My freshman year, I lived in a triple. My roommates were not like me. One of them is famous for her warmth and hospitality—we all call her “mom.” She’s Muslim, ethnically Sudanese, and from Alabama. The other is a passionate libertarian and one of the most articulate people I know. She’s Catholic, ethnically Romanian, and from Kansas. And then me—sarcastic and excellent at Netflix bingeing. I am Muslim, ethnically Pakistani, and from Baltimore.
Our room was crowded, but we found enough space for each of us, whether that meant making time for a college football game, displaying the Constitution on the wall, or playing a Kanye album on repeat. Over the course of the year, I got used to the rhythm of Arabic every night and hour long “libertarian rants” almost as often. I got used to 2 a.m. conversations where we learned more about each other. We compared our mother tongues of Arabic, Romanian, and Urdu to find commonalities—some of which, like the word for “enemy,” proved helpful when we were around others. We went to Harvard-Yale together, and later in the month, attended the Harvard Islamic Society’s Fall Dinner.
Though I’ve lived in America my entire life, that room was the first time I experienced the oft-repeated American ideal of “diversity.” My triple was what America claims to be: a space in which people of all colors, cultures, and religions come together to grow and learn from each other. American diversity is defined by imagery—a man in a turban and a woman with blonde hair walking side by side on a New York City street; the President of the United States, bending as a child touches his hair.
However, when faced with the tangible reality of this country, these images fade away and the ideal of diversity is revealed to be a myth. In reality, American diversity is contingent upon assimilation and contortion. Unlike my triple, America is not a room in which Arabic, Romanian, and Urdu can be spoken side by side. It is a country where English is the dominant language and mother tongues are meant to be forgotten. America is not a place in which “foreign” cultures are recognized (other than on the streets of Chinatown or the racks of Forever 21). It is a place in which cultural and religious clothing on the bodies of brown people is seen as invitation for harassment or even assault.
It is not a place in which black and brown people can claim physical space, as evidenced by the many controversies over the construction or even the presence of mosques across the country. It is not a place in which people of color are seen as multi dimensional human beings. Instead, it is a country in which Trump supporters are humanized, while minorities who speak are told not to play identity politics. It is one in which representation of my identity, when present at all, is limited to watered down stereotypes.
American diversity ultimately seeks to uphold white supremacy both domestically and internationally. It does so by limiting the expression of other cultures so that whiteness remains the default within these borders. And it does so by using the presence of black and brown bodies in the United States to create the image of a free country that has the moral high ground to impart—or impose—this freedom internationally. It tokenizes minorities who support an agenda that harms their own people, while silencing voices that challenge it.
These tokenized minorities grant cross-cultural legitimacy to the campaign of white supremacy, and represent the interests of whiteness, not the communities they claim to represent. They include the first Indian governor, who said that “immigration without assimilation is an invasion.” They include a black president who institutionalized drone strikes that killed scores of civilians in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Contrarians are denied a voice, however mainstream they may be. As Linda Sarsour gains popular support, she has received backlash across political lines. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, in contrast, is honored by Harvard and Stanford despite her continual Islamophobic rhetoric. After Reza Aslan tweeted against Donald Trump, CNN dropped his show—the same network that gave Corey Lewandowski, who has been accused of sexual assault, a platform.
Ultimately, the promise of American diversity is contingent on assimilation to whiteness. It’s contingent on people of color contorting their identity and beliefs to fit this narrative. Those who push back are pushed out. And so, in this America, I speak English, I wear jeans, I eat hot dogs. In this America, I spent my childhood not wearing henna on Eid, because I didn’t want to field even more questions at school. In this America, I avoided cultural and religious affinity groups because I didn’t want to be that girl whose only friends are Muslims.
This America is so much bigger than that one room that housed three girls. Yet somehow, I had so much more space in that room. Outside of it, I have found my arms crossed, shoulders hunched, lips sealed. In this America, I force myself to write and to speak and to stand straight. I force myself to stop the contortions and quit the balancing act. I don’t always succeed. But I know that if I stop trying, I too will shrink.
Shireen Younus ’20 is a Crimson Editorial editor in Pforzheimer House. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.
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