[Personal Narrative] Trying Not to Erase Myself | The Body Narratives
[Hana] The psychology of white supremacy racism is intrinsic in framing people of colour’s self-perception. Many of us are familiar with how the pathology of whiteness as desirable, and even salvation, can embed in the deepest and darkest parts of our psyche, something W.E.B. Du Bois, Frantz Fanon and Toni Morrison have so crucially deconstructed in their work around double-consciousness and the split self.
Raisa Kabir bravely confronts her childhood desire to be white and the much needed rage that followed.
By Raisa Kabir
I had wished I had been White my whole life; yet it was a desire so latent, I could not articulate, speak of, or even let my tongue touch the words. It was a desire cut so deep it took years to excavate that embedded , stony knife. I hated being brown, and I hated being associated with it - it wasn’t Raisa. It wasn’t me. As a teenager I flinched and felt uncomfortable when anyone pointed race out to me. I strived to separate myself from what being “British Asian Bangladeshi” meant in this country – poor, working class, uneducated, oppressed, strict parents, religious. And in doing so I, an unaware teenager, was propagating racism, internalized or otherwise.
“Other” kind of Brown
By trying to “other” brown people, I alleviated myself as something more progressive, or liberated, from “oppressive brown culture”. I kept having to reaffirm I was a different kind of brown: I smoked fags, drank alcohol, had white boyfriends and girlfriends - I wasn’t “Asian Asian”. Yet, I’d never be White. No matter how hard I wanted to be White, or act White. No one was going to see me as White. Yet the desire to be white, to be different than what brown stood for, was something that propelled me forward and I would stay in denial for many years.
When I look back at my actions, all I see is a young woman immersed in violent behaviour without the words to describe or assert herself, hurting herself in the process. She just had to act out whiteness, as a means of searching for validation; and in doing so was to deny her existence, and deny her own voice. Something I am still feeling the repercussions of.It had never occurred to me that I “wasn’t white”. Yes, I knew I was brown, I knew I was different. I just knew I didn’t want to be it. And if I didn’t speak about it, no one would notice. No one would think it’s a problem.
My journey into unpicking and confronting race came about when I started researching gender, Orientalism, sexuality, and feminism for an essay I was writing about the similar ways the 19th century corset and the veil were perceived as oppressive garments. I was suddenly introduced to radical postcolonial feminist writing. In particular, Frantz Fanon’s ‘Battle of Algiers’ succinctly bore truths around the colonisation of the brown female body. It was these writings that galvanised the way I saw my own feminism, and I started to think critically about race.
At the same time, it coincided with returning to look closer at my queer bisexual (disabled) identity. Having been out since I was 13, I had never felt an issue with my sexuality. But this time, I felt pushed out and inauthentic in the (white) lesbian or queer spaces I was re-exploring. I did not see myself or my experiences reflected anywhere, I felt unsettled, isolated and couldn’t put my finger on it. And then it dawned on me, something that hadn’t occurred to me before. I hadn’t seen it, because I wasn’t looking for it. All was in front of me, and all I stared into was the cascades of whiteness.
Speaking out: Violence and Whiteness
It was this sudden awareness of whiteness that I was confronted with that dealt the possibility for the first time that I was in fact “not white” and this was in fact how others saw me too. Was the reason why I had felt so unsettled, my entire life – was this the reason? That I was in fact being read as “other” and always had been? It felt like a tidal wave had smacked my face clean.
It paralysed me. The realisation flooded my own perception of myself, my identity with violence. I saw how my interactions, my movements, my body even, became sites of violence themselves. I began to see for the first time, that my experiences to that point had been different, that all these difficulties and feelings of disorder were related to my being South Asian.Self hating and disgusted with my own non-white status, hating my brown body, it’s thick hair, and scarred skin, I’d felt implicitly inferior all these years and incapable of competing with white women I’d always be lesser than, not good enough, or just ugly, because nowhere had there been a sign or a message to love my brownness, or value it.
I had been taught to hate my own existence. I had been taught, that my existence as a brown woman was of no consequence, had no power. My voice wasn’t worth anything. My opinion and values meant nothing. For 22 years of my life these were my very real and active ways of thinking – I literally thought my viewpoint was invalid, and that my white friend, her viewpoint would inevitably always be better than mine.
This is where and how racism takes hold, how it manifests within people of colour’s psyche in ways we do not always have a tangible sense of. As a queer woman of colour, there are layer upon layers, where racism strips you of your voice, where low self esteem and self worth and self-loathing become standard ways of looking and seeing yourself; rage and violence suffocating the person within.
This is oppression. This is racism.
It was all I felt, this overwhelming wave of rage. I felt that the deepness of this violence that lay inside of me, was something that a white person could never understand viscerally. That being and understanding that I was South Asian, and even though I had named myself – all I felt was this innate loneliness and rejection, and desperation to find others who shared this volatile existence. This existence of silence because no one had taught me the power of speech, the power of my own voice. And as soon as I started to speak, I could not stop. The hurt, the pain, the constant reminders I was not safe, it hurt me, and blinded me and sometimes I did not have words at all.
When you begin to see the violence in the existence of living as a racialised queer woman, you have to find ways of utilising your power, instead of being consumed by it. This is a learning process, and a process that is not shared or freely accessible. To swim to the surface, to find a space to breathe – is to understand where this initial rage and violence originates; to allow yourself to feel and acknowledge that rage, is to place yourself, and place that rage as a site of creativity and not one only as a site of self-destruction.
Harnessing that rage, that power, that activism that sits in your belly, takes time. Listen to it, articulate it, and unleash it. Don’t let it become cancerous; don’t let it eat you up. You are dangerous when you know what you are capable of.
Tackling my own internalized racism meant I stopped being silent. I stopped letting people abuse me, I stopped myself from abusing me. I stopped denying my existence as a queer femme of colour. I challenged why and how I felt and saw things. I checked my own privilege, – my education, and my middle class upbringing. I checked my own racism.
By unlearning and re-learning lessons in race, ethnicity and queerness, and gender I set myself free from how others categorised me. I learnt about intersectionality, that being South Asian did not mean that I could not be queer, my brownness didn’t have to come at the expense of my queerness: we create our own authenticity.
By being all these sites at once, I held the word Queer like a weapon, close to my heart. It was the only term that took my disabled brown queer body and its desires, and the violence that had been inflicted on this body, and the rage it carried, and blessed it. Sang it queer. It gave me the power to be myself and hear my own voice.
Raisa Kabir is a visual artist, writer and textile graduate of Chelsea College. Her practice is based around translating theory-based ideas, using photography and woven/stitched textiles. She uses the mediums of abstract photography and contemporary textiles, to realise and question concepts around the politics of gender, race, and sexuality. She has written about South Asian queer dress identity and culture, as well as cultural appropriation, ethnicity, diaspora and dress.
She is currently working on a photography exhibition - “Visible Space” - that documents South Asian queer identity, space and affect, at the Rich Mix gallery from 16th April.