Thursday, September 22, 2011

On Racism and the Issue of Identity

So, I wanna talk about something that’s really been bugging me lately.

When I was in Jordan, we were playing a game in class one day that involved drawing what one student was saying (he/she was looking at a picture, describing it, and the rest of us were drawing it). Then this one student’s turn came whose picture had some Japanese kids being educated in a classroom. The student mentioned that there are Japanese kids in the image next to a pile of books in a classroom or something. Now, my drawing included a couple of Japanese characters – Japanese specifically in terms of their facial looks (particularly their eyes). As soon as that student saw it, he said, “Oh my God! That is so racist!” And I said, “What? How’s this racist? You said the kids were Japanese, and this is how Japanese people often look like, no?”

Later, I mentioned it to another student from the class, telling her what I’d drawn, and she was like, “OH MY GOD! That is SO racist!! I can’t believe you did that!”

And, so, here I am … wanting to ask what exactly racism is. I don’t consider myself racist, but if recognizing the physical differences between different groups of people (e.g., Japanese eyes from Pakistani eyes) makes me racist, then I’m racist, and I’m happy being one and have no problem with it. However, in the discussion that followed with the latter friend, I pointed out that her considering what I’d drawn as “Japanese eyes” racist, then she is suggesting that there are “normal” eyes, and there are “Japanese” eyes, which makes the “normal” better and the Japanese just not normal. This, I argued and still argue, is racist whereas what I’d done was not—or should not be considered as such.

You see, I’m a Pakistani. I don’t look the same way that someone from China or Kenya or Paraguay does. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that as long as I don’t pretend that one of these groups is just naturally better or worse than the rest. Since I don’t do that, never have, and never will, what’s racist about acknowledging that the human race is diverse?

Inevitably, our discussion also led to the idea of identity and what constitutes an “American” or a “Pakistani” or a “Japanese.” Have you noticed, beloved folks, that someone born to white American parents *in Pakistan* is almost completely unlikely to consider her/himself a Pakistani, whereas someone born to Pakistani (Pashtun/Punjabi/etc.) parents  in America will often proudly display her/his American identity and not hesitate to consider her/himself an American? Why is this? I think it has to do with the well-being of the nation. But forget that – what about Japan, which is far better off than Pakistan and is quite advanced technologically (almost ahead of America, even)? Would someone born to white/black American parents in Japan consider her/himself a Japanese? I don’t think so.

Now, there’s something wrong with the way I’m phrasing what I’m saying. The way I say “American” suggests that I think only whites and blacks are Americans, which I actually don’t believe. But that again goes back to the question of identity and races. I think we often fail to realize that there are different types of identities, among them national and ethnic. Hence, someone born to Pakistani parents in America may be American in terms of her/his national identity, but her/his race/ethnicity remains what the race/ethnicity of her/his parents is. But what we do instead is say: “Well, I’m from America, but my parents are from Pakistan.” Or “Well, I’m French, but my grandparents are from Thailand.” (This “I’m French but grandparents Thailand” may refer to someone who has the features of a Thai person but was born in France, and this person absolutely refuses to have any association whatsoever with Thailand.)

But what I’m saying above is more an American concept  of identity and races/ethnicities. When I was in Jordan, I couldn’t ask someone where they were from if they were black, for example. I did that once, and the guy looked at me like I was crazy and said, “Do I look Jordanian?” And I said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you. It’s just … in America, people find it offensive when someone tries to guess where they might be from, and it’s considered racism. So I didn’t know if you’d like it if I said that you didn’t look Jordanian.” He said, “Oh, no, we don’t do that here. I’m Sudanese and very proud of it. But I was born in Jordan and have lived most of my life here.” You see what I mean, folks? This guy wasn’t “from” Jordan even though he was born there; this guy wasn’t “Jordanian” even though he was born there. But that’s not how we roll in America. And he had a good point: Jordanians look different from Sudanese, and this guy didn’t look Jordanian, but I just didn’t feel comfortable saying that to him at first. I told him then that even if I were born in America, I’d still say I was Pakistani and that my kids, too, will be Pakistani even if born in America because I don’t believe that your birth place determines your identity. Unless they’re raised much of their lives abroad and they “feel” even less Pakistani and Pashtun than I do when I’m in Pakistan (more on this below).

