It was the summer of 1997. The Sojourner rover landed on Mars. Princess Diana was still alive. The first Harry Potter book made its debut. The Spice Girls were still together. Hanson’s “MMMBop” had penetrated every teen’s brain waves.

It was also the summer when I immigrated to Charlotte, North Carolina, from India. I was 16 years old. 

If I had to describe my state of mind then, I’d say I was elated and completely assured of the understanding of American culture I’d gained from dutifully watching MTV (heavily Indianized) and The Simpsons and The Wonder Years (dubbed in Hindi) before our move. Never again in my life would I be so confident and so clueless at the same time. Later that fall, I would start high school as a junior at an International Baccalaureate public school. 

As an adult, I have survived competitive colleges, crazy job interviews, and three childbirths. And yet, after all these years, I still feel that none of those experiences have felt quite as testing as making it through my two years of high school. Not because I was harassed or bullied—not at all. But because every single day I had a “Welcome to America” moment that none of my TV shows had prepared me for adequately. 

The most appalling ones had to do with the fact that I had never been around Black people before. In class, I would unknowingly gawk at the way the Black students styled their hair or wore their pants or painted their nails. I had so many questions, which I assumed were inappropriate to ask. So I just kept my mouth shut. 

Until the day when I did open my mouth in Mrs. Rogers’s English class and said the N-word several times while discussing a character-related question from our assigned reading, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In case you don’t remember, the novel, set along the Mississippi River in the 19th century, is chock-full of racial stereotypes and the use of the N-word, a slur I had mistaken for a term of endearment.  

As I type this, I still feel the same chills I did that day when the class went so quiet and the teacher went so pale. I had no clue what I had done wrong. Mrs. Rogers swung by my desk later and quietly whispered that the N-word was not appropriate to repeat. I still didn’t know why until I cornered my American-born cousin after school, who looked at me with disbelief before explaining as well as a 15-year-old could. 

If I was traumatized by what I had done, I can’t imagine how the several Black students in the class felt, none of whom ever mentioned my transgression. Mrs. Rogers was a short, white, formidable woman who commanded a class like no other teacher I had ever met. Her discretion seemed tactful then, but it paints a different picture for me today. 

At the time I was relieved that we weren’t going to discuss this incident ever again. But in hindsight, her choice to never explain the why was a disservice to me—and those Black students who had to absorb the incident in silence. Her discomfort caused a missed opportunity that left a 16-year-old immigrant to her own devices to learn about race and racism. It left me believing that keeping my mouth shut was the best approach.

Of course, in the internet age, when no 16-year-old could claim to be ignorant of the N-word’s meaning and there are viral videos to hold them accountable, the incident would play out much differently.

But I still wonder what would have happened if my teacher had been bold enough to tell me what the N-word meant. If she had opened up a discussion with the students about its history and their feelings about it. Would we have all left that class with a better understanding of how things were and should be, knowing that being curious and asking questions is better than being quiet and clueless? Welcome to America.

CHIKA GUJARATHI is a Raleigh-based writer and author of the Hello Namaste! children’s books. Her work can be found on her blog The Antibland Chronicles. Comment on this column at

Voices is made possible by contributions to the INDY Press Club.