Rini Sampath is the kind of kid every parent would be proud of. She's hardworking, a high achiever and a leader who has a bright future.
A long time ago, she decided she wanted to make a difference in the world and be a strong voice. And she has worked on that goal consistently. Recently, the senior international relations major won the election to be the president of the undergraduate student body at the University of Southern California.
She ignored everyone who told her she would not win because she was not White. She also disregarded the advice that she should pick a White running mate for vice president and instead chose another minority student.
I wish things had ended there, on a happy note.
Instead, on Saturday night, as Sampath, 21, was walking back from her friend's apartment, she became the victim of a shocking, ugly racial attack.
I quote from her Facebook page (read the entire post here):
"Last night, as I was walking back from my friend's apartment, a student screamed out at me through the window of his fraternity house, "You Indian piece of shit!" before hurling his drink at my friends and me. Once his fraternity brothers realized it was me, they began to apologize. This stung even more. Today, as I try to unpack these events, I couldn't quite figure out why their after-the-fact apologies deepened the wound. But one of my friends explained it to me the best this morning: "Because now you know, the first thing they see you as is subhuman." And that's the first thing some students on our campus see when they look at anyone who looks like me."
In a brave move, Sampath decided to go public because she knew it would empower her and hopefully, encourage other students to open up about incidents of racism.
The reactions to her post were swift. University officials pledged their support and students flooded her with messages.
I have to say this even though it's hard to hear. These racial slurs and these hate crimes are not going to go away. The incidents are multiplying daily and most go unreported and they are happening all over the United States.
As a journalist and blogger, I have spent the whole of last week writing about hate crimes and injustices done, first on Inderjit Singh Mukker and then on Ahmed Mohammed, the 14-year-old Muslim boy who bought a clock to school and was arrested because his teacher thought it was a bomb.
The only silver lining I see is that more people are coming forward and standing up for themselves. That's why Sampath deserves a round of applause.
This is an extremely difficult thing to do and she acknowledges it in her post:
"I'm still in a state of shock. There's an indescribable hollowness in me, but I'm going public with this because this can't continue. Some people don't believe racism like this can happen on our campus. Some people continue to doubt the need for safe spaces and the need for expanded cultural resource centers or the need for gender neutral bathrooms or the need for diversity in our curriculum or the need for diversity in our professors or the need for diversity in dialogue. And to those who continue to believe we're just playing the 'race' card, I ask you this -- what's there to win here? A sense of respect? A sense of humanity? A sense of love and compassion for others regardless of how they look like?"
And she's absolutely right when she adds this to the end: "Whether racism or sexism or homophobia or transphobia happens on the internet, or behind closed doors, or in a small group setting, or as 'just a joke,' it's not okay. It's never okay."
Sampath has spent a lifetime dealing with her brown skin. As a young immigrant from Tamil Nadu, her classmates in Arizona asked her if her mother was from Mars and they also said they couldn't play with her because of her skin colour.
This incident, she said,"...brought back all the memories of growing up as an immigrant in America. All the things people said started playing back in my head, over and over, like a broken record."
She has one simple question: "Is this how they see us first and foremost? For the color of our skin?"
USC Dean of Religious Life Varun Soni was one of the first to learn about the incident. He admitted that he, like many people of colour, has suffered similar incidents too. "I feel for Rini. I know her personally and professionally. We greatly admire Rini's courage and leadership and her commitment to create a campus climate of inclusivity and respect," said Soni, who released a statement.
He added that the university has a zero-tolerance policy for such behaviour, which he has categorically defined as "cowardly and hateful."
He has also asked Sampath to file a complaint with USC's Bias Assessment Response and Support Team.
I for one, hope that the university punishes the offender and sets an example so that this does not happen again.
I also hope that all Indians speak up and report these incidents. If this ugliness and wrongdoing is exposed repeatedly, maybe all those who do these acts will be shamed and as time passes by, this behaviour will become obsolete.
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