Ten things white folks need to stop saying to me

Dear white people,

I know you’re usually well-intentioned. I know you’re trying to broaden your cultural horizons by exposing yourselves to people from all walks of life. That’s great! Exposure to different ideas is an excellent way of tearing down misguided preconceptions and becoming more open-minded. (Why do you think I’m dating a white guy? I’ve learned so much!) So I get that when you ask me questions, you’re probably doing it out of a desire to learn and become more educated and aware about the world around you. Kudos! I wish more white people would do the same.

That said, there are a few things you need to understand about me. Firstly, I’m not a walking, talking, nicely-tanned substitute for Google. Secondly, you need to think a little before you speak. I’m pretty understanding, but I’m not that understanding. Here are ten things I really don’t want to hear you say to me – no matter how good your intentions are.

1. “Your looks are so exotic!”/”Your people are so beautiful!”

Um, excuse me? “Exotic”? I know you think this is a compliment, but I’m a human being, not a zoo exhibit. I was born and raised here in Australia. I’ve been back to Pakistan once, and I was two years old and barely remember anything. I’m about as exotic as the imported Greek feta cheese I buy at the supermarket – of foreign extraction, perhaps, but otherwise pretty ordinary (if incredibly delicious). And even if I was a foreign immigrant – which both my parents are – I still wouldn’t be exotic. I’d just be from somewhere else. Calling a non-white person “exotic” isn’t the compliment you think it is – it’s just a reminder that you see us as unusual and foreign.

And all this “your people” stuff? Which people would those be, exactly? Most people who say this to me mean Indians. I’m not even Indian. I’m Pakistani and Afghani on my dad’s side, and Turkish on my mum’s side – and yes, there is a difference. This is kind of like asking a Welshman which part of England he’s from. (Note – I did this with a supervising doctor once. He did not take it well.) And besides, “my people” are just as diverse in appearance, behaviour and custom as your people are. We’re not a monolith. There are plenty of brown South Asian folks with whom I have things in common, and there are plenty who would consider me just as “exotic” as you do.

2. “Where are you from? No, I mean, where are you really from?”

Short answer: Australia.

Long answer: Australia. I was born in Canberra.

Do you ask every white person you know exactly which part of Europe their ancestors came from? Probably not, because you consider them just plain ol’ white, just like you. So what makes you think it’s any of your business which part of the world my ancestors lived in? Maybe this is just you trying to strike up conversation, but when I answer your first question with “I was born here”, and you follow up with “yeah, but where are you really from?”, my answer is going to be, “from somewhere where I was taught not to ask pushy, invasive questions. Where are you really from?”

I’m proud of my ethnic heritage, but I was born and raised Australian. Any details I choose to share about my background are optional extras. They’re things about me that you’re not necessarily entitled to know. So when I politely rebuff you the first time, don’t push it. I’ll tell you if I want to, not before.

3. “So, like, do you have an arranged marriage?”

So, like, did you learn everything you know about brown people from fragments of an old Bollywood movie you saw on SBS one time?

This is an offensive question for a bunch of reasons. Firstly, it makes assumptions about my assumed culture, and secondly, it implicitly judges said culture based on those assumptions. For the record, no, I do not “have an arranged marriage”. Neither did my parents – they met here in Australia, dated and got married in the regular (i.e. Western) way. I’m currently in a relationship with a guy I met all on my own, no parental nudging involved.

A lot of people ask me this because I’m Muslim, which is doubly offensive because it plays into stereotypes about Islam as a religion that are rooted in half-knowledge about some of the cultures of people who practice Islam. Now, I’m not saying I have anything against arranged marriages – I’ve known plenty of people in them who’ve found love and long-lasting happiness. But you know what they say about people who assume, right?

4. “So does your dad wear a turban?”

No, because he’s not a Sikh – and even then, not all Sikh men these days wear turbans. You’re aware that brown people, even South Asian brown people, aren’t one giant cultural and religious monolith, aren’t you?

…Aren’t you?

Turbans are, generally speaking, associated with the Sikh religion, which is, generally speaking, followed by quite a few people in Punjab province in both India and Pakistan (though this is not a hard and fast rule – there are non-Punjab Sikhs and non-Sikh Punjabs). My family aren’t Sikhs, though I grew up with Sikh friends (many of whom did not wear turbans except on formal occasions, just for the record, because we live in the tropics and those things are heavy). This would be like asking a Hindu woman why she’s not wearing a hijab. Don’t assume a religion or set of cultural practices based on my skin colour, please. You will almost always be wrong.

