In this wonderful age where BAME women are speaking out about colourism and the oppressive repercussion of beauty standards forced upon us by white male colonialists, you’ve read the title and may be thinking ‘oh hell no’. Believe me, this article is not meant to diminish the discrimination faced by my beautiful dark skin sisters. I just want to talk about my experience of alienation, and others, because I know you are out there. The ones that do not look, act or feel a part of the typical brown narrative. The ones that have relentlessly heard ‘omg wow you do not look Pakistani’. I’m sorry, tell me again, what is a Pakistani woman supposed to look like?
Let me paint you a picture of what I look like. I have big curls which were offensive growing up, and I have a body that is full and loud. I am light skinned. Most of the time strangers got my ethnic origin wrong. Whilst this seems miniscule, it fed into the big question mark of who I am and where I fit in. As a whole, I was battling both degradation and glorification which ultimately formed a bi-polar strained identity. Let me explain this further through my years of growing up.
At home as a young teenager, I had to be corrected. My hair was the talking point of many aunties and cousins that secretly tamed their ‘unruly’ hair. I was nicknamed the ‘fatty’ amongst my cousins. You can only imagine how fun my family gatherings were for me and my poor self-esteem.
Straighten it, braid it, brush it. Just. Tame. It.
Now outside this familial community, amongst non-Asian friends, it was a different ball game. I constantly heard ‘you have such pretty hair’, ‘I thought you were mixed race’, ‘I would never have guessed you were Asian’. This was during the ‘mixed race’ obsession at college. I benefited from it, so you can imagine the 17-year-old me was chuffed. In effect, the doors of my home became a portal of my juxtaposed identity. As soon as I walked outside I felt included and supported and most importantly, validated. When I walked back in, a looming desire for these things came back.
Now as a young adult at home I was painted the rebel, the black sheep and the coconut. I didn’t look the part. I had piercings in unorthodox areas. I wore ripped jeans and my hair was as big as it could get. I was outspoken and confrontational. Family gatherings involved a desperate me pushing an older generation to unlearn anti-blackness. I constantly saw my family and the rest of the south Asian community as unaccepting and inhospitable for progress. I was almost getting a high out of playing the part of the disgraceful one as that’s the only part I knew. That’s how I felt validated. The fear of rejection ultimately enabled me to reject my heritage.
Beyond the community my existence was glorified. I was cool and unexpected because of the uncertainty of my belonging. I was that non-Asian Asian girl you could date and smoke with. I was the diluted and palatable version of south Asian-ness which normally had a bad and embarrassing reputation. This illusion became my safe space. Constantly being admired over my lack of common Asian features was another high I got addicted to. What I didn’t realise was that I was being groomed to dissociate from my cultural heritage completely just because I didn’t fit the common media representation of Asian-ness. Instead of proudly representing the diversity of Asians, I othered myself and thus perpetuated the mainstream brown narrative.
My university Pak-Soc, which should function as a melting point for inclusivity and understanding was also guilty of furthering this alienation. I’d get silent glares which loudly were trying to figure me out and categorise me. Hearing well-intentioned questions like ‘I thought you were just half’ ‘Have you ever been back home? ‘Is your family okay with you dressing like this?’. I mistook this south Asian diaspora at university for a community that would love and accept me and instead I heard someone say, ‘she’s not wifey material’. This was a microcosmic experience of the closed - minded attitudes that as a diaspora we should have unlearnt and grown from.
So, hearing my experiences you can figure out that around certain groups I felt comfortable and accepted and around my own brothers and sisters I felt like an alien. This had an effect on my own self-worth and my mental health. I was having panic attacks prior to a family party because I was afraid of how I’d be treated and bullied. I remember choosing to completely detach from Pak-Soc because of the anxiety of what everyone perceived me as. Ultimately, I became disconnected from my own culture. However, I also felt a looming guilt of not being proud of my ethnic origin and essentially silencing that part of me around everyone else.
Retrospectively I realised my identity was being construed by the opinions and labels of others and in turn I played the part I was assigned. Society functions on categorisation for order. Ultimately these labels exist in binary as a safety mechanism. You are either good or bad, Asian like us or not at all. If you fall outside these categories, you are a threat to the societal norm. You may be thinking why being racially ambiguous was such a bad thing especially as I’d benefit from the colonial beauty standard and my proximity to whiteness. However, people not knowing where I am from ultimately led to me not knowing who I am. My loss of identity came as soon as I gave others the power to define me.
I am now writing to you as a grown woman who knows who she is. My very existence is valid and beautiful. I am authentically Asian in my own way. My curls are an eternal link to the beautiful history and make up of our people. My thick body has continued to carry me through the hard times. My fair skin will constantly remind me to shine light on the discrimination faced by my dark-skinned sisters and end the obsession with bleaching.
Each time you hear the nagging voice telling you you’re not brown enough, remind yourself of who you are. Tell yourself right now that there is no rule book to being a South - Asian Queen. You are hilarious and intelligent, well-travelled and outspoken, a great cook, mother or dancer. You are everything. If God needed you to be like everyone else, then he would’ve created you as such. The world requires diversity and that’s why you are here.
They may try to analyse you, categorise you, correct you but ultimately you must love yourself enough to know none of those labels take away from the wholeness that you are. We do not exist in parts. Our bodies are not artefacts. Our lives are not up for discussion. Protect your energy and your sanity and make a promise to not let these toxic voices define you. Whilst we live in a beautiful melting point of cultures, they will continue to bite and correct those parts of you that are deemed unworthy. Listen to your inner child and just be. You are brown enough. You are completely and wholly enough. Let that be the talking point at the next family reunion.
Your common sister.
Guest blog by: Maleha Sheikh
Maleha is 23 years old and a London raised Pakistani woman with a BA Hons in Religion, Philosophy & Ethics. She is currently pursuing a career in the Civil Service with a keen interest in Mental Health and working closely with vulnerable women and children. She loves to travel with some of her favourite spots being Iceland and Bali.