In the past few years, I have noticed that I have started to come to terms with a lot of my own internalized racism, discrimination, and rejection of Self in relation to my culture, religion, and identity as a whole. I have begun to realize that my feelings towards my culture and heritage are influenced heavily by the systems that seek to oppress them. And so, when I find myself feeling embarrassed or ashamed of a cultural or religious practice in public, I try to take a step back and question where those feelings are coming from.
Self-acceptance as a person of color (and a woman of color in particular) is a constant struggle because we live in a society that continuously seeks to invalidate vital parts of our identity. But self-acceptance is not an impossible feat. It is something that can grow as a person does, with the help of awareness and community.
Growing up, my internalized sense of otherness was detrimental towards my outward expression of identity in more ways than one. I did not reject my cultural or religious identity entirely, but I felt it was something that could only be practiced in secret or within shared cultural spaces.
At school and in public, I tried my best to maintain a persona of “ethnicity not otherwise specified.” I did not speak about Pakistani or Muslim customs and hid the aspects of myself that would signal otherness even more than my name, or skin tone, or eye shape would. It was often easier to allow people to mispronounce and misinterpret aspects of my identity for convenience. Comments such as “no but where are you really from?” and “wow your hijab/dress is so exotic,” were easier to weather than getting into long explanations about orientalism and colonial histories. These comments seemed innocent enough, but they contributed to the fear that my identity is inherently wrong, just because it is “different.”
Unfortunately, most people do not realize that these comments are destructive because their historical meaning has been erased and replaced with a definition that people of colour are meant to accept as compliments. But for most people of color, these comments, rather than being compliments, are seen as micro-aggressions, because words such as exotic highlight feelings of otherness for people of color. It sets us apart from a socially constructed notion of normalness and categorizes us as objects to be looked at, rather than people.
These feelings compounded, and as a result, it was not only my cultural identity that was affected. My identity as a whole, I felt the need to keep secret; anything slightly outside the norm was stowed away, to be experienced only in solitude. My poetry. My taste in music. Thoughts and emotions that were healthy to express but never were because I was ashamed of them. I hesitated in expressing different aspects of my identity since I was a child because it would further highlight my otherness. I would feel my face heating up in embarrassment because of mundane things like playing music in the car with friends, or what I had for lunch that day, or obsessing over whether or not I was pronouncing things right despite English being my primary language because of comments like where is your accent from?
I am slowly starting to realize that there is nothing wrong with my religion, there is nothing wrong with being Pakistani, there is nothing wrong with being a woman and the sense of shame and embarrassment I feel is the result of systems that want me to feel that way because they capitalize on it. They profit from my rejection of my culture, but why should I give them that? I know what my culture is—rich, beautiful and full of life. It has taught me the values and morals that I hold close and that I know make me a better human.
It is the way my mother speaks about her hometown—fruit gardens and the makai ki roti that my cousin and I would later fight over on trips to Pakistan. Street vendors with corn cooking in sand, brightly colored fabrics hanging from shop corners; children crowding your car at streetlights, selling anything from fruit to small toys. It is the way that Urdu and Hindko have always sounded like poetry when the elders of my family spoke it to each other. It is the way that I have always had a collectivist mentality, thinking about how my actions affect those around me, because my culture and religion has always taught me that humans are meant to live as a cooperative society, supporting and helping each other whenever it is needed.
So yes, I have internalized a lot of race-related self-deprecation, but that does not mean that it is the end all, be all for me. I am acknowledging how it has affected my identity and sense of Self. I am reflecting on why I have these thought processes and how I can begin to change them. I am starting to practice things in an act that would be defiance to some, but are really positive affirmations I one day hope to cultivate in myself.