I’m Not Like Other Brown Girls…
A Story of Internalized Racism
Immigrating to Canada was one of the best decisions my family ever made. Growing up in Canada, I’ve been presented with opportunities I would never have received in my native Pakistan. The people I’ve met, the friendships I’ve made, and the experiences I’ve had have all helped me to become the person I am today, and I am so thankful for all of that. However, immigrating into Canada, and growing up in a post-colonial Pakistan (with lingering colonial influences), also had its negative impacts.
Growing up in Pakistan, there was always the mindset of White people being better than [us]. This was demonstrated by our near-idolization of White tourists, and by the lengths we went to in order to remain fair (and lovely). Fair skinned people were (and are) considered more attractive, to the extent where people would (and do) literally bleach their skin in order to be considered more attractive.
Needless to say, it has been hard growing up as a desi woman of colour in a culture like this. Growing up in Canada, surrounded mostly by White people, I began to develop a lot of internalized racism. Of course, I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had slowly begun to hate myself, my culture, everything I was — Why couldn’t I be more like my White friends?
At first, it was a defense mechanism. Within a year and a half of coming to Canada, we moved to Ajax. We left the community we had developed in Thorncliffe, our appartment building so full of South Asian families that you could walk on any of the floors, and it would smell like home cooking. We moved to a community where we were (at the time), one of only 4 or 5 families of colour on the street. Our neighbourhood was so white, in fact, that my sister was bullied for being brown in her elementary school.
I insisted my parents give me ‘White People Food’ for my school lunches — God forbid I ever smell like ‘curry’. Even though my favourite foods were traditional Pakistani dishes: Queema Aloo, Daal, Korma — rich in spices, and, unfortunately, in aroma. I wanted to blend in — bologna and cheese sandwiches (on White bread, of course), juice boxes, and an apple. Constantly begging my parents for the ultimate tool for assimilation: Lunchables.
It was all about fitting in.
Even when I switched schools, it was the same thing. Moving to a new school where everyone in my class had been together since grade 3, I was an outsider when I started school. I was bullied. Eventually, I started to make friends, but I knew that I had to fit in to survive. Ramadhan would come around, and I would try not to draw attention to the fact that I was fasting. Eid would come around, and I would take the day off school, and revel in my Shalwar and Kameez, wearing traditional clothes, speaking in Urdu, hanging out with other Pakistani people. Then, the next day, I would be back at school. Wearing jeans and a t-shirt. Some fading henna on my hands, the only evidence of my other identity.
As I started growing closer to my friends, I became more comfortable talking about various aspects of my culture. I invited friends over to put on henna with me, I started allowing my parents to serve ‘brown food’ when my friends came over for dinner, and I started appreciating my identity a bit more. At this same time, my parents were really trying to make sure my siblings and I didn’t lose our culture. We started speaking only Urdu in the house — to make sure my siblings and I kept in practice, and feeling the isolation of a new country, my parents started watching more Bollywood movies.
Although I was (externally) starting to reconnect with my roots, and renewing my appreciation for my culture, internally, I wasn’t at the same level. I remember not liking hanging out with ‘other Pakistanis’ much, because I felt like I did not have anything in common with them. I remember being embarrassed by my parents’ accents and their vocabularies — although their English was great, they used phrases that were sometimes out of date, and ‘fob-ish’. I remember being frustrated that all my friends celebrated Christmas, and ‘all I got was Eid’.
To my parents’ credit, they did try to give us the best of both worlds. We got Christmas stockings, and ‘santa’ always brought us a few presents. They tried to spin things positively, reminding us that we got TWO Eids in a year. But still, it was hard to feel good about how different I was from most of my friends. All I wanted to do was to fit in.
I remember being wildly jealous of my friends. I remember feeling so ugly , and having such low self-esteem — this was because of a whole bunch of factors, but one of the largest was my race. I hated my mud-coloured skin. I hated my thick, black hair. My eyes were boring and brown. I remember constantly wishing I had been born White, or Black, or Hispanic. I was so firmly set in how ugly brown people were, that I knew that almost anything would be better. My parents would have probably been ‘cooler’, I probably would have been prettier. Everything would have been better if I just wasn’t brown.
Looking back, I realize now, that a lot of it was due to this culture of forced assimilation, this constant need to impress, or at least fit in with, White people, this internalized racism — a poison that flows through your veins, making you want to stay out of the sun, dye your hair, hide your family, adopt an anglicized name or nickname (something you can find on a keychain), and fit in.
(Check out this awesome poem about assimilation by h.s. frizz)
I remember purposely mispronouncing words in my language — I remember purposely mispronouncing the name of my country, just to feel less ‘othered’.
Looking back, I hate how I used to be. I hate that I didn’t let my parents introduce my friends to more desi foods at a young age. I hate that I was embarrassed by how they sounded sometimes. I hate how I used to try and try to distance myself from the labels of ‘Pakistani’, and ‘Muslim’, and how I used to wish and wish and wish that I had been born someone else.
It took me so long to start to become comfortable with my identity. And I know many others who have gone through similar experiences. Maybe some day, we will feel 100% comfortable and proud of who we are, but I know, for many of us, it will be a long journey, full of a lot of learning and ‘unlearning’, and honest self-reflection.
Not only did [we] feel othered, and hated by White people, but [we] othered and brought down other people ‘like us’. Every time a white kid called me Paki, that was another reason I found to hate being brown, and to hate brown people, and to actively try not to be ‘like them’. Every joke about curry, or being a FOB, or about terrorists, it was another brick in the wall I built between me and other brown people. We were taught that who we were was ugly, and bad, and ‘other’, so we internalized that hatred, and began to project it to those who looked like us.
“I’m not like other brown girls…”
It’s heartbreaking to see how often people of colour pit themselves against each other, because in this world, we need to have each other’s backs. Instead of tearing each other down, we need to start building each other, and ourselves up.
Now, I am more proud and appreciative of my cultural identity. Although I am not free of internalized racism, I am better able to recognize it, and try to stop it. There is a lot I regret about my past, mainly how embarrassed I used to be by my parents, and how aggressively I would try to shut them down. Looking back, they were just trying to fit in in this new world too, and I did not make it any easier for them.
We were socialized to hate ourselves, and to aspire to be like others. It’s especially frustrating now, because it seems like cultural appropriation is on the rise, but being FROM that culture is still NOT OKAY. Our culture is commodified, it is exoticized, it is appropriated, but when we celebrate our own culture, we are rejected and ridiculed.
Wearing a tikka or a bindi to a music festival is stylish, but a desi woman wearing a tikka or a bindi to a wedding is a fob. Henna tattoos are all the rage on white women, but little brown girls scrub and scrub at their skin to take the henna off their hands, lest they be ridiculed and shamed — literally washing away the evidence of their otherness. Arabic script is admired for its aesthetic, while speaking the Arabic language immediately labels you as a terrorist.
A Tumblr post I read a few months ago summed it up perfectly, saying: ‘They hate us, but love our culture’.
It’s heartbreaking to see how common these experiences of assimilation and internalized racism are. It was only recently that I began to unlearn them, and began to embrace my culture and identity. I remember discovering the #EmbraceDesiBeauty hashtag on twitter a few months ago, and being moved to tears as years of internalized racism and cultural assimilation started washing off me. I remember feeling so empowered by these desi people, realizing how beautiful [we] actually are.
So here’s to being desi, and realizing that our shades of brown, and beige, and black — they should be embraced and celebrated, not hidden away in shame.