Passing privilege, and other curses in disguise

My mother is Turkish, my father Pakistani. I have absolutely no Anglo-European blood in me. I am relatively light-skinned, but I am neither ethnically or phenotypically white…

…which has not stopped people from telling me I’m “too white to talk about racism” about half a dozen times in the last week alone.

They tell me anonymously. They tell me while I’m relating my lived experiences of racial abuse and harassment. They tell me while I’m expressing solidarity with my darker-skinned friends and loved ones. They tell me while they mock my appearance in Reddit threads devoted to lambasting me. “This bitch,” they say, “is practically white anyway. She just wants to feel like a victim.”

Day after day, I am forced to defend my identity. I am half-Turkish, half-Pakistani, Australian by birth and upbringing but ethnically no more white than I am male or straight or neurotypical (mind you, people challenge those aspects of my identity constantly as well – but I digress). But because I possess that most tenuous and contingent of privileges – the ability to “pass” – my lived experience of racism and abuse is constantly dismissed, trivialised or outright silenced.

I was educated at predominantly white Catholic schools, but at home, I recited the Qur’an with my father, learned skerricks of bad Turkish from my mother, watched Bollywood movies with subtitles, ate curries and naan and Turkish lentil soup. I wore the hijab for eight years. I still wear it when I pray. I finished reading the Qur’an in Arabic when I was seventeen years old. I call my mother’s friends “aunty” and “uncle”, speak in broken Turkish to my grandmother on the phone. I have become adept at acting white in public because doing so means I face less abuse and ridicule, but I am not white, just someone who knows how to play-act for the amusement and pleasure of her oppressors.

I am tired of having to defend myself. That you believe me to be white does not undo the years of slurs and racial abuse I have received not just because of the colour of my skin or because of my Muslim faith, but because of the times I have dared not to conform to ideals of whiteness in public. You can deny my heritage, my culture, my lived experiences, but you cannot make unreal the sidelong glances from passers-by, the yelled threats from people driving past me as I walk home carrying groceries, the obnoxiously loud “SO HOW ARE YOU LIKING OUR COUNTRY?” from well-meaning but misguided whites on the bus. You cannot undo the times people have assumed I was my father’s wife because they think all brown men take child brides, or the times people have assumed my mother doesn’t speak English even though she has lived here since she was sixteen and speaks as fluently as any native, albeit with a slight accent. Those things happened to me and to my family and no amount of denial on your part will undo them.

I am not white. I can pass as white if I must, though the intentional erasure of my true identity feels like going without a limb or a vital organ. I can talk white and act white to appease white people, to deflect the abuse and the mistrustful glances and the whispering behind my back that I must be a terrorist or a radical or that I probably believe in honour killings. I can do all of those things, and I often have to, because survival in a white-dominated society comes at a price and one must pay it one way or another. Given the choice, I suppose I’d rather pay in assimilation than in violence and torture and death. It’s not much of a choice, mind you, but it’s the only one I have.

Sometimes I think to myself that it’s somewhat ironic that I have become so good at passing as white that people insist I must be even when I assure them that I’m not. Have I merely beaten myself at my own game? Am I too good an actress? Or is it rather that people see what they want to see, and they’d rather see Jay, their example of successful assimilation into “civilised” society, than Aaminah, who still says insha’Allah when she makes a commitment and prays in Arabic and wears tights under her skirts because she doesn’t like to bare her legs? I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s the latter – that people would rather believe me to be white because it makes their lives less complicated than having to deal with the complexities of my life as a brown girl negotiating white society.

Here’s the thing, though – passing privilege is contingent. And there’s the rub; I’m only white as long as they want me to be. I’m white in discussions of race because it’s an effective way of silencing my voice, my lived experience, the truth of my struggle. I’m white amongst people who don’t want to have to think about the implications of my non-whiteness. I’m white when people want to love me but don’t want to think about what loving me entails.

But I stop being white once they want to oppress me.

I was not white when, the night before last, a man yelled at me to “go back to where [I] came from” as he drove past me. I was not white when people called my boyfriend a “n****r-lover” for being in a relationship with me. I was not white in the aftermath of 9/11, when one of my fellow students tormented and bullied me for months until I gathered up the courage to tell the school counsellor. I am not white when people can’t pronounce my “foreign” name and ask if they can call me something else instead. I am not white when it does not suit white people for me to be so.

I am not white unless white people want me to be.

I tire of having to explain myself and defend myself. I tire of people who arrogantly assume they know more of my ethnic heritage than I do. I tire of being mislabelled, mistaken, mistreated. I tire of having to carry both the burdens of a non-white woman and the expectations of a white-passing one.

