Written by: Ayesha Irfan | Edited by: Sithara Naidoo
As a young Pakistani Muslim growing up in a predominantly white neighbourhood in Northern Edmonton I never really understood as to why I felt like a thorn in a bundle of roses. Markedly, at a young age I would receive remarks portrayed as a compliment, but were actually laced with microaggressions bigotry and racism. Being told you’re “pretty for a paki” or that it’s shocking that your house “doesn’t smell like curry” are all common stereotypes depicted towards the South Asian community. At times I felt like an inconvenience as my opinion would be disregarded without hesitation compared to someone who fit the “mould”. This prompted me to adopt a negative mindset; the question of “What if I looked different?” began to take up space in my thoughts. The South Asian persona represented through western media further enhanced my narrative of being an outlier. Slowly yet deadly, these experiences and views imposed something much worse: shame.
Shame is a silent weapon that pierces your identity through a collateral manner.
Going into middle school, I was ashamed of my culture, ethnicity and heritage. Instead of pridefully talking about my traditions as a Pakistani, I began to conform to western standards and reject my racial identity.
I no longer wore my cultural clothes at events as I felt ashamed. I stopped bringing my ethnic food to school as I felt ashamed. I diverted from acknowledging I spoke Urdu as I felt ashamed.
However, the one incident that solidified my conformity to westernized ideals was when I cut my long luscious hair. My mom always reassured me growing up that no matter where life takes you never succumb to cutting your hair. I didn’t understand as to why she was so strict about this during my upbringing. All I wanted was to look like the girl sitting next to me with her blonde short hair. So during high school, I made the executive decision of obliterating half of my hair to combat all the comments I received about my hair being “too long” and “not normal.”
I expected my mom to freak out and strangle me with the hair left on the floor. Instead I faced a much worse reaction: silence. As I was reflecting on why I wasn’t getting reprimanded she came into my room and softly stated “Shame huh.” and then walked out.
I began to reach for my hair as I realized half of it was gone, or half of me. I later went downstairs and she explained to me how my hair represented my ancestors and is rich with heritage and traditions. And I just cut it like their history meant nothing, like my heritage meant nothing.
Shame is something we are not born with but are taught through western standards and the status quo. This is prevalent within the South Asian community as many of us have to endure racist stereotypes on a daily basis. One of the ways I've started to combat these stereotypes is through calling them out. Clearing up some of the misconceptions about Asian culture within my school is an initiative I have recently indulged myself within. As a result, I co-founded the Social Equity Club at my high school. This provides an outlet that stimulates change within the environment regarding hurtful and misleading stereotypes about South Asian culture. As a community we must reaffirm our identity and acknowledge stereotypes where we observe them.
We are not thorns in a beautiful garden but roses fighting to disseminate thorns.