Welcome to the Club

How could I have felt complimented when I knew I was being denigrated? As the entire ethnicity group to which I belonged was being effectively erased, how could I have felt, however briefly, seen?
By Kiana N. Rawji

The first party I attended at Harvard was, for the most part, unmemorable and inconsequential, as most Igloo parties are. The sights and senses were standard: perspiring bodies crashing together in the dark. The floor, sticky with dried alcohol. Music reverberating through your body, pounding so loudly that you might eventually mistake it for your own heartbeat.

What I remember most distinctly was not the party itself, but leaving it. As I walked down the narrow hallway leading out of the Igloo, a girl ran into me, spilling her drink on my favourite top. Instead of apologizing, the first thing she said to me was, “I don’t mean to be racist, but —” (never a good start to a sentence) “— you’re the prettiest Indian girl I’ve ever seen.”

She went on to tell me that she once went to a South Asian Association event and walked in thinking she would be the prettiest girl there because she was white (in her own words), but she realized that the Indian community actually contained some “hot people.” She told me I should “go to the Bhangra” and see for myself, as if Bhangra were a place I could visit.

What struck me most about this moment, though, wasn’t the girl’s remarks but my own immediate reaction. I wasn’t offended. I was flattered.

How could I have felt complimented when I knew I was being denigrated? As the entire ethnicity group to which I belonged was being effectively erased, how could I have felt, however briefly, seen?

Like plenty of other women, I’ve long been unable to shake the belief that I’m only “pretty” when I’m trying to be, and that night I was trying — makeup, favorite top, and all. So I appreciated the acknowledgement of my efforts. But of course, there was more to it than just that.

Growing up in Calgary, Canada where I attended a rural private school until I was 14, there were only a handful of students of color in each grade, and for some reason, I distanced myself from them. It felt like there was this special club that all my white friends were part of, and I made sure I was always right behind them, ready to walk in. Yet I consistently found myself standing outside it with the door slammed shut in my face.

At 10 years old, I didn’t know what this club was, exactly. All I knew was that the people in it were “normal” people — people who had normal names and packed normal-smelling leftovers in their lunchboxes. They got to be the leads in school plays. And TV shows. And movies. They got to be the pretty faces on school posters. And advertisements. And picture books.

I initially thought I wasn’t pretty enough to be part of this not-so-secret club. It wasn’t until later that I realized I wasn’t white enough. And it wasn’t until even later that I realized “not pretty enough” and “not white enough” were not unrelated.

As I grew older, I started to get used to the idea that I could start my own club. I was determined to create space for myself in a world where there was none. But fast forward to my first semester at Harvard, and as much as I felt I had stepped more comfortably and confidently into my own skin, here I was saying thank you to a white girl telling me I was the prettiest Indian girl she’d ever seen.

Flattery is not a sustainable or sincere form of self-satisfaction. It’s a feeling entirely dependent upon someone else’s affirmation. What I saw in that moment was someone finally opening the door to me, saying, here, come in. You’re not so bad. You’re not like them.

The part of me that, despite my efforts to silence her, had been secretly yelling let me in, let me in since the age of 10 was ecstatic. For a moment, I thought I could shed my “them” status, or at least get a little further away from it. I saw a reel of images play in my mind, flashing through all the brown faces that I too have been conditioned to see as inherently less “pretty,” and suddenly, I was the exception. For so long, my face had been among them, but now, it was above them. All because this one girl said so.

When your skin color automatically relegates you to a place below the threshold of beauty, you must be exceptional, rising above everyone else in your lot just to reach that threshold — just to achieve the bare minimum. So the ecstasy of feeling exceptional for me, in that moment, was really the ecstasy of feeling that much closer to normal.

At once, I felt elevated and diminished. Because in order to feel like I was being lifted up to that threshold, I had to actually believe I was below it to begin with. In my own imagination, I had erased myself from the definition of beauty.

To that girl at the Igloo, I stood out. She was so hyperaware of my existence that she felt the need to comment upon it. But I know I was also invisible to her; I was just a wall for her to throw words at, not a person who might actually absorb those words. A person who might feel the incessant rhythm of words, images, and ideas — constructions of herself that she did not create — reverberate through her body, pounding so loudly she might eventually mistake them for her own heartbeat.

Even now, I feel myself caught, like many people of color, in the tension between simultaneous invisibility and hypervisibility.
It makes me wonder, what does it feel like to just be plain old visible? What does it feel like to exist in your own imagination? What does it feel like to be part of the club without losing part of yourself? And will I ever find out?