Passing privilege is a curse in disguise. It’s a reason for white people to invalidate your oppression whilst simultaneously only granting you the privileges of whiteness if you choose to conform to their standards and ideals. Honestly, I would rather not be mistaken for white at all if it would mean I could stop having to pretend to be someone I’m not in order to please people who are not prepared to face the truth of me. But since I am possessed of the privilege of light skin (and I know that within the broader community of women of colour, this is a privilege whether I like it or not), I am forced to play-act as someone I’m not, only to be told I’m not doing it well enough when white people tire of the pantomime.

I am not white. I just play a white girl on the internet.

It’s Not About You, and other adventures in privilege

The other day, as I was contributing a few choice witticisms to the hashtag #whitefeministsbelike, I heard the dreaded wailing in the background.

Someone had sounded the NOT ALL WHITE PEOPLE KLAXON.

For the next twenty-odd minutes, my mentions were inundated with the thoughts, feelings and opinions of a self-proclaimed “white feminist” who desperately needed me to know how badly I’d hurt her feelings by implying that she was racist. I had not mentioned her name. I didn’t even know who she was. My tweets did not read “#allwhitefeministsbelike” or “#everysinglewhitepersoneverbelike”. The hashtag was clearly about whiteness-as-power-structure, not whiteness-as-her-personal-life-experience-that-she-needed-to-share-like-RIGHT-NOW.

But here I was, being tearfully reprimanded by a complete stranger, because my critique of a power structure that oppresses me had hurt her feelings.

I am not, despite my frequent jesting, anti-white. I do not hate white people or white culture. Actually, I quite enjoy Shakespeare and Mad Men and the odd visit to McDonald’s for a cheeseburger with that cheese that I’m fairly sure has never had even a passing relationship with the stuff that comes out of cows. But whiteness-as-power-structure? Whiteness-as-supremacist-ideology? Whiteness-as-oppressive-ideal? Those things, I do not like so much. Those things are responsible for taunts and bullying and my mother being yelled at by strangers on the street and my sisters being harassed and, on a memorable occasion that I’m sure will haunt me until the day I die, my father once threatening to beat the shit out of a couple of boys at a Hungry Jack’s who were making fun of my niqab. (He had removed his belt and was preparing to tan their hides with the buckled end before management intervened and made the young men in question leave, but I’m sure those seats still smell like adolescent male fear-sweat to this day. My father is a very imposing man.)

Whiteness, in short, is something I am very much committed to critiquing, de-centring, and even tearing apart a little. Whiteness is the reason there are very few role models for black and brown children in mainstream entertainment media. Whiteness is the reason that when I see a Muslim character on television, they’re more likely to be a terrorist than a love interest. Whiteness is incredibly problematic and we can and should question it and the ways in which it affects and harms people of colour. Because that’s what it’s about, see – not making white people feel bad, not white guilt or white-shaming or reverse racism. It’s about tearing off the shackles that bind us.

It is, in other words, Not About You.

To the white girl who felt the need to tell me I’d hurt her feelings, I have to ask – what were you trying to achieve? Did you really need the reassurance of a random brown stranger that you aren’t a bad person because of the colour of your skin? Did you need to be preened and petted so much that you had to interrupt a brown person’s narrative – the narrative of a person who is interrupted, silenced and shoved aside by white people constantly –  so that everyone in the metaphorical room could attend to your needs and desires for a little while? What did you stand to gain by pointing out huffily that you, individually, were not racist? Did you want a medal for basic human decency, perhaps? A ticker-tape parade with a float staffed by non-white people showering you in confetti and holding up a big sign saying “This White Person is Not Like the Others”? A lovingly-baked cookie containing the blood, sweat, tears and gratitude of a brown person, delivered to you in a little box with a card reading, “thanks for achieving the minimum standard required for being a tolerable human being”?

Because that’s the message you send when you derail conversations about whiteness-as-power-structure to point out that you, an individual white person, are not racist. You are saying: my feelings as a white person who is complicit in and bolstered by white privilege are more important than your right to talk about the power structures that oppress you. You are saying: I cannot abide a conversation that does not centre me, my feelings and my worldview. You are saying: me. Me me me me me me me me me me me. Also, me.

And let me tell you, that gets kind of intolerable after a while.

Yes, individual white people, I get it. You’re better than the others because you have black and brown friends, because you donate to charities that benefit non-white people in need, because you told a black woman her hair was neat and resisted the urge to touch it. And now, having achieved the standard of good behaviour we might expect of a house-trained puppy, you feel the need to tell every. single. non-white. person. ever. You are so desperate to differentiate and distinguish yourself from Those White People, the nasty racist ones who oppress blacks and aren’t as enlightened and caring and compassionate as you, that you need to make every conversation not about our continuing plights, but about how You Are Better Than Them and we need to acknowledge all the hard work you’ve put in.

