When my best friend asked me to be one of her bridesmaids, I sat down and wept. I had been convinced she wasn’t going to ask me to join her bridal party simply because I was Muslim, Pakistani, and almost entirely different from all of her other friends.
In the eight years since we graduated from high school, I’d often worried that Jenna and I would hit a point where we’d both realize that we had nothing in common any more. Our lives had taken such different paths that sometimes trying to explain her to my non-Texas friends distilled her to a caricature of herself. I’d gone from Texas to the East Coast, attending a small liberal arts college, living in DC, New York, and then Boston. Jenna, who is a devout Southern Baptist, planned to stay a virgin before marriage, a detail that resulted in rounded eyes and shocked faces from my friends up north. It wasn’t the only difference: while in high school many of my friends had been religious, I hardly knew any one outside of Texas who believed in God, or attended church. Though I never felt judged by Jenna, I’d hear her talk about her friends, about her experiences volunteering with a religious youth organization, and find it increasingly hard to imagine her life.
Jenna had come to visit me frequently as I hopped from one city to the next, but it wasn’t until I was living in Boston, certain that I was moving back to Pakistan, that I visited her in Dallas for the first time. Though I’d grown up in Houston, I’d never had reason to go to Dallas, and this would be my first time in the city. I wasn’t ready for it. In my first 24 hours there, I did not see a single person of color. Though we ate at a Mexican restaurant for dinner, everyone around me was white. We browsed through a Half-Price Books, surrounded by white people. In Boston, during my daily commute alone I would see people of every ethnicity imaginable. I had never felt as much of an outsider as I did during that weekend trip. Seeing how Jenna’s life and world diverged from mine was terrifying, especially knowing that in the next few months I’d be moving even further away, to a place even more alien to her. I spent the weekend bursting into tears, unable to tell Jenna how scared I was that, except for our long friendship, there was nothing about us that overlapped anymore.
When I first moved to the United States from Pakistan, I’d consciously practiced “being American,” watching the Disney channel to get the exact intonation of a perfect accent. I’d memorize the outfits Lizzie McGuire strung together, and then replicate them at the mall. I fought with my parents over what I believed were intrinsically American things: wearing a real costume for Halloween, ordering delivery instead of frozen pizza, getting permission to shave my legs. When friends came over, I’d cringe at the way my house seemed so ethnic, and mumble excuses for how different it was from theirs.
During our senior year, Texas released its own version of the Common Application for colleges. Unlike the one I used to apply to out-of-state schools, Texas’s version had three essay choices. One of these, Essay B, asked applicants to imagine living with a roommate who was different from them in every way possible, and describe how they’d react. Most of my friends chose this essay option — and most of them wrote about a hypothetical roommate with my features, my name. Ultimately, these essays intoned, they’d realized we were all human; hypothetical Mariya’s winning personality showed them how to embrace her differences. For weeks I struggled to explain to myself why exactly this had hurt so much. All that effort I’d put into being just like them, and they’d still seen me as different — not just different, but the apotheosis of differentness, the first person they pictured when asked to imagine someone who was not like them.
Jenna’s essay had delivered the most devastating blow. In it, she wrote how transformative it was to learn that my DNA was only 0.2 percent different from hers, the same amount that varied between two white people. I couldn’t understand why science had to tell her we were the same. We enjoyed the same music, had the same friends, and could complete each other’s sentences: a random factoid in a textbook shouldn’t have been the detail that convinced her.
A little over a month after Jenna told me that her boyfriend had proposed, I went to Dallas to meet him. My first night in the city, I went to an outdoor restaurant with two of their closest friends. There were approximately 200 people there, almost every single one of them was white. As we sat at our table, I caught the eye of a light-skinned black woman. She gave me an imperceptible head nod, a casual indication that in Dallas, people like her and I were rarely found in these venues. It was also a startling reminder that in Jenna’s world I stuck out like a sore thumb.
Jenna and I hadn’t had more than three minutes alone since I’d gotten off a bus and met up with her at the florist’s. I hadn’t asked her who her bridesmaids were going to be, and she hadn’t been forthcoming. I’d internalized all of our differences so heavily that by the time we were in her bedroom later that night, I had not only convinced myself that she wouldn’t ask me to be in the wedding party, but already rationalized that this omission would be okay. It wouldn’t change anything, I realized. Our outing that day had been perfect: her fiancé was charming and funny, and complemented her in a way I had never imagined he would. She and I had managed to spend the entire day communicating as though there had never been any distance or time away in our friendship. Then she handed me a handmade card asking me to be her bridesmaid.