Honorary mentions go to all the people who’ve acted confused when they’ve seen me eat beef (that’s a Hindu thing, not a Muslim thing), all the people who don’t understand why I don’t eat bacon (that actually is a Muslim thing), and everyone who’s ever asked me about bindis.

5. “Why don’t you wear your traditional dress more often?”/”So do you own any saris?”

The last time I owned a shalwar kameez was when I was about thirteen. It was maroon with cream embroidery, a combination that is absolutely killer with my skin tone. I haven’t owned or worn one since because, as it turns out, we brown folks often dress for comfort and utility, just like white folks do, and a heavy knee-length tunic and wide pants are not the most practical garments for someone who lives in Oh My God When Will The Humidity Stop, I’m Melting, Queensland.

And no, I don’t own any saris, those being items of clothing more commonly worn by Indian and Sri Lankan women than by Pakistanis or Afghanis. (Or Turks. Why does everyone constantly forget that I’m half-Turkish?) I actually do know some Indian and Sri Lankan women who choose to wear saris when they go about their daily business, but that’s a personal choice on their parts. We’re not obliged to remain in costume just so you can easily identify us, you know. It just so happens that I’m more comfortable in miniskirts than I ever was in heavy shalwar kameez. That’s not to say I wouldn’t wear one again if an appropriate occasion were to arise, just that I don’t feel obliged to wear one every day in order to prove my South Asian-ness. My cultural background is quite a lot more than just a costume, you know.

6. “You’re Pakistani? I met this Pakistani guy in [town I’ve never visited], maybe you know him!”

Wow, you’re white? I met a white guy at LAX once! Maybe you’re cousins?

India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka combined easily have a population of almost a billion, possibly a little more. No, I do not know every single one of these people. I barely even know a fraction of them, and most of the ones I do know are blood relatives of mine. I am no more likely to know the random Pakistani dude you met at a conference than you are to know the white guy who checked my bags in Dallas one time.

Now, if you were to ask my dad, on the other hand, he’d probably know exactly who you were talking about. He’s connected, man. You don’t even know.

7. “You’re the first [Muslim/Pakistani/Turkish] person I’ve ever met!”/Introducing me as “your Muslim friend”

That’s great! You are not even close to the first person who has ever said that to me!

Again, I am not some kind of novelty. I’m a human being. Am I the first one of those you’ve ever met? If not, you probably shouldn’t be getting so excited about this. Despite my skin colour and facial features, you and I actually have a huge amount of DNA in common. We’re not that different, so please stop treating me like something out of one of those alien encounter movies. Brown girl phone home? Yeah…not so much.

And while we’re on this, if you feel the need to introduce me as “your Muslim friend” (or “your Pakistani friend”, or “your Turkish friend”), I am going to start introducing you as “my white friend who is incredibly boggled by the idea that non-white people exist”. Sure, it’s a little unwieldy, but maybe if I keep doing it, you’ll get the point eventually. I’m just your friend, m’kay? You know, like all your other friends. (Or are you one of those people who introduces folks as “your gay friend”, too? If so, you have so, so many problems that I do not even have time to start fixing.)

8. “Can you teach me your language?”

Well, I would be happy to, but it seems to me like you already know how to speak English, seeing as you and I are using it to converse right now.

My parents both speak different first languages, so growing up, we all spoke English at home because it was the only language my parents had in common. It’s the only language I speak fluently (though I can teach you how to say a few phrases in Turkish and how to count to five in Urdu). And even if I did have a different first language, why would you feel entitled to free private lessons from me? I happen to teach English (the language I do speak) for money. Why would I teach you for free?

I get it – speaking other languages makes you feel enlightened and cosmopolitan and worldly. But if you want to learn, do it the way everyone else does – either travel overseas or take a class. I’m not your private tutor.

9. “Can you make me [insert food here]?”

Yes, because a little-known secret about us foreigners is that we’re actually born with the instinctive knowledge of how to cook the perfect biriyani.

Seriously, now? I mean, I grew up eating curry pretty much every day for twenty years. Then, when I left home, I never ate it again, because it’s pretty much the equivalent of the old steak and three veg to me. What seems like exotic, exciting food to you was just “dinner” when I was a kid. Not only did I not put much effort into learning how to make it (because I wasn’t all that interested in eating it), but even if I did…you’re aware that there are restaurants that specialise in the cuisine of different countries, right? You can literally go right in and ask for all the curry you want! The people who work at said restaurants are paid to make you feel like you’ve got a little bit of [insert country here] at your doorstep. I’m not.