How many times do you need to be told this? Being an ally or standing in solidarity with a group of oppressed people is not about you: it’s about the people you are trying to help. And that means that when those oppressed people are talking about the ways in which power structures marginalised and silence them, contributing to that silencing by talking loudly over us and ignoring our objections makes you part of the problem, not the solution. A white person who really does make an effort not to be complicit in white supremacy does not need to trumpet that fact. In fact, they don’t have time to do so, because they’re busy rolling up their sleeves and getting their hands dirty with the rest of us. Ask yourself, well-meaning but self-absorbed white woman whose name I don’t even remember any more because this happens to me literally every single time I write about whiteness, why most of the people criticising you and asking you to pipe down were also white. Was it because they had something to prove? Was it because they wanted brownie points and a pat on the back?

Or maybe, just maybe, was it because they were seeing something you weren’t?

If you really are Not Like the Others, prove it to me not with your words but with your actions. Be an amplifier and supporter of non-white people. Give us space to speak. Listen to and internalise our stories when we share them (because believe it or not, hearing those stories is a privilege, not a right, and should be treated accordingly). Share our stories with your white friends. Stop your fellow white people from perpetrating the dozens of microaggressions that perpetuate and reinforce white supremacy every single day. Lobby for fairer representation of non-white people on television, in politics, in the corporate world, in academia. Fight anti-blackness. Ask before partaking of our culture so that you can be sure you’re not taking something that’s not yours to take. For the love of whatever you deem holy, DO NOT touch our hair or our niqabs without our permission. See us as people, not as curiosities. And stop equating your hurt feelings at being forced to confront the reality of white supremacy with the real hurts non-white people experience because of the insidious influence of white supremacy in their everyday lives.

Solidarity and intersectionality are not labels. They are things you practice. They are ways of living and being. If you truly want them to apply to you, stop making everything All About You and start listening a bit to all of us.

IMPORTANT PUBLIC HEALTH UPDATE: MAS reaches pandemic status worldwide

Readers, we are in the grips of a pandemic.

For years now, members of minorities and marginalised groups have been afflicted by a terrible condition. It may strike at any time, affecting them at work, during recreational activities or even when in the comfort and safety of their own homes. It affects people of colour, queer and trans* people, women, the disabled, the uneducated, sex workers, even the poor. As this condition sweeps through our population, taking casualty after casualty, many have searched in vain for a cure – some kind of vaccine to inoculate the victims against the effects of this affliction. Sadly, their efforts so far have been fruitless, and thousands – nay, millions – find themselves falling prey daily, usually when they least expect it.

I am speaking, of course, of Minority Ambassador Syndrome.

Minority Ambassador Syndrome (MAS) is a condition transmitted from unaffected carriers (usually able-bodied cishet white males with college degrees and steady jobs in respected fields) to marginalised people. Transmission can occur upon first contact, though it is not rare for MAS to incubate and lie latent in a carrier for some time before the condition is passed on. Although completely harmless to the vectors that spread it, MAS has serious and far-reaching consequences for any members of a marginalised group that may come into contact with it. I am writing this guide as a public health initiative. By learning to recognise the signs and symptoms of MAS, you and your loved ones can learn to take precautions and keep yourselves safe. While there is not yet any foolproof method of preventing MAS transmission, the following information may prove helpful to people in a high-risk environment (one with a lot of carriers, such as a video game forum, comic convention or gawker.com comments section) and help those already afflicted to obtain some symptomatic relief.

MAS – Recognising the Signs

MAS is transmitted aurally or via text from the carrier to the recipient. Transmission occurs in the form of a generalisation about the recipient’s race to which the recipient is then expected to give some kind of apology or rebuttal. Examples of transmission spores include:

  • “I don’t see any of you [insert religion here] apologising for [insert act of terrorism committed by people who claim x religion here]! You’re all the same!”
  • “I heard in the news last night that a [insert race here] committed [insert felony here]. Why don’t community leaders stand up and denounce those people? They’re making you all look bad.”
  • “I saw a [insert non-het sexuality here] couple engaging in the grossest PDA the other day. Why do all [insert non-het sexuality here] people have to be so blatant about it?”
  • “If [insert race here] women don’t want people to think of them as [insert racial pejorative here], maybe they should all stop [insert stereotype about women of x race here].”

