Race and power. Two powerful words packed with ineffable force. They have led us to march, protest and die. They resulted in hard won battles of independence in Asia and Africa from European colonialism. They resulted in the rise of the U.S. civil rights movement and, only 25 years ago, the end of apartheid.
These global events have shaped my journey.
As a Brown immigrant South Asian American woman, I am acutely aware of centuries of racism. As a person born in Bangladesh, I know intellectually of the racism that resulted in European domination and British colonization of South Asia for over three hundred years. I am a proud descendant of a people and a family who fought for independence from the British. I recall my late chocolate-brown grandfather, Serajul Islam, telling me that he was the first “Black man” who received a Mechanical Engineering degree from the U.K-based Manchester University. But he was angry as he recalled that he grew up in an India when signs insultingly excluded Indians from buildings and areas by proclaiming “No dogs and no Indians.” (Although dogs are beloved today, in my grandfather’s era and in Muslim South Asia, dogs are regarded as dirty and unclean. Equating a human to being a dog is regarded as dehumanizing.)
As a child, I could never have imagined how resonant my grandparents’ struggle against the structural oppression of British colonialism would be to my life. But history repeats itself even if we are blind to it. Understanding it is an act of respect for our ancestors that unveils profound truths.
When my grandfather recounted these stories, I had no idea that racism was also a bedrock of the U.S., the country I would one day adopt and love. I learned of the slavery of Africans in North America over four hundred years ago, the land stolen from Native Americans and the continuous fight against immigrants of color. These injustices are reflected in countless contemporary problems, including in the disproportionate incarceration, deportation and deaths of Black and Brown people.
Racism not only lives and breathes, but it continues to dominate.
Like my grandfather, I can testify that racism is intensely personal and painful. A part of me can analyze it intellectually. But all of me feels it as personal. I battle continuously to not to let this scourge overwhelm me.
Every day, I hold within me my lived experience as an immigrant Muslim woman of color in America. I live in my Brown body and I see everything through my Brown eyes. This is the only life I know. For me, it has meant accepting — and fighting against — discrimination. It has meant knowing that I will almost always be underestimated. It has meant being silenced. It has meant being disrespected. It has meant that my accent is assumed to mean that I am not as smart as another who might speak with a more typical cadence. It has meant being the “other” every time I chose to wear clothing that reflects my culture. It has meant that, to be heard, I have had to speak up strongly, and always as intelligently as possible and in a way that our dominant culture understands.
Racism and colorism has also tainted how I view the world through my Brown body and eyes. Because I have never lived in a society that is truly equal, I have no lived experience of true equality for people of color and women. I cannot fully imagine all that would change in a world — and in me — in which we are not judged by our skin color and gender. By not speaking up even more actively, I know that I, too, have contributed to racism and anti-blackness.
I am tired of living in an ecosystem that is rendered toxic by racism and sexism. Ultimately, none of us will be able to breathe. Current structures need to change as we all strive to maintain ourselves. Unfortunately, there is no hope for a vaccine against racism.
Even after a lifetime of dealing with racism, my relationship to race and power remains a work in progress. I have worked hard to claim — and reclaim — my power based on three key principles.
First, learn to speak truth to power. Do not accept inappropriate behavior or comments.
Second, stand in self worth and dignity. I try not to let racist incidents diminish my sense of myself. A racist remark is a reflection of the racist’s limitations, not mine.
Three, understand that positional authority does not equate to ethical conduct and moral authority. When the police, a colleague or a boss is racist, they immediately loose moral ground and are only exercising positional authority. I remind myself that I have the power of “right” on my side.
Just like my grandparents, I continue to be part of a lineage of Brown people acting against racism. I stand with Black and Brown people today. And I WILL say their names: Michael Brown, Pamela Turner, Laquan McDonald, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Atatiana Jefferson, Breonna Taylor, Sean Reed, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd. I add to this list many Latinos killed at the hands of the government: Reefa Hernandez, Antonio Arce, Francisco Serna, Anthony Baez, Antonio Zambrano-Montes, Jessie Hernandez, David Silva and Sean Monterrossa.
In saying these names and standing with them, I stand too with my lineage and seek to reshape our future.