White America Betrayed Me

This article is Part I of a 3-part series on race and inclusion. You can read Part II here and Part III here.

Disclaimer: This article was uncomfortable for me to write and even more uncomfortable for me to share publicly. I am publishing this piece a year and a half after the election because it has taken me this long to build up the courage to tell my story. I truly believe that discomfort is where growth begins. I hope you will listen to my experience and feel more comfortable to tell your uncomfortable story.

“I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” — James Baldwin

I had resisted being angry for a long time.

As a Pakistani American Muslim woman born in America and raised in a post 9/11 era, I was part of a generation that was inundated with images portraying people that looked like me as terrorists, lazy immigrants, ‘others’ that did not belong here, nor there. I had grown accustomed to turning on the evening news and seeing invasive headlines about my religion, ethnicity, and identity.

Yet, somehow, this felt normal and routine. Not knowing how, I had navigated this complicated and at times hostile environment without a chip on my shoulder. In contrast, I proudly carried a responsibility to educate and a blind optimism on my shoulders. I felt that it was necessary for the Muslim community to do the work of dialoguing with America about who we really were. I believed that it if we did our job right, America would be fixed somehow, and racism and hatred would begin to end. With a supportive family that taught me the strength of my roots and a diverse group of friends that instilled me with confidence to lead without apology, I was not living a life dictated by anger or disenfranchisement.

I was privileged to have never directly been the subject of explicit hatred or racism, mostly just awkward questions about Islam and sometimes correcting people’s assumptions about Muslim women. I had always assumed that bigotry was in a fractional minority; they were people I was rarely, if ever, going to interact with. That the minority of hateful voices was not normal and was never going to be acceptable as mainstream.

The presidential election of 2016 changed everything.

The albeit thin, but comforting blanket of a society that I thought was leaning towards a vision of justice and inclusivity was violently ripped away from me. The optimism of progress I had worn as a badge of honor suddenly felt like a self-inflicted wound. How could I have been so wrong about the people in this country? I felt a draining tension in my body. Two emotions wrestled under my skin as I tried to figure out how to wake up from a nightmare:

I felt broken. After 26 years of feeling protected and supported for being who I was, I wondered if what America had promised was just a grand lie. I did not know what my existence and life in America would be like anymore. My name, hijab, skin color, religion and ethnicity felt vulnerably visible and burned into a public identity that I was never going to be able to hide or alter. Was it safe to be outside? Should I take off my hijab? Should I cancel my travel plans for the summer?

But my vulnerability was accompanied by another feeling, a stronger sentiment. I was angry. Angrier than I had ever been in my life. I was angry at all of the people who had forgotten about me, and so many others like me. The votes casted were not just in favor of a candidate, but an unfeeling rejection of a vision of America that included me, my family and a national community of people who had served this country. The national political theater had catapulted me into a collective villain of minorities that needed to be rid of in order to solve this country’s problems. Despite living a life dedicated to service and helping others, I was suddenly America’s biggest problem. It was maddening.

As my body, mind, and spirit was wrought by this tension between brokenness and fury, I wanted to be alone with my community, my people. Yet, there was an unrelenting pressure to begin the work. I was being asked to resist the new administration. I was encouraged to empathize with the people who had voted against my safety, to find ways to work with them, to help them understand.

But, I didn’t want to do the work anymore.

The election had finally permitted me to realize how truly tired I was. The trust and optimism that I had been carrying my entire life felt like an unbearable burden that I could no longer wear. I wanted to throw away my self prescribed duties and allow myself to feel the depth of my anger, my sadness, my disappointment. I now resented the obligation to make change and educate people to care about me. After living a life that should have resulted in progress, I was being asked to compensate for regression that I was not responsible for.

I could not go back being naïve, trusting, and wishful that America was going to get it right if I just kept working hard enough. The work was no longer just mine to do. There was a community who needed to acknowledge their responsibility and power, and ultimately their role in what had happened.

White America had betrayed me.

