Identity

Unshaven

I have mostly sported a clean-shaven look. But, after coming to college, my look began to evolve. I experimented with different looks ranging from stubble to scruff to just short of a short beard. Ahh the joys of being a young, evolving college student…

I recently went home to Connecticut to spend time with my family. Upon arrival, my parents reacted to my one-inch beard with surprise. “It’s only for a little while,”  I explained. This particular long length was not a personal aesthetic choice. I had been rehearsing for a play at school and was interesting in making the character look a little different from my usual self. As a result, many had commented on how much older and different I looked. As someone who had spent most of my life looking younger and more innocent than my age (an advantage in some situations, a disadvantage in others), I was amused by the responses.

Beard chat aside, I was ready for a wonderful weekend with my family. We were planning to go a to a food festival the next day. I was overjoyed at this news. Is there anything more heavenly then sampling various cuisines with people you love? The next day we drove to a quaint but unfamiliar Connecticut town. My heart and stomach could not stand the excitement that was to follow. I could see big tents and smell all kinds of flavors. I walked from station to station, picking up every loaf, cup, or skewer that met my eyes. My appreciation for this special day with my family was boundless, yet it was not lost on me that we were perhaps the only non-white family at the event. I quickly set the fact aside. Growing up in the suburbs, you get used to less diverse environments.

I soon separated from my family to explore more food stands on my own. As I walked around the festival grounds, I began to sense a certain energy being directed at me. As I stood in line, waiting to sample the food, I started to notice people looking at me. At first, I shrugged it off. As far as I was concerned, there was no imaginable reason anyone would be staring at me. More looks. I continued walking. No, something wasn’t right. The people were not acknowledging me in a normal fashion. There was discomfort in their looks. There was uncertainty. There was distrust. There was fear. You can’t miss that. More looks. “Perhaps I should look for my family, “ I thought. More looks. I grew increasingly nervous and tense. As I walked to another food stand, I found myself having to maneuver through the crowd. I accidentally bumped into a woman who was walking with a young child. I promptly said, “Excuse me.” With unbelievable rage and aggression, the woman shot me a look of disgust and hatred, shielded her daughter, and moved away.

I think you should shave,” my mom later said to me. She hadn’t seen this particular incident but she had seen enough. “I noticed people were giving you looks and I am not ok with that.”

I shaved my beard. I didn’t even think about it. I just wanted to erase this memory. I wanted the feeling to go away. I wanted the shame to go away. By growing my beard out, I had inadvertently invited the world to view me as a stereotype: one associated with danger and hate. I was someone to be feared and avoided. I was a potential terrorist.

The more I thought about it, the more disgusted, sad and livid I grew. How dare they antagonize me? How dare they create a narrative for me and erase my own. How dare they make me distrust myself and want to change who I am. My own response was only a microcosm of what some people endure every day, as they travel, commute, work, and exist. In many ways, I am more fortunate than most. I have many friends and even acquaintances who have treated me with complete respect and celebrated every aspect of who I am. I have experienced this profound level of hate only once in my life. But for so many, it is an everyday occurrence; that is not something any of us should ignore. Yet, as some in this world continue to stigmatize and demonize others, there is only one thing I know I can do. And that is to tell my story.

I am writing this to reclaim my identity and reclaim my narrative. I am so much more than the label I was given at that festival. All of us are. This post is me fighting back in the most peaceful, powerful, and productive way I know. I am proud of my skin color. I am proud of my race. I am proud of my ethnicity. I am proud of every piece of history and complexity that comes with it. I am proud of my identity. And I hope when you look at me, that is what you see.

Rishi Mutalik

Originally published in Skintone Stories Blog

 

‘Earthling’

The modern Asian Australian female experience is a pendulum that swings between the extremes of invisibility and hyper-exotification. 

I have become relatively accustomed to questions like “What are you? You don’t really look Asian… are you actually fully Asian? Why is your hair curly?”

