When difficult conversations make an appearance, the response of many well-meaning White persons is to react with feelings of hurt irritability. The response often says: “I’m a nice person, I am kind to all people. I don’t intend any harm to people of color, and I can’t help liking the people I like, marrying the people I like, socializing with the people I like. Therefore, my actions as an individual should, out of courtesy, be spared such critical scrutiny.”
This response speaks at cross-purposes to critical scrutiny because racism is systemic. Racism is not a conflict between individuals. But when people of color and white allies point this out, nice White people say, “D-uh, then it’s not my fault anyway.”
The problem with scrutinizing systemic racism in an intensely individualistic cultural setting is that most people lack the tools for macro scrutiny of such issues. This is why narratives of colonialism, slavery, and racism are all silenced with a shrug and Well, I didn’t do it, and you didn’t get dragged here in chains, and it was a long time ago, so can we get over it now? Nice White individuals feel that their basic decency should emancipate them from the unpleasant kitchen-sink talk of racism and inequality. If it’s not their “fault” as individuals, they shouldn’t as individuals be asked to engage with the issues.
But a person’s niceness doesn’t make systemic racism go away. It may give you moral authority over a vast mass of nasty White people, and it may give you the cosmopolitan power of I’m different: I have Black, White, Hispanic, Muslim, Asian, gay friends. But it does little vis-à-vis systemic inequality and racism. It also does nothing to change the fact that you are complicit in systemic racism, that you, your children, and your closest friends benefit directly from being White, from the many privileges of being White right now, not a long time ago.
It may seem un-classy, in a Dowager Countess sort of way, to talk about a nice individual’s participation – albeit unwitting – in systemic racism. But perhaps the problem is not with the scrutiny but with Whites’ narrow, individualistic notions of niceness. If my niceness is unable to stretch enough to put me as an individual in slight discomfort, then my niceness is a starched, out-dated, egocentric niceness. If every conversation must conclude with me “feeling good about myself” then my niceness is ultimately self-serving. If you cannot bear to have difficult conversations (or watch difficult movies), then you may wish to recognize how you are fully complicit in systemic racism to the extent that you will lose neither an ounce of privilege in college admissions, job prospects, and social belonging, nor will you withdraw from your place of superior and cushy benevolence in social interactions.
I checked the local newspaper for photos of the naturalization ceremony.
Guess what I found in the News-Gazette. A photo essay about a family of White South Africans and here and here. Photos of immigrants from the Czech Republic, from Russia, from Spain. In recent photos of naturalized citizens, I found one photo of a black African, and one photo of an immigrant from El Salvador. We had immigrants from 26 nations, so no, the room was not full of Caucasians.
Immigration? No problems here. We’re just putting more White folks in the mix.
Immigration is a process of rupture – uprooting yourself, struggling to graft yourself into a new ecosystem. Like the process of diaspora, the academic career disrupts and disconnects. Job market options are few. Among the factors you must weigh to select your options, financial and cultural factors must weigh the heaviest. In all of this, you lose friends and family, moving from study to work.
The day in September 1991 that I decided to accept a position at a university in Islamabad, I remember the cold stab of loss I felt when my parents, turning away their sad eyes, drove back to Lahore, and left me at the women’s hostel. This was the first time I had chosen to break ties and move ahead. “I want you to stand on your own feet,” my father said forcefully, disguising the break in his voice. “It’s a good university,” my mother said, “and you’ll work with people who are like you.” I was their baby – I am their baby – and they had to let go.
Over the three years that I worked in Islamabad, I visited Lahore and my family quite regularly. Over time, the visits became a chore. I wanted to stay in cool, calm Islamabad, where I was free to socialize with friends all day, visit Faisal Masjid, and, most importantly, practice my Sufi muraqaba in private. I was my own mistress, and where I explored my spirituality freely. Over time, I didn’t need to be in Lahore so very often. It saddened me, but it happened.
Then I applied for a scholarship, and went to Cambridge for a Master’s degree. As difficult as that first year abroad was, it was good to find my feet in a completely different environment. I became a central person in the Cambridge University Muslim women’s group. But when my parents called me, they didn’t quite understand what my day was like, why I wasn’t home, why I was a little irritable, what it was like to work at the Careers Center processing alumni mail, and how hard it was to make my advisor understand who I was. My maternal uncle died that year, and I wasn’t with my mother to comfort her.
When I visited Pakistan that winter, my mother told me that my father wept privately and said, “meri kudi bahr li hogayee ei” (My daughter’s become a foreigner). I had.