Other things I get asked for a lot: Turkish delight (no, I do not know how to make this), dolmades (I’m pretty sure even my mother doesn’t know how to make this), some Indian sweet that you don’t know the name of that you tried at a multicultural fest one time and really liked. I make a great baklava, though, and if I like you a lot, I might make it for you some time – without you even having to ask first!

10. “Your culture is so fascinating, teach me more!”

I’m putting this one last because it’s pretty much the first nine all summed up in one sentence.

Look, it’s awesome that you want to learn more about other people. But to me, this isn’t “fascinating” – it’s just my life. I grew up in a mixed race household in a white country exposed to all kinds of cultural influences, both ancestral and otherwise. It’s not exotic or exciting or foreign to me. It’s just a part of who I am.

If you want to learn more about my culture, or the cultures of your other non-white friends, engage us respectfully. Ask specific questions about things you’ve observed (“so, I noticed that you call all your mum’s friends Aunty and Uncle – what’s with that?”) and I might answer you if I feel like it. What I won’t do is answer blanket questions based on mangled pop culture references to “my people”. What I also won’t do is educate you on whatever you feel like whenever you feel like it, solely on your terms.

I’m just a regular person. This is my life, not a National Geographic documentary giving you a glimpse into the mystical people of some far-off land you’ll never get to visit. Please stop treating me like a museum exhibit. If you want to learn, ask respectfully – and don’t be surprised if my answer is “I can’t really explain that, it’s too complicated” or “that’s not really something I’m comfortable talking about”. It’s cool that you want to learn, but you don’t actually have an inherent right to that knowledge. This is someone else’s life and history you’re talking about. What we choose to share is entirely up to us, and we’ll be more likely to share if we don’t feel like we’re being asked to entertain you or help you feel more sophisticated. That Eat, Pray, Love garbage just won’t fly, you know?

Respectful cultural exchange is an excellent way of learning more about the world, being exposed to new ideas and finding things you love in places you might never have thought to look. I would love to learn more about you, and would be happy to teach you more about me. But let’s do it the right way, m’kay? That way, we can come away from the experience enriched by our new knowledge and nobody ends up feeling like someone else’s neat party trick.

Now – who’s up for white people food?

Cultural exchange and the myth of equals

When I wrote last week about cultural appropriation, I spent some time talking about cultural exchange – the trading between cultures that can enrich societies and people’s personal lives. But the more I think about it, the more I wonder if cultural exchange is even possible in the society we live in today.

See, the thing is, cultural exchange requires that all parties be equal. It requires that the culture being borrowed from is necessarily seen as equal to the culture doing the borrowing. And in a world where whiteness and its trappings are seen as ultimately superior to the cultures of non-whites, this equal footing is sorely lacking. White people don’t see the cultures from which they borrow as equal to theirs – hell, white folks can’t even get their heads around the idea that some people have stories and histories that don’t involve them. How, then, can they borrow respectfully from those cultures, when they can’t even recognise that people other than themselves are multi-faceted, autonomous and far more than backdrops and supporting characters in white stories?

Before white people can engage in healthy and productive cultural exchange with non-white cultures, there are a few things they need to recognise:

  • Non-white cultures are rich and complex, not one-dimensional – there is much below the surface that outsiders may never see
  • Non-white cultures contain stories and histories that are not necessarily white-oriented
  • White culture is not in any way superior to non-white cultures
  • Non-white cultures are not slave cultures; non-whites are not intrinsically meant to be subordinate to whites
  • Non-whites do not necessarily want to partake of white culture, nor are they necessarily interested in adopting its trappings

And yet, when we look at the history of white engagement with non-white cultures, it seems that these simple truths are difficult to grasp. White people demand entry into non-white cultures, disregarding the fact that some aspects of a culture may be off-limits to all outsiders. They expect non-white people to be supporting characters in their histories rather than lead characters in their own. The globalisation of white culture is endemic – white media, white industries, white-run corporations and so on are rapidly being established internationally, and this is seen as unequivocally a good thing by white people whether or not non-whites agree. Despite the fact that slavery is now illegal throughout the western world, white people still see members of non-white cultures as there to enrich their own lives, to give up their autonomy and personal needs in the service of whites. And when met with non-white people who seem utterly uninterested in white culture, white people are consistently perplexed.

The idea that white culture is superior and that the only parts of non-white cultures that have worth are the ones that white people deem worthy is so ingrained into our cultural consciousness as to make healthy cultural exchange nearly impossible. Exchange implies a transaction with equals, but there is nothing equal about members of one culture picking and choosing what it likes from another culture, whilst expecting others to accept their own culture in its entirety without question. There is nothing equal about rewriting history so that white stories take centre stage, with non-whites relegated to supporting roles.

