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September 3, 2015

Chicago youth finds common ground in India

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By Cameron Woods

As a black kid growing up in Chicago, some opportunities tend to be more open to me than others. I find aspects of my life experience limited due to my identity, whether or not I recognize it at the time. 

In the U.S., it often feels like there is a great disparity between races, classes and, more evidently for me now, gender. Women are still paid less than men and face both conscious and unconscious discriminated. I’ve now seen gender disparity firsthand in India, where many women are treated as second-class citizens. Just as with the social and economic disparities between African Americans and whites in the U.S., improvements have been made, but there is still a lot of work to do. 

I first noticed the disparity at my rural homestay. In my host family, the father ran a store and took care of the business aspect of the household while the mother and grandmother did everything else. They cleaned the house, did laundry, fed the animals, watched the little ones and had all of our meals ready for us every day without fail. It was hard for me to watch my host grandmother perform grueling manual labor and my mother have to wait until everyone else finished before eating a meal she made alone.

Although I realize this arrangement is part of India’s culture and that many grandmothers are very pleased to help around the home of their children, I feel it does demonstrate some of the ways inequality in and outside the home persist. 

There are many Indian traditions that highlight ways women are unequal. Women and girls often stay in the home and take care of chores rather than waste time pursuing an education or career. Female feticide takes place in some areas because it is more honorable to have a son. Girls are viewed as more expensive for families due to wedding dowries.

I visited many local organizations working hard to alter the way people think and uproot certain beliefs and traditions that oppress women and girls. This is not an easy task: changing mindsets after centuries of tradition takes planning, utilizing connections and an incredible amount of patience.

Hundreds of years of history in America have constructed a deeply unjust framework for black people. Many see us as deserving, equal citizens that fought for our rights. Yet, it’s sad to say, there are still those that believe the best place for us is in prison or on a boat back to Africa. 

The similarity is this: black kids in Chicago, like women in India, do not have history and privilege as our ally. Both groups face issues of fixed mindsets and ignorance. So where does that end?

Just because injustices scar our past doesn’t mean we have to accept the present as the only way we can exist in the future. Even in India, where many aspects of society haven’t changed as drastically as in America, there are those who fight for the rights of women day in and day out because they refuse to let the past chain them down any longer.

As a black kid in Chicago, I have a story already written for me. But I don’t let that become my only story. I work hard to achieve more than anyone could have guessed because I won’t let anyone but myself control my future.

Cameron Woods is a rising senior at St. Ignatius College Prep in Chicago. Cameron had the opportunity to travel to India through The Experiment in International Living, which provides innovative and immersive summer abroad programs for high school students. The Experiment is a program of World Learning, a nonprofit organization empowering people, communities and institutions to create a more peaceful and just world.

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