Say you’ve written a piece about intersectionality or experienced yet another oversight from the mainstream white feminists and it garners the support of most of your peers, PoC or otherwise yet there is one lone voice of colour the white fems put on a pedestal as though your lived experiences can be rejected because this one says it’s not so; how to begin to understand why the person in question is so blinkered to the kyriarchal structures of power and control. It’s simple really; it comes down to self-awareness and the privilege of having white friends, ones that are completely honest with you.
As a small child I very quickly became aware of the stigma attached to my roots. The word Paki made me feel dirty which is ironic considering Pakistan means ‘The land of the pure’. Of course when they’re saying dirty paki and you’re four and don’t yet know the meaning of the word then this is how it’s going to make you feel. My mum wouldn’t cross the road at a pelican crossing if the driver was white because of the time one of them had revved his car towards her and then laughed at her when she jumped back, her four small children in tow. Once, I convinced myself that it wasn’t me the young white girl was calling a paki, but my younger sister on account of her slightly darker skin. For many years I would tell myself that I was ok, I was white enough to go unnoticed. I had witnessed racist abuse but never been victim to it myself. I just wasn’t like all the others. So much so that I thought I wasn’t even going to get periods, being as I wasn’t a girly girl. I think I became aware of my position in the world very early on and rejected it because I thought better of myself than the labels the world was putting on me. I could reject them and pretend they didn’t even exist. Of course they do and learning these injustices were still being perpetrated against me was heart-breaking and almost too unbearable to accept.
I had to stop and take note when the girls I hung out with at lunchtime called the Asian boys ‘Husseins’. The slur of choice at my school in the mid-90s was “Bosnian refugee”. I remember seeing the genocide on the news and feeling then that it was deeply problematic and inappropriate but what could I do? As an early teen it served me well to laugh along. Being one of a twin the comparisons between us went beyond the pretty one or smart one, the slight difference in our skin tone meant that I was a white wannabe. It might have been the Goth makeup as well but we’re pretty much identical, unless you’re deciding which one you’d prefer to be seen with. My friends were white, hers were mostly brown. I sometimes wonder whether I made a conscious decision (beyond anglicising my name) to only like ‘white’ things. I saw my last Bollywood film around the time I cut all my hair off and starting wearing a fashion cross, aged 13. I’d seethe in fury at the Asian kids piling on the bus home, the looks of disgust on the white pensioners faces made me feel ashamed to be part of their group. When I left Birmingham at 16 and joined a school in London I was relieved to make some new white friends, racist as fuck mind but once again, they were sure to reassure me I wasn’t like all the others, especially when I agreed they were dirty Pakis.
I met many other PoC who felt like me, secretly disgusted by their heritage. I’ve lost count of the number of South Asians who feel they have to make you aware of their mixed heritage; even if it 1/16th Greek by way of marriage. When you’ve spent your life listening to the moaning white majority about how our food smells, how our clothes don’t match, even how hairy we are (ffs) then these things become ingrained and you either reject them and become an oppressor yourself by denying the unfair systems that dominate the narrative (because you are not like the rest of them and this will serve you well comparatively) or you believe you are incapable, unworthy, disgusting. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and you deserve the inequalities you are made to suffer. So you do, without question.
I was lucky. I had some white friends who balked on my behalf. I was quite happy to sit there and listen to their parents question what kind of curry I prefer or confirm their reservations on forced marriage and that weird Islam but my friends did not like it. It was they who prompted me to question why the tone of my skin should mean anything. I hadn’t been a Muslim for many years so why was I still answering those questions, were they incapable of seeing of me as an individual with other dreams and passions? They could just as easily ask me about art or politics but they don’t because they see a brown beigey person and they assume that means Muslim. That’s racism. It took me the best part of my 20s to get to grips with that. I don’t wear a headscarf; I don’t have to leave the room five times a day for prayer. I eat and drink what I want; I haven’t had a homemade curry in years. I sometimes wear shorts. Yet still I come off as Muslim. Then they say Islam isn’t a race and Islamophobia cannot be racist.
See, the reason I believe my white friends when they say something is racist is because they are white and other white people really let themselves go in their presence. They are better placed to identify microagressions because they know where they are coming from. My white friends rejected their supremacy and fight a constant battle to remind themselves of their privilege. There are white people who are appalled at their own murderous pillaging history and cannot abide seeing it being perpetrated in this day and age. Then there are also those who have the same take on that history but positively revel in all things empire because that is all they have; seriously lacking in wit and intelligence or anything of any personal worth just the propaganda spewed out by the state every time they go an invade a country in the belief that they are somehow better because they are white. That’s power. Telling you you’re somehow the only chosen one; that’s control.
I can see why you’d want to identify with the white majority, I know I did. Heck, I was even engaged to a white man in the RAF. It was he who gave me the most valuable lesson of all; it doesn’t matter what you do, how you speak, who you love; middle England, the Daily Mail lot, the majority of white Britain might speak to you if they have to but you’ll always be a Paki to them. We split shortly after this especially when he reassured me I was alright now I was on the ‘white side’.
Racism, it’s not in my head, but yours.