As long as this systematic positioning of white culture as superior and default continues, white engagement with non-white cultures will remain appropriative and damaging. In order for healthy cultural exchange to take place, the voices and stories of non-whites need to be foregrounded and positioned as equally valuable and worthwhile. Until we rid ourselves of the notion that white is the gold standard, non-white cultures will remain subject to appropriation, trivialisation and erasure.

Labels on my soul: “white/non white”

When I was in Year 5, a girl told me that she wanted a tan like mine, but lighter. “Maybe two or three shades, so I wouldn’t be too dark,” she said. I cried after school that day, wishing my skin didn’t mark me as so obviously different. I used to mix talcum powder with soap and smear it over my face to see what my skin would look like if it were paler. I avoided the sun at all costs so that I wouldn’t tan an even darker shade. It didn’t help – no matter what I did, no matter which books I read or which TV shows I watched or which references I learned, everyone could tell I wasn’t like them. I was Other – the girl with the dark skin and the weird name, the outsider whose family ate curry for dinner instead of steak and veggies. I learned to pray in Arabic around the same time I learned the Lord’s Prayer at school. My parents had both come to Australia from other countries, and though they spoke English fluently, my mother’s covered hair and my father’s dark skin marked them out as different, too – the strange parents of a strange child who never quite fit in.

It’s a weird experience, growing up non-white in a white society. TV shows and movies show you people who look and sound nothing like you, and you’re expected to see them as your heroes and idols. For people like me, the children of migrant parents, the cultural disconnect between the world outside and the world at home can be jarring. It was strange enough being raised in two different faiths (Islam at home and Catholicism at school); add into the mix the fact that the people I went to school with hadn’t seen the movies I’d seen, didn’t know the music I knew and didn’t speak the languages my parents spoke, and I often felt like a traveller between worlds, at home in neither and a stranger in both.

In discussions about race, I can never decide whether I’m meant to be white or non-white. I’m white when it comes to Indigenous issues because I’ve benefited from Australian colonisation; I’m non-white when it comes to the othering of people of colour, because my darker skin has always marked me as a target of racial discrimination from the kind of people who think “towelhead” is a creative insult. I grew up immersed in white culture, but also sheltered from it – my father considered most TV and movies “trash” that would give us dangerous and immoral ideas, but there was no stopping me from talking to the kids at school or sneak-watching Sabrina the Teenage Witch when my dad was working late. (My mother aided and abetted my siblings and me in this, allowing us to watch TV when we weren’t meant to and helping us borrow “bad” books from the library without my father’s knowledge.) Steeped in white culture but simultaneously removed from it, I grew up a white-educated girl in a non-white body – a walking, talking paradox.

My first experience with white people appropriating my culture was the runaway success of Bride and Prejudice, the Bollywood adaptation of the Jane Austen novel of a similar name. To me, Aishwarya Rai was a household name – to my friends, she was a new find, an exotic beauty who helped bring the tale of Lizzie Bennet and Mr Darcy to raucous, garish life through (dubbed-over) song, dance and spectacle. Suddenly, it seemed like every white person I know wanted to be a “Curry”, as they called those of us from the Subcontinent – they thought saris were super-cute, swooned over Bollywood stars like Shah Rukh Khan and Hrithik Roshan that my sisters and I had known about for years, talked about trying out Bollywood dance classes, thought “Indian” food was delicious. My culture – the culture I’d kept hidden for years in an attempt to fit in with my white contemporaries – was suddenly mainstream, even cool. As someone who’d spent her life being othered because of her dark skin, to hear similarly-coloured actors and actresses described admiringly as “exotic” felt strange. Was I exotic, too? Was that a good thing or a bad thing?

Of course, none of those people were particularly interested in the rich and varied cultures of the Subcontinent, or even particularly in Bollywood – they were just latching onto something new and exciting to them. None of the people sighing over Aishwarya Rai’s beauty knew or cared about her religious upbringing as a Hindu, the caste system to which she belonged, the meaning of the bindi she and other Hindu women sometimes wore. Nobody knew or cared that there was a difference between the brown-skinned mostly-Hindu Indian stars of Bride and Prejudice and their Muslim, not-even-slightly-Indian friend Aaminah, who was still an outsider and a freak, but suddenly one with valuable information and insights. Perhaps one or two people might have realised on some level that my life was not like a Bollywood film, but that didn’t seem to matter. I was peppered with questions: did I have an arranged marriage in the works? Did I wear saris at home? (No, and no, though I owned a shalwar kameez or two as a young girl.) The trappings of my culture – or something people could equate with what they thought was my culture – had become a source of entertainment, excitement and fantasy for people who’d seen one Bollywood movie and decided that made them Indian film buffs.

