- Posted August 23, 2013 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
The written word: Your personal essays
Me, a person of color?
By Areeba Kamal
Up until a few months back, I had never considered myself a ‘colored’ person. The first time I was asked to identify my race on a form I was filling out, I was confused. What race am I? Pakistani? Muslim? Asian? What did race mean again?
You see, racism was not an issue that had ever personally impacted me. I had read about it in books. I knew about the civil war. But the first time someone åreferred to me as a ‘person of color’ I had no idea what that implied.
Black and white were just shades, colors in books and movies, rhetoric used to refer to opposites. Black and white had not yet become groups of people, breathing, struggling, toiling people whose lives were shaped around whether their skin color was closer to black or white.
As an ignorant, oblivious Pakistani, I had lived my life surrounded by people whose complexion, hair, height, accent, belief system resembled my own. No one looked radically different than anyone else. It was like living in a mirror, seeing reflections of your skin, your voice around you all time.
Then, suddenly, I was thrown into the deep end of the pool. I landed in America, the ‘land of opportunities’ and I saw for the first time in my life people of every color, race, religion, ethnicity, lingual background, nationality and political affiliation possible.
I came to a place where there were so many variations of how people can look and talk, that I forgot my own characteristics and identity. The most shocking moment was when after spending a couple of weeks in class with white friends, I recoiled at catching a glimpse of my own reflection in the mirror. Why was my hair so coarse and dark? And heavens, was my skin… red? Mustard? Mahogany? Because my skin wasn’t anything like the people around me. For the first time, I didn’t look like people around me.
A year later, I can identify myself better. I know finally, what I sound and look like in the context of the rainbow of appearances I inhabit. If I had to spot myself in a crowd, I may just do it. Considering that I have achieved this degree of self knowledge in a place where I receive second glances when I mention my nationality, or where people stop to stare when I pray publicly, this is no mean feat. I know just how it feels to be snubbed for my accent, and I know it doesn’t help to roll my Rs and over-enunciate my Ls in an attempt at a fake American accent. But there it is. If people treat me less respectfully than they should based on external factors such as race and accent, that is their problem, not mine. Or so I pretend.
I have also learnt to reconsider my perceptions of racism at home. Some months earlier I would have readily claimed there is NO SUCH THING as RACISM in Pakistan. We all look alike, don’t we? But every trip back to my homeland has been tainted by the realization that our lives are equally, if not more, ridden with discrimination as that of any racially conscious American.
Sure, we might not publicly identify ourselves as being ‘black’ or ‘white’. But hey, I belong to a country where I am more likely to get married if I am fair-skinned. And ‘kaala’ (black) is still an offensive term, an insult you pay to a dark-skinned person as a means of causing them pain or embarrassment. Are Pakistanis any less affected by racist practices? I think not.
In fact, if I look more closely, discrimination at home might just trump discrimination in proud and buoyant America. I come from a land where Ahmadis do not get to offer Eid prayers because they have a different set of religious beliefs. Where clichés like ‘Memons are always stingy’ and ‘Punjabis are inherently loud and raunchy’ and ‘Sindhis are all cruel, self serving feudals’ rule the day. Where every time I enjoy a Pathan or Sardarji joke, I am explicitly insulting the intellect of an entire ethnic group. Where women who bare their arms or legs are inherently less honorable, less respectable than women who don’t. Where less than 4% of people follow a religion different from Islam, not because it’s a giant coincidence, but because anyone who was different has been driven out, abandoned, attacked, destroyed in a quest for conformity.
Who was I kidding? We may not call each other people of color in Pakistan. But we know discrimination. If the US has created Racism 1.0, we in Pakistan live by Discrimination 2.0, arguably the new, advanced, more horrible, more destructive version.
So where does this leave me, the newly enlightened, over-ambitious woman who was up until now oblivious to these implicit factors that affect her well-being, regardless of whether she has control over them or not?
To be honest, there isn’t much I can do about these twisted, senseless means of identity than be aware of who I really am. I am not a color. I am not a religion. And I am most certainly not an embodiment of an ignorant stereotype. If I am to sum up the essence of my person, get to the core of my existence, describe myself as succinctly as possible, I will not say I am a ‘person of color’. I will not say I am Muslim, or Pakistani, or Mahajir, or Punjabi. I will not say I am a college student, or that I am middle class, or that I am bilingual. I will not say I am a woman. Of course, I am all these things. I am. But they do NOT define what I can do, or how I feel, or how I act. My life, my identity is so much more than these words.
I see myself in terms of my hopes, fears and dreams. In terms of things I love and things I dislike. And things I hope to achieve in the world. And I pray that people around me can do that too. Among this atmosphere of automatic demarcation based on skin, religion, nationality, I hope to God many of us can remember that people are more than how they look talk or seem. Human beings are more than just skin and bone, passport or forms. Everyone has a story, and that story is what makes them who they are. Not their race. Not their gender. Not their faith. Not some word we made up a long time back for easy classification.