Perhaps the most disheartening aspect of these questions is that they often come from fellow Asian women. The textbook Asian appearance tends to fit this particular description: Fair, with yellow-toned skin, monolids, and straight, jet black hair. This image has been engrained so deeply and intensely in the way that we think, that we are now oblivious to the multi-faceted aspects of our culture. In a society that traditionally underestimates our biological and social variation, it is crucial that we look for courage and validation within ourselves and the sisters of our own community in order to truly accept our diverse Asian Australian identities.

 

Gisselle Enriquez 

 

We Are the New Millennials

Sabrina Sultana delivered a keynote speech at Bard’s first Asian Gala that took place on April 1st, 2016 in response to the question: “What Does it Mean to Be Asian in America?”

“I want to start off by acknowledging the people in this room tonight. There’s so much diversity here, from Indians, to Pakistanis, to Chinese, to Koreans, to many more. The beautiful thing about this is that, despite our differences in where we come from, we are here today to embrace one common trait: being Asian. Most importantly, we are here today to look past our separate identities and unite together as humans. This gala isn’t just another event on campus, but rather one that acts as an extension of all the events we’ve had that unite everyone together and build awareness. Despite the crying we do in our rooms, staring at numbers, and feeling like shit over exams, papers, and for many of you… Senior Projects, we are still putting the effort to put something like this, together. That’s honestly pretty remarkable. So again, thank you all for doing this and coming out tonight.

The greatest pain in life is to feel invisible. To be invisible. To feel like no matter how many times you speak up for yourself, no one is hearing you. What I’ve learned is that we all just want to be heard. We all want to be part of something. To join, to create something… together.

Pangea. Have you guys heard of that term before? Once upon a time, about 300 million years ago, we were all one. I mean, we were all literally one supercontinent… like a huge blob surrounded by one ocean. All of the continents fit together perfectly, like a puzzle. Can you believe that? It wasn’t until a century later when the supercontinent started to break apart, started to differentiate itself into what we know now as Africa, Europe, South America, etc… you know the rest of the continents, I hope. We all started to find our ‘homeland’. The place that’s separate from others. We began to notice how different we were from one another; from complexion, to attire, to language, to etc. And with the internalization of these differences came prejudices, ignorance and intolerance, and state-of-minds that informed the divisions that we have to get over now. It’s our responsibility to figure how to do that… how to integrate into our own community.

Being a South Asian Muslim-American taught me that progress is beyond the perceptions of a marginalized citizen. It taught me that it is guaranteed that you will come across someone who will make you feel uncomfortable, because in that moment, you realized that their perception of you is way different – and possibly far more negative – than how you perceive yourself. In fact, it was bizarre to me that someone who is white, has friends of color, and is receiving a prestigious liberal arts education, has the audacity to correct – or even attempt to validate – my own experiences as an American. ‘You’re not really from here though.’

It was bizarre to me that when I went back to Bangladesh to my own people, I was not Bengali anymore. I was an American in my own homeland. It was bizarre to me that relatives would suggest that I invest in skin-bleaching creams – the most popular one ’Fair and Lovely’ – because my skin got a bit darker than before. I was not ‘fascia’, or white, anymore. It was bizarre to me that I felt compelled to fit at my New York City school by trying to lose my Bengali accent. Just to feel like I counted. Just so I can be ‘American enough’. What was more bizarre, though, was that my efforts to become more American didn’t matter. Because I was and will always be asked ‘soo… where are you originally from?’ 

It is bizarre that no matter what, I will stand out as a foreigner in a country I’ve lived in for 20 years. It just did not line up.

In the end, we all just want to know that we matter. We want validation. We want to live a prosperous life with the people that we care for… the people we love to laugh with. We want to have the power to create something, to pursue something out of ourselves.