And then I took an ATA plane to Chicago, and how much harder it became to visit Pakistan! How much more expensive. The time zone difference made it harder to talk on the phone.
I made good friends, dear friends wherever I lived – and then I moved. London and the FOSIS Women’s Hostel community. Bloomington, IN and the Muslim sisterhood there. Washington, DC and its extended many-pocketed Muslim and South Asian community. Then I was in Oklahoma, and suddenly, I was far away from all my former friends, and in a full-time job that gave me very little flexibility to attend conferences.
I find, today, that for many friends whom I hold dear in my heart I am a fading picture. I see signs of this, and these signs break my heart, but there is little to be done. I have been absent so long from so many lives that a Facebook connection simply isn’t enough to keep my memory alive. You have to be there to be a real presence. Or you have to be not-so-completely tangled in the turmoil of trying to get tenure, working on marriage and parenthood, rebuilding your health after cancer. For many people who are central to my emotional and social trajectory, I am like a ghost. I was there once. And where am I now? Who am I now?
When I visit Lahore, I meet many Pakistanis who ask me eager questions about how they might study (and move) abroad. They don’t like it when I ask them if they really want to move, if they really want to pay that price. When you move, you are gone. Until you move, you think you can live multiple lives – in Lahore, in DC, in London. Maybe for those of you who make money the way I don’t, this is a possibility. But for people like me, you’d better make choices you can live with. Because you choose one thing, and you give up another. Are you willing to give it up?
The big unsaid narrative buried in a naturalization is the one that is supposed to say I’m moving up, baby! When you naturalize, the question frequently in the minds of fellow Americans is, boy, just how relieved are you to be like us? How great must it be to be at the top of the world?
Naturally, we celebrated by eating at the Chinese buffet. Raihana flitted in, and chirped excitedly, “I like this place because it’s very familiar. It makes me feel safe.” The familiar is usually much safer. Except when the familiar is tied up with ransom kidnappings, bombings, and armed burglaries.
I am bitter that Pakistan has to be that place that, whenever mentioned, causes Americans’ eyebrows to be raised. “Will you be safe when you are visiting your parents?” or the more politically correct, “Oh, that’s so interesting.” When mango season rolls around, my parents tell me, they cannot enjoy a good Anwar Ratol without a heavy sigh and, “Ah-ha, my Shabana doesn’t get any of these mangoes.” When I sit in a clean, mahogany-furnished courtroom, and am courteously ushered to my seat by White people, I sigh, and think, if only my Lahore friends were able to get through the day without wondering if there was going to be a riot on the street, if only my mother was able to rely on electricity all day and all night, and if only the police were better paid and not corrupt so my parents hadn’t had to experience armed burglaries three frigging times. I am happy for what I have. I am bitter for what my possible, un-immigrated self does not.
I asked Raihana (because I share all my angst with my 8 year-old daughter), “Do you think I did the right thing by immigrating?” She finished a mouthful of clam as thoughtfully as you can chew a mouthful of clam and said with characteristic bluntness, “There are some things that are good, and some that are bad. It’s bad because you had to leave your home-sweet-home” – I smiled – “and it’s good because now you’re in your” – she raised her eyebrows and opened her eyes wide, and raised her index fingers in exaggerated air-quotes “now you’re in your home sweet home” and of course we ended up laughing.
America is home now. This is not a treacherous or pro-imperialist thing to say. This is about picking Raihana up from school and exchanging pleasantries with her teacher, about knowing how to deposit checks at the bank, about spending Sunday afternoon at the public library. As “Intisar”, one of my research participants told me, “it’s just life, we just go through it.”
So America is home. And Pakistan, despite the fact that my heart breaks to say it, is less home every year that I spend away from it. Despite the fact that the cold, foggy mornings I walked to classrooms at the Convent of Jesus & Mary school in Lahore are still alive for me, electrically alive, the reality of Pakistan has grown up without me.
Am I proud of this? Would you be proud of leaving your deepest memories behind, like the protagonist in Memento? Would it be anything other than traumatic to let go?
If I feel pride, I should describe it as a class-based pride. When I stand in line at airports, and we glance at each other’s passports, and mine is a royal burgundy (that would be my U.K. passport) and yours might be a green (Zareena Grewal describes the impact of her “haughty navy blue vinyl”). It’s similar to the way we glance comparatively at each other’s outfits, and I shrink a little in my Old Navy sweats when I stand next to a woman in Chanel.