It feels uncomfortable and scary to write and say those words out loud. But, these words are true. The election data showed me that this was true over and over again. No matter what I did to prove myself as a valuable part of this nation, there was a large majority of white people who did not and do not see a place for me in this country. And this was the hard truth I had to swallow. Even more painful to accept, I realized that these people were not a small community that I would never interact with in real life; they were people that lived in my neighborhood, worked with me in the office, shopped next to me at the grocery store.

The problem was much more systemic and widespread than I had ever imagined.

This new awareness facilitated an initially hesitant willingness to dig deeper into my interactions with the white world, peers, and allies. For better or for worse, for the first time, I decided to pay attention to what white people around me were doing and why. For so many people across America, the election was an open invitation to dig into the society we were living in to understand why we were so much more behind than we thought.

The results of this new awareness affirm and tax me simultaneously. I know many white people who are truthful and humble allies; they want to understand how to best support me and people like me to reckon with the results of the election. I am grateful for those individuals, and I recognize that I am privileged as a woman of color and minority to have experienced these relationships with white people. It is important to note that this is not the experience of many minorities in America.

But, perhaps more importantly, I have also started to recognize a pattern of microaggressions and unintended racism from allies. Sometimes, it was infantilization. Other times, it was feedback laced with comments about my personality and style. Many times, it was comments that made me feel like a token character in their cookie cutter storybook of social justice. When I started to pay attention, I realized just how much work needed to be done. Work not just to address blatant racists and bigots, but with white people who ardently see themselves as our allies.

There is a big difference in calling yourself and being a true ally.

In order to be effective allies, white people have to acknowledge the uncomfortable realities of the world we live in today. They have to talk about race, white privilege and micro and macro aggressions. They have to create spaces for minorities to educate and guide white people who want to help. They have to understand the importance of the language and words they use to talk about social change. They have to recognize that good intentions do not always create impact that is grounded in equity and inclusion. Ultimately, they have to listen to us.

Allyship is not a feeling or an intention, it is a trained, rigorous approach and skillset grounded in equity. So, white allies, I invite you to ask yourself an honest question: am I part of the problem or part of the solution?

Before you jump to say yes, consider your agency, influence, and impact on the trajectory of this country. Think about how your life and actions have changed since the election, compared to those whose entire psychological and physical safety was assaulted within a span of a few minutes on November 8, 2017. How many friends of color do you have? When was the last time you interrupted oppression? Do you design spaces that are diverse and inclusive? Do you use your personal power to make room for unheard voices to access wider audiences? Do you use your white privilege to educate white peers that are not inclined to care about inequality or injustice? Before assuming your allyship is effective, ask someone. You may be surprised to hear the answer.

What’s the cost of being an ally that doesn’t get it? Unless social change work is grounded in diversity, equity and inclusion, it is at risk of being another form of white supremacy, and another painful betrayal.

And that is exactly why I have chosen to tell my story today; because we cannot afford another betrayal. The stakes are simply too high for minorities in America.

I believe these uncomfortable questions are the only way to create a way forward that can re-establish the trust and faith that so many people lost in this country. In many ways, I, like many in my community, still feel tired and angry and am trying to recover. I am not fully ready to completely forgive what happened to my people and move on.

Still. Despite all of the havoc and betrayal I have experienced in the last year and a half, I believe that change is still possible, and that better days will come. But, I now know that better days will only come if I am more willing to hold people accountable and raise the uncomfortable questions. To challenge and educate allies that don’t get it. To hold my anger as a form of love for this country.

Ultimately, change will happen when everyone is at the table in an authentic, vulnerable way. I speak today not as a perfectly optimistic and hopeful social change leader, but as an angry, disappointed and critical woman of color who needs to see more from white allies.

For the first time in my life, I am telling my uncomfortable truth. And to me, despite the regression this country just experienced, that’s still progress.

Sana Rahim is the founder and president of Emerge Consulting. Emerge is a management practice that builds the capacity of nonprofit organizations through leadership and strategy services to create more effective solutions. She speaks and leads workshops on leadership, strategy, and diversity and inclusion. Sana is currently an MBA candidate at UCLA Anderson, focusing on social impact and sustainability. You can contact Sana for workshops and consulting services at emergeconsultingla@gmail.com.