For that, our social identity is something that ALWAYS needs to be reflected and explored. I used to think that I had to pick one identity over the other, that I needed to be American over South Asian-Muslim, or vice versa. Just one. So I could gain control over myself – over who I am – and to feel part of a whole. For years, I dreamed of spending more than just a mere two to three months every two summers in Bangladesh to be my ‘self’. With the many joys of wanting to be there, I still could not leave my identity behind. I missed home, the South Bronx. I realized I couldn’t just pick one identity. It was only until I came to Bard that I realized it’s totally okay to have multiple identities. I feel more comfortable now as a person who views all my identities simultaneously. It’s just trying to get them to converge together into an integrated whole that proves to be the most difficult part.

My identity crisis has taught me to disregard perceptions of ignorant people, and to adopt a more open mind so that I can work towards resolving the pressing issues in all my communities. The negative connotations attached to being a South Asian-Muslim in both America and Bangladesh once pressured me to leave that identity behind. I didn’t want to deal with colorism in my South Asian community. I wanted to escape. But that only made it worse. I also didn’t want people to question my identity solely because I have a slight accent. I didn’t want people asking me what their name translates into in my language. Like what? I didn’t want people looking at me and my family suspiciously because my mom wore a hijab and my dad’s first name is Mohammad. I was done with the microaggressions. I was done with feeling out of place in both of my ‘homes’: New York City and Bangladesh. I had grown accustomed to internalizing colorism, racism, and microaggressions. I internalized my own prejudices, and that was reality for me for too long.

It was only until Bard that I became determined to cultivate images that normalized positive reflections of myself as a South Asian Muslim-American, instead of just an American or a South Asian. I found multiple resources that could help to embody ALL parts of me, within the form of widely known stories and images. I learned, and am still learning, how to explore the intersectionality and fluidity of my identities, and how they all connect and overlap.

I cultivated a blessed community and family back home and at Bard that knew my experiences because they were similar to others’. We found one another to dismantle borders of multiple kinds.

Here, I gained a sense of comfort. I had no idea how moving away from a previously constrained mindset would affect my well-being, and force me to reassess my needs, desires, and passions. Here, I learned to challenge the old fashioned thinking that I would never dare to question before. I learned to take the notions people have of a person like myself, whether right or wrong, and mold it into something I can use throughout my life. This is where I learned to dissect the issues at hand; to let the ideas marinate. That’s honestly where the development happens.

I really want to motivate, educate, and inspire others to deconstruct their own flawed thinking, just as I had. We are constantly learning and growing. And we are damn lucky that we have the opportunity to do so. We are the new millennials; the generation that doesn’t just want to do good for ourselves. We want to do good for others.

We don’t just dream. We act. We move. We learn. And I’m learning how to make something out of combining my identities – as a South Asian, Muslim and American – together.

Sharing stories, experiences, facts, and statistics are just a few of the many ways to help educate the world and to help ourselves be better humans. That is why, with one of my closest friends, Rigzin, I founded Bard Expression. To share short personal experiences yours so others can be enlightened, motivated to think more, and feel more connected with others at Bard and beyond. Also, check our page out on Tumblr and Facebook.

That is why as co-head of MSO, Abiba and I strive to transform it into a mechanism that allows Muslims to express themselves, and to let others question, think, and learn more about us.

And now, with one of my best friends, Bianka, I have finally launched and released the first issue of Oblivion Magazine, a publication that promotes awareness on issues pertaining to People of Color all around the world. Ya’ll should check that out on Facebook – and our website oblivionpub.wordpress.com. Our second issue is also coming out in 2 weeks.

ANYWAY, we all just want to be heard. And I thank all of the people who continue to let me share their stories; you allow other people to see themselves within a larger community, and to be more critical about our society. And as a result, we feel the power to change for the better and make a true difference, small or big.

Although sometimes it may feel depressing that people just don’t get it, and sometimes it’s frustrating to see Trump’s white tears on television; those tears are – in a way – a symbol of how much work we have done to cause such fragility, and how much MORE work we need to get done. Activism is never over.