That’s right. I don’t believe your birthplace determines your identity. What determines it is your blood, your culture, your ideas, and where you feel at home. All of these, nothing less. As my Identity class professor put it, why let even the first few years of your life determine your identity, which isn’t something small? Your identity can in most cases say “everything” about you.

Now, me particularly, when I was in Pakistan this summer (May/June 2011), heck if I felt like I belonged there. People :( I was depressed!!! I SO didn’t belong there! I felt SO out of place! I wanted to cry! I was SO lonely! There was *no one* to talk to about important things, and all the people were willing to talk about was my looks, the importance of make-up for girls who are not light-skinned, clothes, and gossip!!! There was absolutely no one to talk about things that are actually important—like the development of Swat! I had one uncle I could talk to about that. But among the women? NO ONE! I understand that the position of those women is such that they really don’t know what else to talk about or might not have intelligent opinions on something other than what I mentioned above—and, no, that doesn’t make them any less intelligent than you or me. It’s only that they just need to be reminded that there are more important things in this world than what someone looks like or how much someone weighs and so on. I tried it, and it didn’t work. In my last few days there, when anyone would bring up a trivial topic, I’d reply with, “For God’s sake!! We’ve been destroyed by the government, by the Taliban, by the floods – God (nature) is clearly fighting against us, the country we consider our own is fighting against us, our own people are against us – and you’re here talking about a woman who is too dark-skinned to be married off or why so-and-so should wear make-up to look pretty?!” I’ll tell you about my talks with them on this whole make-up issue another time (I am completely against make-up; I pity any woman who wears make-up because I see her as a victim of the society that imposes a very narrow and artificial idea of beauty on her, and she submits to it. But I’ll deal with this topic another time.)

So, I was saying … the superficiality of “my” people was smothering!!! No, no, that’s not to say that all Pakistanis or all Swatis are like that, of course. They’re not. But I mean that the mentality of the Swati women I interacted with is so different from that of mine that I felt like a foreigner in a land I consider and always longed to see as my own home. I am from Swat. I am a Swatai. My heart belongs to Swat. My everything is Swati. There’s a saying in Pashto that you don’t just speak Pashto; you’re to live it as well. And I feel like I “live” Pashto. My values, most of my beliefs – all are Pashtun. I dress Pashtun, I eat Pashtun food, I think Pashtun when it comes to many matters (e.g., clothing, public decorum, family, relationships, friendships, community). But then I go there to Swat or to any Pukhtun area, and I go crazy because I don’t “feel” Pashtun at all, and I fight to leave as soon as I can.

Wait, why am I going off-topic here? I promise to tell you about that in another blog post,  something on Swat to come soon, but that was just to say that I barely “felt” Pukhtun when in Swat! I felt more American. I’ll talk about this in another blog post too, ka khairee.

But I hope my points are clear nonetheless. Lemme know if they’re not; I’ll try to clarify them.  And while you’re thinking, please share your understanding of racism, identity, and ethnicity also. It will add to my extremely limited knowledge on all of this. Thank you in advance.


  1. I think its very interesting topic! Im thinking of identities and ethnicity a lot! My parents are both european but from different european countries. (They're white). Im adopted from india and am black. Even though i grew up in a european country, I still feel a little bit lost. I feel my family is my familly. But i dont feel as much european, mostly because other europeans dont look at me that way even though I grew up there..

  2. Thank you so much for your comment, Anonymous! That's exactly where the fascination lies - in our being mixed, whether biologically or culturally or otherwise. I have this friend who's "African American" (black?) but her father's Cuban and mother Mexican, and she doesn't feel like she belongs with the Mexicans because she doesn't "look" Mexican, but neither does she feel like she belongs with the African Americans because her hair texture is different (she says it's prettier :D She's so cute!) and she speaks Spanish. But when she has to choose, she prefers to be with the Mexicans because they're more accepting and welcoming of her than the African Americans.

    So, yeah, I hear ya!

  3. Oh wow, I'm with you! I guess according to this "definition" I'm also a racist :P I would consider it more racist if you didn't take physical characteristics into account.

  4. Exactly, Becky! Then that assumes that there are the "default" characteristics, and if you denied that anyone didn't have those "default" characteristics, then you were just being racist.

  5. I know! It's like, if they were speaking of people from Ghana or Somalia, shouldn't we be colouring them dark? Acknowledging physical differences is not racist. It's the TREATING people differently because of them, that's racist.


Dare to opine :)

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