reclaiming Jeet as a source of empowerment.
Internalized racism was not only something I faced through other’s presumptions, but also within myself as well.
I began to withdraw from my love for my culture just because of my last name, but not anymore.
If there’s anything I look forward to, it has to be this new journey of accepting my last name for what it is, who I am and where my family name comes from -- not from what others think it is.
I’m learning to accept my last name and identity and my culture, but it sure has been a journey.