However, transmission is not always in the form of a generalisation about the marginalised group in question; it may also occur in the form of a compliment that positions the recipient as somehow having transcended the group with whom they claim association. Examples of this include:

  • “It’s so great to see someone from [insert race/religion here] in college – you’re such a good example! If only more [insert race/religion here] people were like you.”
  • “Obviously, you’re not like those other [women/gay people/trans* people/sex workers] – you don’t go acting like they do.”
  • “I know you deserve disability benefits, but what about all those people with fake disabilities who are just rorting the system?”

In both cases, the recipient is now positioned as a representative of their entire group – be that people of a certain race or creed, women, trans* people, queer people, disabled people, sex workers, etc. Upon contact, the individual is expected to assume responsibility for all actions ever taken by any member of the group to which they belong, even if those actions were taken by someone they don’t know, someone whose behaviour they don’t condone or someone who is only tangentially related to them. If they do not do so, their failure is seen as an indictment of the entire group.

Symptoms of MAS

MAS is unique in that it does not affect carriers whatsoever. They are not expected to assume responsibility for groups to which they belong (e.g. white people, straight people, cisgender people, men, people with college degrees, people belonging to [x] field, etc.). The disease only activates upon transmission to a vulnerable minority recipient. Symptoms may include:

  • Being asked to justify the actions of complete strangers (e.g. “a black man robbed my friend’s friend’s house last night – why aren’t your people doing more to crack down on crime?”)
  • Being attacked if they do not issue fervent apologies for atrocities committed by people claiming to represent them (e.g. “those terrorists said they were fighting in the name of Islam, don’t you feel ashamed? Why aren’t you standing up to them?”)
  • Being expected to act with impeccable etiquette and deportment in all situations, even when subjected to scorn, criticism or mockery, on pain of damning the entire group by association if they do not (e.g. “I knew I shouldn’t have trusted you! Trans* people are all deceptive liars!”)
  • Being held up as an example to which other members of the group should aspire (e.g. “If you could work three jobs to pay your way through college, why can’t every poor kid from the poverty-stricken neighbourhood in which you grew up do the same?”)

Over time, these symptoms lead to irritation, frustration and a feeling of overwhelming pressure in sufferers.

Prognosis and Treatment

As of yet, there is no reliable treatment for MAS. Prognosis for sufferers is largely dependent on their will and ability to argue with carriers who insist that they be held accountable for the actions of complete strangers with whom they may have only the vaguest and most tenuous of affiliations. Whilst some sufferers of MAS are able to rebut such demands, others are not, and the stress of being expected to act as a perfect example for others to follow can do incredible damage over time. In such cases, the prognosis is fairly grim.

However, there are some strategies that sufferers may use to mitigate the effects of MAS. These include:

  • Asking carriers to account for the actions of people only vaguely connected to them (e.g. “your great-great grandparents probably owned slaves, should I make you apologise for that, too?”)
  • Insisting on being viewed as an individual regardless of group affiliation (e.g. “do you really think all brown people look the same? That’s pretty messed up, dude.”)
  • Telling carriers to fuck right back off on the high horse they rode in on

Employing these strategies will not cure MAS or completely remove it from the system of the sufferer, but they may provide some symptomatic relief, as well as a soothing sense of accomplishment and satisfaction at having told at least one ignorant bigot where to shove it.

Lessening the Impact of MAS

MAS is currently endemic amongst marginalised populations, with an estimated up to 100% of members of these groups having been exposed to the condition at least once in their lives. Therefore, treatment and intervention programs should initially focus on limiting exposure to carriers by removing the large-scale public platforms from which these carriers are often able to infect multiple people at once.

In order to stop the spread of MAS, a concerted effort must be made to stop the condition at the source. By eliminating carriers through education, socially-enforced anti-discrimination messages and straight up pointing and laughing at their ignorance, the number of carrier-to-recipient transmissions would be greatly lessened. In cases of patients already suffering from MAS, eliminating further contact with carriers can eventually lead to the condition becoming latent again. Future intervention programs should also focus on eliminating sources from which carriers initially pick up the condition, such as FOX News, Drudge Report, Cathy Brennan and any Twitter account operated by someone who endorses the views of Richard Dawkins.

Although it may seem like an impossible task, it is conceivable that in the next ten to twenty years, MAS transmission could be greatly reduced by implementing these measures, and existing sufferers could see their conditions become – and remain – latent. It may take an army of dedicated specialists slowly hacking away at the fanbases of influential carriers such as Dan Savage, the aforementioned Richard Dawkins, anyone who identifies as a “TERF” or “SWERF”, or Sean Hannity, but with time, effort and large-scale international cooperation, it may eventually be possible to end this pandemic.