We don’t have to accept a world where we do nothing about the persistence of Asian microaggressions and stereotypes. We don’t have to accept a world where Asians are expected to be the ‘model minority group’. We don’t have to accept a world where dark skin is condemned instead of celebrated. We don’t accept bullshit.

I now feel much more capable and in control, inspired to continue putting in some effort to make a difference. It all starts with a conversation outside of your class, in a hallway, at your dining hall or even at this event. The hardest part is just starting one.

I’m proud to be a South Asian Muslim-American. I celebrate my melanin. I celebrate my accent. I celebrate the roots of my culture both in Bangladesh and in the South Bronx.

I want to give back to the world that has given me so much to grow as an individual. That is why I will continue to take advantage of every day; so everyday can be a day to remember.

Thank you.”

Sabrina Sultana                                                                                                                         Photograph by Pranay Pandey 

Melanin Confession: The White Latinx Experience

“Okay, so I—I don’t know where I fit into all of this because I’m half white, half Latino. I’m ethnically-ambiguous, but I think people just assume that I’m white… so I kind of, like, fly under the radar in that sense… It’s really strange because identifying as Latino but coming off as white puts me in a weird position. People of both sides will say anything in front of me, ‘cus they think I’m with them. So I’ve found that I’ve had a lot less ignorant comments directed at me… I find that people feel comfortable saying them with me, even though I’m in a room full of Caucasian students talking about Latinos and I’m like ‘Alright, hold on, time out, I’m here”. Or if I’m in a room full of kids who aren’t white, they’ll be talking about white kids and I’m like ‘Hold on, still here’. I think the strangest time that happened was when I was with a group of people—mostly white students; a couple of black students were around—and someone was rapping and came to the part where he was supposed to say the N-word. And he kinda just cut off, and looked around the room… then these two girls started whispering and said ‘Oh, now that the room is diversified we can’t say that anymore’. And I got really uncomfortable for the obvious reasons… the assumption that we were in a white space and that minority students sort of invited themselves in really bothered me. I was raised with Puerto Rican pride; my dad always told me ‘be proud of being Latino, be proud’. So I felt kind of indirectly… not attacked, but sort of… othered, in that sense. Like I was in their space, even though it was everyone’s space. And so I didn’t say anything; I just totally let them off the hook. And it was also sort of strange because I didn’t want to correct them and bring up the issue of ‘what are you?’, ‘you don’t look x, y or z’…

I think there are a lot of people at Bard who have the right idea about talking about race and approaching it. And I don’t want to tell this story and ignore those people who consciously try to be aware of the space they’re in and how they welcome people into the space because there’s a lot of good things that do happen. But I think there’s a lack of confidence a lot of times at Bard in terms of how people talk about things. Like in classrooms, people have really interesting thoughts, but they preface them with ‘oh, I don’t have any experience with this, so…’. I think one of the best things you can do for someone is to prove them wrong. People should be conscious of where they are and who’s in the room—not only their words but their demeanor and inflection—but I think a lot of that awkwardness could be alleviated if people just said what they wanted to. I don’t know if that makes any sense…

The other side of it are people who think they’re doing the right thing and do it with such confidence—like the people in my story—but they’re just not. I remember there was some awful yak about someone wanting their summer tan goals to be like getting searched at an airport, as if that was a skin color. And then I remembered my parents being interrogated and it was humiliating and awful… It’s a false comparison… In order to move beyond this awkward place, you have to speak with confidence… know that you could be wrong, and be prepared to deal with that. And I’ve encountered either people who have really good thoughts and don’t know how to present them, or [people who] have really, really wrong opinions and thoughts and think they’re doing a service by voicing them, and I think those two ends of the spectrum need to be corrected.”

– Confused

 

Interview by Bianka Bell

“I Don’t See Color. I Just See People.”

