Towards the end of last year I was hit with a couple of uncomfortable truths. My immediate reaction was to balk at the suggestions and defend myself with what I thought were righteous assertions. The first, that I as a British Asian woman had the right to feel suspicious of Muslim men as a result of the hounding I had been subjected to my entire life and secondly, there was no way my age could be considered a privilege because I had spent most of those years running away from my complete lack of said privilege. I also hadn’t completely got to grips with my cis privilege and didn’t know how to react to a trans woman of colour attacking me for alienating her. I didn’t know what I had done wrong and felt it was unnecessary. But I was willing to learn. And the reason for this is because I respected the people highlighting these issues with me and I wanted us to feel equal.
I did not want to rubbish the opinions of the people I respect even if my immediate reaction was one of disagreement. It was one of my new found intersectional friends who pointed it out to me. It was easy to reject his analysis because he was a university educated white male and it felt a little bit like control. His manner was unforgiving and he sounded like all the other men who have ever told me I was wrong. I was distrusting of this guy because he felt a university education was not a privilege. Lacking a formal education myself, I disagreed. But then another of my fledgling friends said the same thing. We were from similar backgrounds so when she said it, I had the realisation that I couldn’t ignore this, I would have to tackle my prejudices. I had to realise the world for the vast space that it is. Taking into account the meta narrative, the way in which ethnic minorities and in particular, Islam is portrayed was a good start. We are socialised into feeling a certain way about a group. Growing up, a community of a few hundred Muslim men made my life a misery. Add to this the monstering of Asian men and Islam, especially post 9/11 and it’s hardly surprising I would feel this way. I could not hold billions of people responsible for the community I belonged to. And I should reject the world as it is presented to me by the ruling classes. The predominantly white ruling classes.
The privilege of age was one it took a while to get my head around. I feel like I’ve only really been alive for a couple of years, savouring the little things that make life worth living is a relatively new thing for me. Up until the point of my breakdown I was merely surviving. I resisted the notion that I was privileged just because I’d a few more years on this earth. But then, watching my young friend and the ways in which she is ignored, undermined, caricaturised and only because she was 17, I began to understand what she meant. I made a promise to myself that I would make an extra effort to hear what she had to say, actively giving her a platform before others. It’s difficult because the hierarchical structures we have in place are entrenched in our way of thinking, because we have life experience we are ‘older and wiser’ but this isn’t necessarily true. We can always think and feel a bit better. We do not know everything.
When a trans woman of colour found me on Twitter and flew into a rage before we’d even been introduced, my immediate reaction was one of fear. I didn’t understand what was happening and I was really working on the whole privilege thing so couldn’t understand why she was so angry. I was afraid that I had done/said something but could not recall anything obvious and this worried me. Had I been abusive or dismissive and not noticed? I asked my trans* friends and they explained that as white trans women, life was difficult enough, being a trans woman of colour made you invisible. I was reassured that I had said nothing wrong. I worked at understanding her reaction. I’d been through life feeling as though I didn’t exist and I had been that angry too. To the outside world it might have seemed misplaced but not in my mind. Why couldn’t anyone see me and make it better?
It is your white friends that give you an idea of what it is to feel like a whole person. For a system to work you need compliance. If, from birth, you are treated as less, you will believe it your whole life through. I know I did. It’s why I remained in abusive relationships. It’s why I went out with white men who openly treated me like a brown trophy. It is my white (thoroughly human) friends who made me aware of this. The ways in which we are treated, the things that are said to us are simply intolerable to people have been brought up free (read: white). My friends show me when I am being subtly manipulated or treated in a substandard way. Of course when I am routinely stopped at airports I am instantly aware of how I am being treated differently.
I have always felt the power structure and even though it’s not been in my best interests, I have been somewhat resistant to it. The white saviour men have been washed out of my hair. The white friends who are proud to be British show themselves for the colonial masters that they are. I was that special Asian, the one white people warmed to “you’re not like all the others”. I had a raging distrust of my own kind; I believed what they said in the papers. Y’see, in this country we get a wave of immigration and all the immigrants that came before are eager to show how they’re not like those work shy scroungers. Britain is at its best when it’s dividing and ruling. And I totally bought it for almost 30 years. I liked being a white pet and enjoyed the privileges it afforded; less overt racism than my peers. My Asian peers didn’t like this; I was accused of wanting to be white. Luckily for me, I have a conscience and it was only a matter of time before it dawned on me that I was just like the rest and in denying this, was a question of my own integrity.
I also found that a lot of white people will never see you as anything but brown. They are actively encouraged to be proud of their empirical heritage. Like rape, war, genocide is easily forgiven when Britain is so ‘welcoming’ to the people of its former colonies. Mind you behave how they want you to though. You are not allowed a culture, an opinion without it being heavily scrutinised for terrorism. Someone called me a fool recently for saying the white man I had been engaged to was racist. He laughed at me once when I came down wearing a pair of mismatched pyjamas. He thought it was a ‘very Asian’ thing to do. HOW? The white brain thinks all of your quirks are attributed to the colour of your skin. Never mind the fact that he was in my bed, he pointed out every little thing that made me Asian. The hair on my body, the time I rubbed his feet, the bond that I had with my family; ALL ASIAN. When you are that obsessed by someone’s race, it is fair to say you might be racist. Especially when you think having an Asian fiancé is winning one back for the team. Well, those Asian boys love a bit of white meat, it’s only fair. If I hadn’t been seriously mentally unwell at the time, I wouldn’t have given him a second look. I don’t regret it though, he taught me a lot about this world.
I’ve had many a white person challenge the racism I have experienced in the past week. They’ve been looking for the P word or the N word and because they haven’t seen any evidence of it, I must be lying and using the race card. Racism and prejudice is not limited to language but rather the way in which we’re made to experience the world. It’s how they make us feel. There hasn’t been anything unusual about the manner in which I’ve been ridiculed or challenged. It is word for word the same as it has always been. Remember it is not your intention, but how you make somebody feel. If you have any respect or love for your critics, you are willing to change or at least think about it from their angle. My anger and my reactions have come as a result of feeling deeply disrespected and unwanted.
The onus is not on me, the oppressed, to make amends.