Maybe people thought they were complimenting me by doing this. Maybe they thought I’d be flattered by the attention. I’ve found that a lot of people who appropriate others’ cultures think that way – they think their attention is welcome, that their interest is a sign that they’re worldly, cultured, sophisticated, that they’re the good kind of white people. They eat ethnic cuisine and listen to “world music” and feel enlightened. I know a lot of people like this, and you probably do too. They think that by picking and choosing their favourite parts of someone else’s culture, they’re doing that person a favour.

But there’s nothing flattering about cultural appropriation – about the idea that someone else’s culture, with all the complex history and baggage that comes with it, is nothing but a smorgasboard from which you can pick your favourite bits and make a meal that’s to your liking. White people can choose to engage with other cultures at will, but they don’t have to live them. The girls who fell over themselves to gush about Bride and Prejudice knew nothing about the caste system and its effects on Indian society, particularly the poor, nor did they care. To them, “India” (read as: the entire Subcontinent, because white folks tend not to care that it consists of several countries with distinct cultures and subcultures of their own) was a glamorous parade of women in saris and strapping, safely exotic men singing and dancing for their entertainment. To them, I was their gateway to this fantasy world, one they could access without having to weather any of the drawbacks.

And so it is with people who wear “ironic” war-bonnets and can’t understand why Native people find this offensive; with people who appropriate “urban” culture and get upset when they’re not allowed to use the n-word; with people who view the developing world as their own personal spiritual cleanse, through which they can go on Eat, Pray, Love-style journeys, learning valuable lessons from non-white people who exist only as the background characters in their stories. This is something white culture props up and even encourages – the white culture narrative is that white folks are heroes and that non-whites exist only in supporting parts.

The thing is, those background characters have lives and thoughts and feelings of their own, and their cultures are far more than what white people get to see. As an Australian, I have benefited from colonialism, but as a Pakistani, I am forever scarred by it: I grew up hearing my father’s tales of life in newly post-Raj Pakistan and inherited the combination of bitterness and admiration many Pakistanis feel towards their English colonisers. As a person living in a white society, I am both a party to its benefits and a permanent outsider, the girl whose skin colour falls in and out of fashion depending on what magazine editors decide is trendy this season. (“Get that perfect summer tan!” they proclaim, as though skin colour is just another accessory, something to be put on and then discarded at whim. If only it were that easy for me.)

No cultural accessory exists in a vacuum. Our clothes, our food, even our songs and dances all have meanings to us. When you take them without considering what those meanings are, you are treating non-white people like props who exist as little more than scenery on your stage (Miley Cyrus, anyone?). When Bride and Prejudice had been forgotten, no longer the fashion of the hour, I went back to being that outsider with the too-dark skin and the unpronounceable name, my culture no longer fashionable, no longer of interest to white people, and therefore, lacking in worth to them. But it was still my culture. I still went home and ate curry with my family (and watched Bollywood movies my white friends didn’t even know existed). My tan didn’t wash off or fade. My parents were still migrants from other countries. We were still Other. Nothing had really changed.

Here’s the thing, though: I’m not content being the scenery on a white stage. I am the lead character in my own story, and while I might be a traveller between cultures, that doesn’t mean I don’t take offence when someone without my upbringing tries to hitch-hike. If you want to learn more about my lived experiences, ask – but don’t expect me to act as your gateway to a more exotic existence. I’m not “exotic” at all – I’m just me, a regular person who just so happens to have grown up in a different culture with some different values and delicious food (that I will happily share with you upon request). There’s nothing special about my skin colour – it’s just the way my genes express themselves. There’s nothing mystical about my culture – it’s a series of stories, customs and practices with a history behind them, just like yours. You’re welcome to come and learn more about it if you like – but if you want to take anything home with you, even just to try, you need to know what you’re taking first, and what it means for you to take it.

I am Aaminah, sometimes called Jay, and I am a kinda-white girl in a non-white body living in a society that only wants me when I’m in fashion. Both “white” and “non-white” are labels on my soul – contradictory, often in conflict, but both marked on it indelibly by the people with whom I grew up: the white students who were my friends and my non-white family. I am Us and Them, These and The Other. But no matter what I am, my culture is mine, and does not exist for you. I am the lead character in my own story, not a supporting cast member in yours. And I won’t let you forget it.