In the months before the wedding, I was so worried about how different I was that I made all of my other friends a bit crazy. Jenna never made me feel that I’d be out of place during the wedding, but I worried that I would somehow let her down. I forced one friend to search with me until we’d found a perfect combination of outfits that were “Dallas” enough so I wouldn’t embarrass Jenna. I worried that her friends, most of whom likely didn’t have any non-white friends, would find me hugely alien and different. Though I’d met every one of her bridesmaids before, I was surprised by just how nervous I was to spend time with them. I had nightmares that when implanted into Jenna’s real life, I’d give her a reason to think there was more than a 0.2 percent difference between us.
When I finally confessed this fear to a close friend he laughed at me. “But you’re not that different from us,” he said. “You’re practically white.” I wanted to punch him in the face. “Do you realize how racist that is?” I asked him. “It’s not racist,” he countered. “It’s true.”
It wasn’t until I was in college that I realized that the “American” values I’d practiced so hard during junior high and high school weren’t universal American values at all. They were limited to a very specific subset of U.S. citizens. I wasn’t trying to shed my Pakistani identity for an American one; I was shedding it for a white one.
Partly because I’d assimilated just so well, every single time I was faced with my own racial differences, I’d be devastated. A boss once told me that I had become a finalist for a fellowship because I was one of the few non-white people who had applied for the position; another friend told me that an essay I’d written had only been selected because I had used the “minority card.” My acceptance to Columbia University for graduate school was dismissed by another friend’s mother as a half-achievement: “You’re a novelty to them,” she said when I told her the news, the insult buried within her congratulations. There were less tangible experiences: Once, while trying to get the attention of a bartender in Boston, I suddenly saw that he was also ignoring the Mexican girl and Black girl waiting patiently. When I motioned for a white friend to get the beers, she told me it was in my head. Browsing at Saks with a white male friend, I saw that an elderly woman was curling her lip in distaste, presumably because she thought we were in an interracial relationship. These situations drove me crazy — they made me feel like I was crazy. It was worse than being told outright that my race gave me an advantage, because it was so subtle. No one had screamed a racial slur at me. I worried that it really was all in my head, even as I knew it wasn’t.
When my friend told me that I was just as white as him, I wanted to throw each of these moments back in his face. “No matter how hard I try and pretend to be white,” I wanted to say, “no one will ever really see me that way.”
At Jenna’s rehearsal dinner, a stranger came up to me and cupped my elbow. “You must be the friend from Pakistan,” he said. I was the only person in the entire room who wasn’t white, and I gestured around and asked him, “How on earth did you possibly guess?” The man’s face turned red and he attempted to apologize. I grimaced — I’d thought I’d been making a joke.
Later that evening, I mentioned the story to the bridal party, and every one of the other girls burst out laughing. “You’re probably going to be the only person tomorrow who’s not white too,” one of them mentioned, her eyebrow raised in concern. I shrugged. In the three days we’d spent together, I’d had more fun that I’d expected I would. I’d fit right in with all of them, referencing the same Jenna stories, talking without words when things got stressful, and getting hit on by the same guy during the bachelorette party.
It wasn’t that there wasn’t cause for concern — at the reception, I gasped in shock when a woman mistook me as a nursemaid for a guest with Alzheimer’s. “This is a bridesmaid,” a friend cut in. It was hard not to be annoyed; I was dressed in the same outfit as all of the other bridesmaids, down to the matching jewelry. I’m sure that when I walked down the aisle, there were more than a few people confused about how I’d ended up in the mix, but what was truly surprising was that I just didn’t care. For all our differences, right now, the things we had in common mattered more.
After I came back home, I searched through my inbox for Jenna’s version of Essay B. I’d never deleted the essay, and I’d never forgotten it; it had stuck with me for over eight years as evidence that my best friend would never be able to see me as her equal. On the flight back from the U.S. to Pakistan, I kept thinking about all the anger I felt towards Jenna for being surprised at our genetic similarities. I realized that at times I’d also held her apart as supremely different from me. I qualified her lifestyle and her decisions when talking about her, surprised at how we’d managed to stay friends. I’d watched my East Coast friends judge her for being religious and conservative, and hadn’t said a thing.
When I finally pulled up the essay, I was surprised by what it actually said. Sure, she’d been surprised by the fact that our DNA wasn’t all different, but she also wrote beautifully about how knowing me, seeing how we were both the same and completely different, was a blessing. She credited me for making her realize that it’s important to know people from different backgrounds — that it’s fundamentally necessary, in fact, if we are to change the biases that plague us from birth. I was embarrassed to realize that in many ways, she’d done a better job of forgetting I was different than I had. Surrounded by white people and white American culture, I’d convinced myself that I would never fit in — but in fact, we’re all just 0.2 percent different, and 0.2 percent is so very small.