This design, originally proposed by Coriana Johnson, depicts colorblindness as a form of whitewashing. In rejecting the connection between race, culture, and identity, the default color becomes white.

Many of us, as young adolescents, have been given tremendous context as to what is considered beautiful and worthy in terms of skin color. Some of us have even been referred to skin lightening creams to resemble a lighter image of ourselves. We have been taught that “color” matters, with acceptance and beauty weighted in favor of lightness. There is no truer portrait of the self-hatred permeating among people of color than the one extolled by such an ideology. And even when we are described as beautiful, we remain perplexed and sadly reject this view because of the seduction of colorism. It shows that, although we acknowledge that our skin tones do not reflect the strengths and authenticity we hold deep inside, this kind of evil runs deeper than the melanin that resonates with the pain of living in a bubble of white privilege; one that proves deadly to our identities.

We have people who prefer to “wash away” their color, if they can. We have people who are simply ashamed because they are a darker shade than their friend of the same race/ethnicity. To say the least, our image of color has sadly become perverted and racialized. External beauty now requires more validation than ever, and that is the reason for why skin tone inequality operates so successfully. However, this devaluation of the deeper business of feeling beautiful and worthy has come to surface in public dialogue about the new form of racism: colorblindness.

What exactly is colorblindness?

Colorblindness professes a new wave of thinking to end discrimination by treating everyone as equally as possible; disregarding race, culture, and ethnicity. Such notion entails a lack of acknowledgment of the very real ways in which racism has persisted and continues to do so, both systematically and on an individual level.

Nestled in a intellectualized, white-washed bubble, race is underestimated for its underlying destructive connotations that ultimately robs people of their freedom to embrace their identities as a whole. There is no precedent for such a trajectory that encourages people to adopt a dangerous approach that attests to the fact that “we’re all just people”. This new wave of thinking avoids conversations on race. It’s a total no-no. It invalidates the racial issues that marred us as a society. Colorblindness naively suggests that the depths of racism experienced in our past are of a bygone society although they very much affect individuals till this day. Yet, many are “blind” to the ways society caters to colorism and racial disparities.

But isn’t colorblindness a way to see people for who they are despite their race?

No. We live in a society that superficially obscures colorism with colorblindness in a counterproductive way in which color becomes the problem. It falsely equates color with something uncomfortable and negative. Denying people their identities only harkens back to how internally segregated they already felt in the past when they were reminded of how dark and different they were. Not only that; colorblindness is a toxic force vulnerable to ignoring the determining factor – race – in linguistic racism, health disparities in racial minority communities, and microaggressions alike. How do you plan to eradicate these issues without talking about the pertinence of racial categories? If race truly does not matter, such disparities embedded in health, language, and behavior, simply would not exist.

So how DO we promise equality for all then?

First and foremost, we need to stop pretending race is off the table. It’s not. Race is inherently tied to culture, language, and tradition. It is a central part of people’s identities that is very real and entangled with judgement, success, and quality of life. Instead, we need to utilize the oppression, subjection to violence and internalization, and turn these things into conversation pieces to allow us to work through our opposing views. We need to stop resisting the resistance on how our melanin is racialized and, inevitably, white-washed through colorism and racism. Stories need to be heard and given their deserved attention if we want true progress. Who benefits from ignoring such conversations? Not the ones who already feel subordinated by their skin color. If we can’t have a healthy and honest dialogue, how can we ever move towards ending racial oppression?

Doing a person of color a favor by treating them like a white person (or, in other words, like a human being) does not do justice to the equality movement. Having savaged that straw man, those who adhere to this form of colorblindness contribute to the perpetuation of oppression. If we want a shift of perspective – a shift of morals – it is crucial that we become conscious of the privileges and prejudices that come as a result of our colors. THIS is how we prompt action towards letting go of racist fears that still bind us to the prejudices we’ve internalized.

To see reality more fully, we need to be color-conscious, not color-blind.

Sabrina Sultana