This post was originally posted on Shakti Collaborative and republished here with permission.
Cindu Thomas-George is the Founder and Principal Trainer of Shakti Diversity and Equity Training. She designs and facilitates professional development opportunities that promote equity and cultural competence in order to help create inclusive and equitable organizations for today’s increasingly diverse workforce. In her fifteen plus years of experience, she has developed a mastery of creating and facilitating meaningful and impactful learning experiences that work to empower individuals to become competent and culturally aware communicators. Furthermore, Cindu is a tenured professor of Communication Studies at the College of Lake County specializing in Public Speaking and Intercultural Communication. Read on to learn more about her journey.
“My parents immigrated to the United States from Kerala in the early 70s. After a few years of living on their own in Chicago, my grandparents arranged their marriage from India. In 1975, they got married in Chicago without any of their family present and soon after, moved to the suburbs where they raised my brothers and I.
We grew up without having a lot of family around. It wasn’t until I was 11 that my cousins began immigrating from India. The communities we lived in were predominantly white. My family was typically the only family of color, so I grew up being very aware of my differences. Other kids would always ask me why my parents talked funny, why my house smelled weird, and other questions that helped me to realize from a young age just how different I was.
From the time I was in kindergarten, people started calling me Cindy, and they’d actually correct me when I would tell them my name is Cindu. I’d keep saying I was Cindu, but people kept insisting that my name was Cindy. My dad owned a convenience store at the time (ironically the same year that the character Apu from the Simpson’s was first introduced) and came in to my class one day with a bunch of candy just to announce to everyone that my name was in fact Cindu, not Cindy.”
The name “Cindu the Hindu” was given to me by my classmates in the third grade. And trust me, it was not an endearing nickname and one that was meant to demean. I quickly learned to hate my name and internalized that my differences were deficient and something that I should feel ashamed of.
In sixth grade, my best friend and I plotted to change my name to Cindy and I walked into the first day of sixth grade as ‘Cindy.’ In some ways it worked to make me feel more accepted and normalized, but in other ways, it backfired. I remember on my birthday in 7th grade everyone in the lunchroom started singing ‘Happy Birthday’. I was pleasantly surprised, however it quickly became apparent that they were singing ‘Happy birthday’ just so they could say the phrase ‘Cindu the Hindu.’ It was the first realization that despite my name change, I would always be an ‘other.’
I went into high school and college as Cindy, and it wasn’t until my graduate studies when I realized the effect of what I’d been doing for the past 13 years. I’d been living an identity that wasn’t authentic to who I was and had been ashamed of my Indian-ness when I had no reason to be. Assimilating into the American culture had been more important to me growing up than understanding and embracing my Malayalee culture. I’d grown up feeling pretty distanced from what it meant to be Indian, and I’d finally started to realize it.
Looking back, I’ve realized that I struggled emotionally and mentally as I developed my identity both in social and familial contexts until I was 18. My parents were raising children in a foreign country for the first time, completely on their own, and had a lot of expectations around how their daughter should act and behave. I have a very strong and outspoken personality and was also a bit of a tomboy growing up. I wasn’t the soft spoken, dutiful Indian girl they’d expected me to be, which created a lot of friction between us. When I left for college, I experienced a freedom that allowed me to begin my path of self discovery which strengthened my confidence and sense of self. It wasn’t until a decade after I left for college that I returned home to Chicago.”
From Social Work to a Love of Teaching
“I always knew I wanted to help people, so I decided to major in Social Work. My parents were always supportive, but tried to negotiate with me, worried that I wouldn’t make enough money in the field. But at the end of the day, they gave me the freedom to figure it out on my own.
A year in to the major, I ended up taking an Intercultural Communication course which changed my life. One of the first activities in the class was to share our name and the story behind it. It was the first class that felt directly applicable to my life. It was super empowering, and I fell in love with the Communication Studies field from that moment onwards.”