Even Raihana recognizes this. She went on to say, “Mama, it’s a good thing you immigrated because America is a good country” and then she said “it’s a richer country, and aren’t you happy that I don’t go to a really poor school?”
Ultimately, class defines many of our choices. Today, many middle class Pakistanis invest hard-earned savings into their children’s American education, as they themselves watch the terrorists become more fearless and the authorities more and more ineffectual. They hope that they are investing in tomorrow, and many are teaching their children the wisdom of jumping from a sinking ship.
Am I proud I jumped? Seriously? I have deep shame and embarrassment when I speak to Pakistani academics like the ones I interviewed who dedicate their days to making things better. I could have been in their position. Does holding a navy blue passport make me better than them? Maybe it makes me more of a coward, in some ways. I hold in deepest respect my Pakistani family and friends who make their way to work in searing heat, and without the benefit (often) of airconditioning or even fans, those fathers riding Kawasaki motorcycles with five children in school uniforms, those mothers walking to their house-maid jobs so that they can put daal and onions on the table for their children, those children in their grubby khaki school uniforms trying to focus on schoolwork in 110 degree heat.
Yes, I admire much about the United States political system, and I find personal relief in its friendly individualism. Yes, it is home in many ways, and I am glad that my daughter has the benefit of a public library system of stupendous power and resources, that I have access to almost every research database I need, and that everyday life – despite the pockmarked roads of Champaign post-snow – is very, very easy. That ease of everyday life is, in part, what drives much of America’s immigration narrative. Once you’ve tasted this ease, the availability of clean public toilets, the highway system, the scale of life, the size of homes (sorry, Britain), the variety of climate within its borders, the relative emphasis on customer service (have you tried complaining about gas, electricity, and telephones in Pakistan?) – most of us can do nothing but fight tooth and claw to hold on tight. Is there pride in that fight? Some would say there is, the pride of agency, the pride of rejecting a fatalistic victimhood (no, the two don’t necessarily go together), the pride of self-empowerment, the pride of self-respect, the pride that rejects a meek embrace of whatever comes. No que sera, sera in this pride.
But as I fill up on cheap gas, enjoy daily showers, and print reams and reams of journal articles, I know, too, that this pride rests on the backs of billions who do not enjoy daily showers or even potable water, who have outdated textbooks in their schools, and who walk miles and miles in unforgiving weather to work.
Can I just say I am fascinated with America’s version of pomp and circumstance? At today’s Naturalization ceremony, where fifty new citizens took their oaths (I was the fiftieth to receive my certificate), our judge took the opportunity to cheerily induct us into American informality – “darn well,” “we want you to enjoy the moment,” “relax.” As someone who has walked woodenly during British convocations and sat with head bent for ages during high school assembly in Pakistan, this laid-back joke-studded ‘ceremony’ truly sums up everything that I find lovable and hilarious about America.
It’s significant that I spent much of my time in sympathetic whispered conversation with a younger Pakistani woman whose marriage, it seemed, was on the rocks. And as we placed our hands on our hearts, this woman’s predicament reminded me of some of the factors that prompted my immigration – my own struggles with my gendered status, and my sister’s awful breakup and divorce and struggle for custody of her children. Back in the early 1990s, in Rawalpindi, after her husband beat her, I took my sister to see a lawyer one afternoon. We returned to her (husband’s) house to find her in-laws arrayed against us, demanding to know why we had dared to leave the house. We were their women and their “responsibility” and we were completely helpless. That day I decided that I would never be in a state of such disempowerment and victimhood.
There’s no doubt about it: I could not find a man I could respect who could respect me in turn. Of course this is not to say that there were no men who could respect me. The problem was that I couldn’t find these men; I was (along with my diminutive stature and my very middle-class, frugal family background) being vetted by prospective mothers-in-law with powerful eugenicist motives and class aspirations. I was too studious to be a pretty, stylish, and sugghad (domestic and industrious) daughter-in-law and wife. My family was not wealthy enough, and was definitely not showy enough for fervently upwardly mobile suitors. My father’s eccentric temper drove people away unless they were willing to look beyond his beetle-browed and pugilistic appearance. And as for suitors who showed up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, well, they couldn’t understand me and how my dreams went beyond marriage, children, and keeping a tidy home. After some years of futile rishta-hopping, and a couple of kinda-engagements, my parents knew that I was a commodity whose value was not current in the marriage market. So when I applied for scholarships and study abroad, they sadly and pensively agreed to support me.
