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Sindhuri Nandhakumar
Questions for Answers

Credit: Sindhuri Nandhakumar

Over the past four years, I have received many questions about my Sri Lankan identity.

People want to know more about living in a tropical country, the culture, the food and what it was like growing up during a violent civil war.

Those who know a little more about the political situation often ask me if I am Tamil or Sinhalese. In a country where ethnic tensions run high, this is a pertinent question. Tamils are a minority ethnic group that a terrorist group, the secessionist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (Tamil Tigers), claimed to represent. The Tigers were eventually defeated by the Sri Lankan government in 2009.

When I respond, saying that I am Tamil, many people have asked me, mostly jokingly, if I am a Tamil Tiger. Even though I can tell that all the people who have asked me this question meant it lightheartedly and humorously, I was shocked the first few times I heard it. I became increasingly annoyed the more it was asked.

While I am able to appreciate their efforts at humor and their interest in my home country, it is frustrating because I bring a lot of my own thoughts and opinions to this issue.

I grew up in a privileged environment in Sri Lanka, far from the war zones and areas of terrorist recruitment. I went to a very diverse school where I became best friends with people from different religions.

However, even people growing up in relatively privileged environments, such as myself, sometimes came into contact with the nuances of the conflict. Suicide bombs went off in big cities where many of my family members lived, and my parents talked about seeing houses being burned and mobs looting homes.

Even though I never thought I was being treated unfairly, I still experienced very subtle racism, and I knew that my Tamil identity would play a big role in how I was perceived by many other Sri Lankans.

So when someone, however jokingly, asks me if I’m a terrorist, I get frustrated. My recent reaction has been to make the conversation more sober by talking about how much more nuanced it all is.

In defense of the people who ask me this question, they were joking. Does good intent absolve them from responsibility?

I recently watched a movie called “The Reluctant Fundamentalist.” Based on a novel of the same name written by Mohsin Hamid, it has a beginning that many Penn students will be able to relate to. The protagonist, Changez, is a prodigious Pakistani student at Princeton University who goes on to work successfully in the glamorous world of finance on Wall Street.

And then 9/11 happens. In addition to extra-long inspections at airports, Changez faces racism in the streets and at work, and is at the receiving end of many joking remarks about his Muslim identity. All of this frustrates him so much that he decides to quit his job and return to Pakistan.

More recently, Prabhjot Singh, a Sikh professor at Columbia University, was assaulted by a group of people who called him “Osama.”

As these stories show, in some contexts, being called a terrorist could even be dangerous. In Sri Lanka, a country that has one of the highest abduction rates in the world, a joke can be manipulated in many risky ways.

Though the remarks I receive about being a terrorist are not nearly as offensive as the experiences undergone by people like Changez and Singh, they still feel very insensitive.

This raises the wider issue of gradations of racism. The spectrum is wide, so where is this proverbial fine line between innocent humor and malicious hatred? And by overlooking potentially offensive remarks, are we condoning racial stereotypes that might lead to dangerous prejudices and mindsets?

I don’t have the answers, but I do feel like caution and context are important. If we’re talking to someone close to us, and they clearly understand our intentions, then that will help diffuse any offense that might be taken. But it’s important to understand that these aren’t things you joke about, and the person who interprets what you’re saying may have a completely different perception of the situation.

Sindhuri Nandhakumar is a College senior from Kandy, Sri Lanka. Her email address is Follow her @sindhurin. “Questions for Answers” appears every other Thursday.

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