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There, I am powerful — one of the most powerful in any room, even. I am the white woman, often the accomplice of the white man, but sometimes — many times — subject to his whims, and even his abuse.
Aside from my womanhood, my kind is King. I am still Brown, still Muslim, still This Me. But I am also light-skinned (more Wheatish than Brown), Sunni (not Shia, or worse, Ahmadi), Urdu-speaking, and English-speaking too, not Punjabi-speaking, Sindhi-speaking, Pashto-speaking; no populist provincial language graces my urban tongue.
I have all the trappings of a woman of my class: Somebody does my cooking and washing, a dog guards my expansive green gate, and a guard — a man this time, armed and uniformed — protects me and my kind from the majority. And I have various uncles and grandfathers in the army and government protecting me and my kind from any injustice.
Here, I am Pakistani-Muslim-immigrant-woman Me. I have risen here, though. I have become the semi-white-woman.
From an F-1 wielding visa dependent, my father pursuing his heavily subsidized MBA, my college-educated mother working under the table as a babysitter to our apartment-complex neighbors, as a cashier in the Arab grocery shop, salesperson at the Persian rug store, deliverer of food at the Chinese restaurant.
What began as a troop-of-four occupying a three-room, one-story apartment, bus-riding over the Indiana hills, became a family-of-four in an Upper East Side apartment overlooking the river, subway-riding, sometimes cab-indulging, private college-attending, software-engineering, Wall Street-working, art-pursuing.
There, I am standing at the bottom of the winding stairs when I see that he is halfway down the steps already. He immediately presses his body against the tall white wall, clearing the way for me to go past him without the slightest possibility of us touching. I tell him to go ahead, he shakes his head, No, and I waft past him, him, who waits until I reach the top of the landing before proceeding to the bottom.
This is white-woman-me, and dark-skinned, village-hailing him, him, one of five servants in a Lahori home.
Here, I am standing in the American embassy, Paris, dream-of-a-summer ending with the nightmare of Green Card stolen, a red-faced man telling me, on second thought, not to come back tomorrow. If the bright GREEN of my passport does not change things, the crescent moon and star, the “Islamic Republic of,” certainly does.
He does not know when they will be able to issue me the document that I need to go home.
Yes, he knows the website says 24 to 48 hours.
No, he cannot comment on whether the extra security checks are because I am Pakistani-Muslim-immigrant-woman: Me!
I start to cry.
It is $600 for the stamp, would be $600 more for a new Green Card, it is thousands of dollars spent on missed flights.
Here, I am the white woman unsettled, displaced to a netherland where I no longer have the white-woman-anonymity I used to, but still have enough economic and cultural and educational capital to pass. I am too light-skinned to present too much of a problem to most, my uncovered head proving to passerby that I do not pose The Threat, my bare legs proving that I have Thoroughly Assimilated. And anyway, I am too pretty to be a nuisance, made fetish instead, made occasional indulgence of the White Man who wants variety instead, made token Brown member of the elite college society instead.
Here, the White Man wants me to believe that I am white enough to be accepted, to identify with Him, to forsake the Black Man and remember who I was There. It is more convenient for me and my kind to side with the White Man, convenient especially for Him, who can then turn to the Black Man and say:
If They can succeed, why can’t you? They come here with nothing, but They work hard, They study hard, They become college graduates and entrepreneurs and sometimes even CEOs!
If those Asians can do it, why can’t you?
And then, us: bringing the colorism from our home countries with us, carrying the very resources that allowed us to immigrate in the first place, giddy to be allowed such proximity to whiteness, believing that Yes, of course we are better. We have pulled ourselves up by those fabled bootstraps! We have studied and worked ourselves to near death for this success! We have achieved the American Dream!
Us, we turn to the Black Man and say:
If we can do it, why can’t you?
Here, I am tired of the selfish choice we make to allow our Brownness and Yellowness to fade, to have inched toward Whiteness when the White Man decided it was beneficial for Him, when we decided it was easier to accept our newfound social status, when we decided it was easier to blame the Black Man for his failure and accept the praise so kindly thrown our way, the praise that has manifested in the Model Minority Myth that is apparently so damn painful because it isn’t true and we’re not ALL the quiet smart Asian, but somehow, even if it isn’t true, we’ve earned our success and the Black Man has earned his failure.
I am tired of our sustained devotion to the God of Silence. Of our belief that if we are just quiet enough, just unnoticed enough, just hard-working enough, Society will drain us of our melanin, realize that we are not like those Blacks or those Mexicans.
There, I am thoroughly uncomfortable, and Here, I am thoroughly confused. There and Here, I am unsettled by my own privileges. I want acceptance, but I cannot possibly live with it, either.
I cannot help but Remember that we were once systematically excluded from entering this country, once put in concentration camps, once a colonized people, that now, we are being tortured in the name of national security.
I cannot help but Remember that We are not White, and that being proximal to Whiteness, accepting this privilege, allows Us to be weaponized against Black America.
I refuse your “gift” of Semi-Whiteness.
—Contributing writer Minahil A. Khan’s column, “Unlearning, Decolonizing,” navigates the landscape of identity in her journey as a Brown Muslim immigrant woman decolonizing her psyche. Through personal narrative, it will explore the vacillation between self-love and self-hate, relationships with one’s family and cultural as well as religious communities, and the homeland, both imagined and lived.
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