May 4, 2017

Who am I?

The question of identity is one I have grappled with for some time. Who am I? What space do I occupy in the world where I live? What does it mean for my identity to be defined—by others—in a certain way, and how does that change my own perception of myself?

I was recently a guest on a podcast episode where I talked about my ability to pass” as someone I am not—especially when my words are divorced from my image—because of my life situation and experience. I’m often taken more seriously, or given more opportunities, than someone else who shares my name and looks like me. What does this privilege mean for the voice I must wield? How does this mean for the kinds of things I must say in the place of those who can not?

These are questions I ask every day. In the meantime, here are some pieces about identity that have resonated with me, recently.

Kids Like Us: Fifteen years after its release, Bend It Like Beckham is still an essential representation of South Asian teenagehood.

One of the reasons we still struggle with these realities in our communities is because our language for who we are as South Asians in the West is still so young, still so undefined. We have so much internalized hatred amongst us; the running joke in Bend It Like Beckham is that Jess can marry anyone, just not a Muslim. We’ve refused to detail our shameful and horrific interlacing pasts. That the current Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, has been accused of participating in a cleansing of Gujrati Muslims in 2002. Or that my very own Bengali parents survived a Civil War, where three million majority Muslim Bengalis were killed by the Pakistani Army in 1971. Or that Pakistani Muslims killed Sikhs in Punjab in the 40s, and vice versa. Or that Kashmir is still a tentative region over a debate of religion and ownership. We don’t give voice to the hatred we have for each other, and therefore we are unable to unpack the absurdity of it, when in so many ways our histories are richer, intensified, and made more glorious because of what we’ve shared through the ages.

So, we don’t have the decades of tastemakers defining and redefining what it means to be South Asian—especially what it means to be South Asian in the West. Our trauma is so intangible, so incalculable, that we’ve refused to explore it, and now we’re full of rage, feeling stuck in the strongholds of the minority model myth.

The Heart of Whiteness: Ijeoma Oluo interviews Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who identifies as Black.

Stories of people of color passing” for white have been well known since the time of slavery. Almost any person of color in the United States has a relative in the past or present who has passed” for white. But passing” was a ticket out of the worst injustices of racial oppression that has been open to only a select few. The history of passing” in the United States is a story filled with pain and separation. It has never been a story of liberation in the way in which Dolezal is trying to describe it.

I point out that there is a difference between Dolezal’s claim of racial liberation and the forced denial of race in order to escape oppression.

I’m only bringing that up because you said it can only go one way and yet it has and still does go the other way,” Dolezal snaps, as if this defense was pulled out of her and its limitations are my fault. But not only have I heard her invoke the historical passing of light-skinned people of color in previous interviews when any question about the one-way street of her racial fluidity was brought up, she even included this argument in her book. She has had plenty of time to come up with a better answer to that question.

Why is Kathleen Wynne so unpopular? It may not just be about policy

Dig deeper, and you’ll hear people confess that they didn’t mind the premier when she was a touchy-feely, kumbaya sort of leader. Wynne still has that air, but she is more than that now. She’s competitive as hell, sometimes to her detriment. She’s made some hard decisions that might have been rewarded if they’d come from a male leader. But from a female leader in a culture sadly not free of sexism, such decisions are a tougher sell.

The fact is, even though she’s been one of Ontario’s most accomplished politicians of the last three decades (top cabinet jobs, party leadership, majority government), there is evidence that Wynne still has to deal with subtle forms of sexism. Can you imagine Stephen Harper, in a meeting with captains of industry, being repeatedly interrupted before he’s finished talking? I can’t. And yet I hear it happens to Wynne all the time.

It’s offensive to be constantly asked where I’m really’ from and period dramas are to blame: Implicit in the question is the suggestion that I’m not from England — the place where I was born, where I study and where I pay my taxes.

Implicit in the question is that I’m not from here. Yes, I’ve lived in the Middle East, but I was born here, I studied here, and I pay my taxes here. I’m from England. The constant question, however, regardless of intention — mostly benign curiosity I suspect — immediately undermines the legitimacy of my authentically being British. I’m here now, aren’t I? Even if I wasn’t born here, why interrogate my origins when I’m walking on the same streets as you are? Do I ask random white people where they’re from”? Of course I don’t. Whilst I’m undeniably proud of my Iraqi-Egyptian heritage, the coded question reinforces the hierarchy that it is white citizens who belong here foremost.

Many of my white friends have expressed confusion as to why I hate being asked this question. But together with the fact that passengers often avoid sitting next to me on public transport, and having been screamed at to GET OUT by a white man on the tube during the Brexit campaign, it’s a micro-aggression that adds to the cacophony of systemic racism. And in the context of the blatant xenophobia of the Home Office, who this week deported a plane of 30 Iraqi migrantsfrom the UK, feeling that the country I call home may not see me as from” here is an upsetting one.