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ORANGE COUNTY COMMENTARY

Plenty of Lines, but No Limits

Society defines us racially, sexually and financially, but we must find ways to overcome preconceptions and intolerance to grow as individuals and appreciate one another.

October 13, 2002|Shadee Malaklou

At age 5, I had my first brush with intolerance. My next-door neighbor and I went to kindergarten together. She, let's call her Susie, became my best friend. As innocent as she was, she had learned to hate on the basis of race. And at age 5, she manifested this hatred on me.

Susie taught me many things. Looking back on it all, I wish I could describe her impact as positive. We played on the monkeybars together; I gave her my snack sometimes. She invited me to her birthday parties, and I invited her to mine. Yet the most vivid memory I have of her is the bitter dissatisfaction she left. I just wasn't good enough. I was never good enough for her ... unless I wasn't myself.

Susie insisted that I abandon my Persian heritage and fully adopt the American culture -- her culture -- and the customs she identified with. This best friend insisted I stop speaking Farsi and that I no longer associate with my grandmother because my dear momon-joon wore a scarf around her head as a symbol of her religious devotion. She asked that I trade my beloved rice and kabob for such "normal" foods as hamburgers, pizzas and tuna casseroles, and that I dye my hair blond so that I could be "beautiful."

So I did ... for as long as I could. But it didn't last long.

Looking back on it all, I am ashamed to admit that I conceded. I compromised myself in order to be accepted by a girl who, unfortunately, did not even know how to accept me, or any other person with a dissimilar background. A decade later, I realized the foolishness of my actions. My bittersweet awareness can be best summed up in the words of the band Coldplay: "In my place, in my place ... were lines that I couldn't change."

These words led to a powerful self-realization: I needed to accept myself. I needed to accept myself even though others might not. I wish I could tell you that Susie was the only one, and that my distraught -- no, burdened -- heart was the result of this incident alone. I wish I could tell you that I knew nothing else of prejudice and bigotry. I wish I could tell you that, growing up in the U.S., I had never stared hatred in the face or felt its presence around the corner, in my neighborhood or at school, so malevolent and ready to attack.

The world can be a dreary and unwelcoming place, where people are lost, hurt, alone ... and racially frustrated; where people let stereotypes and racial slurs determine who they are, what they stand for and their significance to others. And though we victims cannot but take note of their snubs, what we make of their actions is our choice and our choice alone.

Me? I know that I will never be a Shadee cast to fit society's status quo; and I know that I am not blond, not beautiful. I was never like Susie, and am still not.

And today, at age 17, I question my once-ardent desire to mirror my friend's image. Susie had been insensitive in her vulgar rebuff of my heritage; and I would never treat a fellow living, breathing, feeling individual with the same regard.

I ran into that little girl a couple of years ago. We sat together for a while. Our childhood came up, and I asked her why.... Yes, that infamous why. In the words of Coldplay, she admitted that she had been "scared, tired and underprepared" to deal with diversity.

Unfortunately, as mere human beings, we are often scared of what we don't understand. At age 17, my friend Susie was beginning to realize the truth expressed in these words, though, sadly, I know that many others are still in the process of ascertaining that truth. All of us, regardless of how open-minded we consider ourselves to be, must push to further liberate our senses and compassion toward the only race -- the human race; the only sex -- the human sex; and the only class -- humanity.

As different as we are and as beautiful as those differences may be, it is the similarities we share that envelop and enthrall us. We are all of one entity. Our differences make us beautiful, but our similarities allow us to love.

You see, at age 5, I was incapable of changing these lines that put me in my place, and at age 17, I am still unable to change them. But there are certain lines that we do and must cross -- that we do and must change. Racially, biologically, sexually, financially ... we are who we are. And these lines that put us in our place? We will never be able to change them. But as human beings with ideologies and viewpoints and principles, we are what we make of ourselves.

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Shadee Malaklou is a senior at Northwood High School in Irvine.

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