There are two things that one will probably notice about me upon sight. The first is that my skin is brown. The second is that I cover my hair. These two aspects of my identity have shaped my life and my interactions with the society in which I live in a way that nothing else has. I am South Asian and Muslim, and I cannot separate the latter from the former when I speak about it.
Now, I have always been acutely aware of my race. As a young Bengali girl and the daughter of immigrants, I've never had reason not to think I was different from many of the other people around me, both visually and culturally. I lived in Chicago until the age of five, and I lived in a primarily South Asian immigrant community. In that time that I lived in Chicago, on a day that I do not remember, the events of 9/11 occurred. I cannot tell you how my life would be different if that day’s events did not occur, but I can tell you that that day has greatly affected my life. Later my mother would tell me of the obscenities that people would hurl at her as she walked me to my preschool. “Go back to where you came from!” people decided to yell at a woman walking down the street with her four year old child. “We don’t want you here!”
After I turned five, my family moved to Carrollton, Georgia, a place I hated and a place where I could not find anyone who looked like me. I was miserable and nearly friendless for the two years I lived there, and most of the children at my school were white, few were black, and fewer were of other races. I was used to much more racial and ethnic diversity in Chicago, and the lack of this in my new classrooms and new community came as a shock. It was not difficult to pick out the ways in which I was different from my peers, which was not at all a process hindered by constant teasing. While I was always aware of my race, this was the point when I started to struggle with it consciously.
Finally, when I was seven years old, my family moved to Atlanta. It was no Chicago, but it was certainly better than Carrollton, and I found myself getting much less miserable as the years went by. I started going to an Islamic school where there were plenty of people who looked like me, plenty of people who didn’t look like me, and no people who had any differing religious beliefs.
Going from there to a high school, then, where half the students were white, took a bit of adjusting. I was shocked when I talked to people who had never heard of Malcolm X (who was a favorite back in Islamic school), or when people asked me how I lived if I had to fast for a whole entire month. These stages of my life, from living in Chicago to living in Carrollton to attending Islamic school and then going to high school, each had differing racial and religious settings, and the way I interacted in each of these environments shaped how I experienced race.
While the way I have interacted with people around me based upon my race has changed throughout my life, there are some common threads. The main one is that religion is always tied into it. Perhaps it is simply because of how visible my religion is (I literally wear a symbol of it on my head), but more realistically because of media portrayal, reactions to my association with religion tend to be stronger than reactions to any other part of my identity. While I can only remember one specific instance of a person angrily yelling the word “terrorist” at me, I can often sense when someone is uncomfortable looking at me due to their association of that word with people they think look the way I do and believe in whatever they think I believe. There has always been an undercurrent of fear in my life, of what people might think about or do to me because they think I am some kind of “terrorist.”
Even recently, a young black Muslim boy was arrested for bringing a clock he built to school because his teacher assumed from the boy’s name, Ahmed Mohamed, that his clock was some sort of bomb. There is always a fear of this kind of religious and racial profiling that may not always be in the forefront of my thoughts, but it is always in the back of my mind. Life isn’t always terrifying, and aggression due to religion isn’t constant, but the tinge of fear always lingers.These are a few of the ways in which I have been conscious of race throughout my life. They are definitely not all of the ways race has affected me; it is too complex and nuanced a concept to really fit in such a small space. I did not at all talk about skin color and colorism within my community, or the way race and racial hierarchies work within Muslim communities, or issues of representation, or my own myriad privileges within these contexts, or exactly how big a role ethnicity and ethnic stereotypes have played a role in my life and my ideas of how race works. This discussion of race and visual categorization and one’s place within this muddled system is an incredibly difficult one to pull apart completely. But it is also a driving force in my life, something I cannot describe myself without.