The woman I met at the ceremony was surprised when I told her I had arrived in the US as an unmarried student. It was quite unusual in the 90s, she said, for unmarried women to travel to the US to study. “My parents are very conservative,” she said. “Oh, mine are too,” I assured her, “but I was even more conservative than them, so they thought I’d be safe. Of course, a few years later, I brought a white guy to Lahore to them, so that didn’t quite work out, did it?”
She told me about how her husband told her she should dress, how he was jealous of men who looked at her, and how he resented her work and her achievements. And even as I am fiercely loyal to the land of my childhood, and the home of my culture, I find myself sadly relieved that I am today a citizen here in this low-context individualistic culture, where – at least in theory – I, despite my relative lack of wealth, can enjoy many of the fruits of freedom and equality.
We held up our right hands and said something about foreign princes and potentates, sang something about bombs and flags. My neighbor told me she’d told her interviewer that she was not willing to bear arms but she’d be happy to serve in a civilian capacity. “Because I don’t want to bear arms, you know,” she said, and I chuckled because anyone I bear arms for is in a lot of trouble, owing to my lack of fine physical coordination.
The judge told us that today, it was like we were planting trees. Maybe we ourselves would not get to enjoy our trees so very much, but our grandchildren some day would say, “Gee [I hope they say ai-hai] I’m glad grandma decided to immigrate to the United States.” And, softie that I am, tears welled up in my eyes at the idea of how being an American shapes Raihana’s life chances and opportunities, and the lives of her children, and their children – and how some day, they will look at a picture of great-nanijan who, once upon a time got on a plane in her abayah and hijab, nervous at the thought of sitting next to a white man, and flew off, leaving tears in her aging parents’ eyes. I glanced over immigrants from twenty-six nations, including Albania, Bosnia, Cameroon, China, the Congo, Ghana, and Jordan, thinking of the travails that these immigrants had all gone through to become part of this collective, and cried some more. You can’t have a naturalization ceremony without a little crying. Some crying for the girl I used to be and for the woman I thought I’d be. Some tears for the dreams I learned to dream as a girl, and for the dreams that became nightmares. Some tears for the new dreams that I learned to dream in America, and the struggles to realize those dreams. Some crying for what you’re letting go of, and some crying for what you’ve gained.
Riding the bus from Tulsa at dusk
singing to myself, I fill the air
With richly-colored rainbows, and know
I’d missed those Mughal-e-Azam songs.
You know what they say, how people are people
and people everywhere are just the same,
their lives, experiences, feelings, joys,
sorrows, fury, frustration, tragedies,
all practically uniform.
I say – with all due respect to uniters
of a troubled world – no, we live in different rooms.
And me, I occupy two spaces
at once, speak different languages
My throat emits sets of different sounds
My two atmospheres differently composed
The stars in their heavens sparkle differently
I manage. I combine them both
in unequal measure at different times,
slipping one behind my back on campus
whipping it out with a flourish at the mosque.
But the struggle comes through sometimes
when I say I will do this yesterday and I stood my car
when I can’t find the right words in Urdu emotion
when I’m talking to ammi.
When they say bicultural
it’s not just that s.he can make lasagna and lassi
It’s that she can construct, maintain, and live in
two different worlds, set them up
with different furniture, in different colors
Fabulous, amazing, colorful lives!
(Bloody lonely hard work, of course).
Many who call themselves bicultural
can live one culture and can just manage the other.
Functionally literate. Not so bad,
but not quite comfortably at home.
To those who (try to) color the world
monochrome, I say, transcend that.
Maybe embrace the world that swirls
with dramatically different,
clashing hues, that clatters with a cacophony
of millions of kinds of sounds.
Going colorblind’s the lazy way.
A cop-out. That way, you’ve no need to try
to contain it all. All you have to do
is pretend it isn’t even there. Big deal, huh?
What an achievement to shut eyes tight,
and tell me I am beautiful (despite the swarthy skin
the heavy hair sans sunny hues, the opaque dark brown eyes.
Oh yes. Gorgeous and exotic.) try instead
to become an Argus, with eyes that truly
see a thousand colors, with ears
that truly hear a multitude
of children crying in different tones –
some of them charming your hearts away
and others not.
You’re a story that’s already been told
and done. Nothing else here. You are
a moth that didn’t have space to unfold
What would your conclusion have been had you found
some open air to stretch and yawn,
some solid ground?
Let me weave your stories with tender
shaking fingers as you breathe your last
and uninteresting breaths, as finally
you abandon all endeavor and
allow yourself to be