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When asked what people associate with the word ‘Muslim’, most responses involved words such as terrorism, forced marriages or oppression. As a young British Muslim, I can tell you that I don’t fit into a single one of those remarks, despite having been thrown at me like sharp knives in recent years.
In the summer of 2015 there was a very hot day, and like any other excited Brit, I like to take advantage of a day without rain. I was enjoying a nice walk in the heat, eating a cold ice cream when I felt eyes peering into me. Not so long after, someone in a parked car rolled down their window and asked if: ‘the weather reminds [me] of back home where [I] belong?’.
I ignored it but then I noticed remarks like this happening more and more often.
As a hyper teenager supermarket shopping means sliding down the aisles on the trolly and usually, families join in with me and have a laugh, so I never have I hesitated in enjoying myself. In my long black garment and headscarf I continued to slide up and down the aisle when I heard a man remark to his partner: ‘look at that f*cking ninja.’ That’s how it is now for a lot of Muslims like myself.
I feel like British Muslims have become a lot more conscious of how they look to others, and that isn’t just me making an assumption. My mother asked me to remove my black ‘abaya’ ; which is a long dress and replace it with a pair of jeans for my own safety while traveling over to Switzerland. I asked her why she did it, and she said it was so I didn’t intimidate other people and that security will be more vigilant about me being a ‘threat’.
What I say is this: do not feel the need to prove yourself because of the stereotypes put upon your ethnicity, religion or colour. You as an individual are not defined by what the press think that they know about you. Do not remove your hooded jumper just because when paired with your skin colour it makes you seem intimidating, or your headscarf because the media says you’re a threat.
I can admit that when I was younger, I subscribed to the belief that racism no longer existed. Or maybe I was just too young to know any better. Up to that point, I had learned almost nothing about history of slavery or racism in school. Whatever knowledge I did have on the subject was from my father who would make me watch movies like ‘Roots’ to ensure I was well-rounded in my understanding of our African culture.
In sixth grade I moved school and completed my remaining school years in a predominantly Latino and Asian Catholic School in the Alum Rock area of San Jose. It was during this time that I first experienced racism, changing my perspective of the world permanently.
My transition to this new school went relatively smoothly at first, but things started to get uncomfortable. I had grown my hair out to a small afro, which the school had some problems with. They asked me to cut it multiple times, claiming it broke the school rules. But, I would point out that the handbook said boys’ hair cannot cover their ears or touch their collar, both of which mine did not, so I refused to cut it and my parents supported me. Not only did the school itself have a problem with my hair, but other students would constantly be touching or inquiring about it.
I might have forgotten to mention that I was the only black student in my entire grade of around 70 people for all three years I attended that school. For this reason, I guess I understand people being curious or interested in my hair, but continuously touching and grabbing at it even after I would tell them to stop was something I had a problem with.
Racism is inexcusable, but it will be difficult to eradicate because there is too much hatred and intolerance in the world. Changes need to be made by government leaders, but there also needs to be a change in attitude within the general public before racism can be curbed and hopefully eliminated.
I remember being in my primary school’s classroom, I must have been somewhere between 9 or 10 years old, and I remember a white boy calling me, a brown girl, a 'gorilla'. I burst into tears and asked for the teacher’s help (my white, male teacher) and the help of my classmates (also mostly white – I went to school in Scotland, which isn’t typically known as an ethnically diverse place) - but I can only remember their paltry attempts at consoling me; phrases like 'we’re all related to gorillas' and insincere phrases such as 'it’s actually a compliment' (which is actually gaslighting, by the way) swam in my head.
I knew back then that calling a woman of colour a 'gorilla' was messed up, but as a child, I lacked the understanding that I have now of the phrase’s dark implications.
That instance reminded me of other times back in primary school where I was belittled just for the way I looked. Being called “ugly” all the time, and being mocked for my prominent body hair made me feel terrible about myself. I remember that I was probably the only person who had to start epilating of all my classmates when I was about 8-10 years old. I’m pretty sure there were white girls that were equally as hairy as I was, but they had the privilege of having less noticeable body hair.
I just wish I got help sooner in dealing with this sort of thing, or I wished I made a greater fuss about this whole issue when it happened on that day. Anything to save me from the issues that I have to deal with now and work on in therapy. If coping with this was bad enough for me, I can only imagine the pain that black girls, women, and mixed-race black women experience day by day.
This time we cannot turn away again. We learn about the Black Civil Rights movement in school and in a few years, students will be learning about the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s a never-ending struggle.
Racism may never go away completely. But, we can all help to drive progress; George Floyd’s death is a tragedy that wrought the whole world and sparked the demand for change.
The black lives matter movement has united people from all races and religions through peaceful protests, paving the way for us to not only be better than what we were before, but to get closer to where we need to be.
YouthSight Supports Colour of Research (CORe)
This is a topic that's close to our hearts and we're fortunate enough to be able to support Managing Director, Tatenda Musesengwa, as he tackles this issue from the frontline.
Tatenda is one of the founding members of the Colour of Research, an organisation set up to solve the issue of ethnic under-representation in the market research industry.
Find out more about CORe and how to be involved via the link below.
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