Over the years I’ve had the great displeasure of experiencing some pretty hardcore racism. I know you must be thinking, What!? With a pretty face like that? Never. I know, I find it hard to believe sometimes, but apparently no matter how many Instagram filters one applies it does not absolve even the prettiest of harem girls from racism.
It’s not always outright aggressive. Sometimes it’s more passive aggressive, sometimes it’s patronizing but it is always frustrating. The expectation is that you’ll swallow your feelings of frustration, like I swallow my pride and patiently wait for the racism to stop. After all you don’t want to make the problem worse and accusing someone of racism is a big call. Are you sure that’s what they meant? Are you being paranoid?
Last week I made a routine visit to the beautician to be well, beautified. Once she’d enquired after my general wellbeing and asked about my job she wanted to discuss everything you’re told to avoid at the dinner table.
‘I’m not racist but’ she began. A statement, which, of course, does nothing but suggest you are in fact, racist.
We see ‘I’m not racist but’ comments on social media all the time. Websites like theantibogan.wordpress.com have been set up to give the online community the power to name and shame racists, sexists and homophobes. Such initiatives can make big statements particularly in the online sphere where people often think they have the added advantage of anonymity. But what of real life encounters? Where do we go to report IRL racists?
One of many problems with comments that begin with ‘I’m not racist but’ is that they insult the intelligence of the person on the receiving end of that comment. Much like we’re insulted by the presence of QandA pretending to be a platform of intellectual debate, such comments scream disrespect.
Let’s go back to my beautician visit for a moment shall we? After a discussion about ‘Asians’ and their ‘refusal’, as she termed it, to learn English, she turned her attention to the state of ‘Islamic women’ in Australia. But not before pointing out how ‘perfect’ my eyebrows were. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank my mother for those genes.
‘Are there many Islamic students where you work?’ she seemed genuinely curious.
‘I suppose there are some.’ I replied politely.
‘Because Islamic parents even in Australia are really strict. They don’t let their daughters get educated.’ She proceeded to inform me, peering over her tweezers for effect.
‘I’m so jealous of your eyebrows.’ She smiles.
Yes I’m being determinedly rebellious and getting a PhD without their knowledge.
Sarcasm aside, notice how she states this as a fact. She speaks from a position of authority, a place of knowing, as if she understands Islam and Muslims. But more importantly in this instance she speaks as if her knowledge is definitive, never considering that my insight as a Muslim might undermine her point.
‘Well I’m about to submit a PhD’ I begin; fully aware of the fact that I need to leave the salon with two matching eyebrows and if I take a tone that may not happen.
‘That girl was shot by the Taliban.’ She continues.
Are the Taliban now raising Muslim girls in Australia? Conflating Muslim parents in Australia with the Taliban is Orientalism in fine form. If the Taliban are Muslim and you are Muslim then obviously you are the Taliban.
This is precisely what happens when every layperson sees themself as an expert on Islam. A right they believe is afforded them because of the way we talk about (rarely with) Islam and Muslims in the public sphere and in popular culture. The cliché but highly repetitive portrayal of Muslims as villains, hairy babbling buffoons or even shadowy figures covered in black from head to toe, does not allow Muslims agency. Thus we assume that the Muslims we encounter in our day to day have none either. It’s precisely the reason a white woman whose only job at that moment is to tidy up my eyebrows, can insist that Muslim parents deny their daughters an education, despite the obvious proof that this cannot be universal.
‘So you’ve chosen career over marriage and kids’ she interrupted my train of thought.
‘No’ I said hesitantly. ‘I just haven’t met anyone’ I continued defensively.
The silence was awkward with only the ticking of my biological clock to break the sullen mood. Or perhaps that was the hollow sound of my empty, uneducated mind begging to be used. I felt like both my femininity and my religion were being scrutinized and it really was too much to take in, in the space of 20 minutes.
While she can accept that I have been ‘allowed’ an education, she cannot extend this information to Muslim women beyond me because it contradicts the discourse of Oppressed Woman that is all too familiar to her. I am therefore relegated to occupying the narrow space of exception. I become the client she once had who was unlike the others.
A space almost every Muslim I know, knows too well. A space I resent.
This was once a source of exceptional pride for me. When I was a teenager, particularly around the time of 9/11, I was very discreet about being Arab and Muslim. It was information I offered on a need to know basis, like a shameful secret I tried to hide.
There was nothing particularly appealing about being Arab or Muslim at that time, and every time somebody found out they sought to remind me how different I was from those Arabs. And to make sure I didn’t think they were talking about me when they spoke about those ‘Lebs’, a term used to encompass Arabs more generally, they’d begin each offensive statement with ‘no offence but’ the trusted cousin of ‘I’m not racist but’.
Being labeled ‘the exception’ for years makes you feel ‘whiter’, somehow more integrated. This whiteness translates into superiority. A superiority that is unfounded and seriously damaging both to your sense of self and to the way you relate to people from your own ethnic and religious groups.
At the very crux of this you have already accepted that ‘white’ is better than brown, that west is better than east, that Occident is better than Orient. You have already accepted that by virtue of being brown, eastern and oriental you will never be as good as a white, western, occident. You have already dichotomized your world and admitted defeat.
This feeling of superiority is accompanied by a feeling of fear. You know that membership to the dominant group is conditional. You’re aware that acceptance can be revoked with the slightest demonstration of non-compliance and thus you begin to hide more and more of who you are so as to maintain the facade that you are in fact, like us, different to them.
The remainder of the conversation with the ‘therapist’ does in fact serve a rather therapeutic purpose. It reminds me that because of the way I dress I will always be a visual representation of the intersection between gender, religion and race. Because of where I live I will always invoke questions of belonging, acceptance and co-existence. I am a constant reminder that the ‘other’ exists and that will inevitably make some people uncomfortable.
The lady continues;
‘So your parents haven’t forced you to get married? Your eyebrows are just so perfect!’
The consistent referral to my perfect eyebrows is a conscious effort to negate the obviously racist inquisition. Her continuous assertion pertaining to the perfection of my eyebrows is a reminder that she is not racist, how can she be? She’s so nice.
‘My parents would never do that.’ I began but quickly realized I was being unnecessarily defensive.
In the space of 20 minutes she had made me feel like I should be grateful for parents who are so unlike other Muslims, real Muslims. She took me back to the days where I believed myself a rarity, different and deserving of glorification.
‘I bet they’d hate it if you came home with an Aussie though.’ She said smugly.
The bitter aftertaste of lengthy exposure to Orientalist discourse is the belief that you have the Orient worked out – that you know what they’re like. That you use that knowledge not just to define the Orient, but also to define yourself. Orientalism is as much about the Orient as it is the Occident. It’s about the juxtaposition between freedom and oppression, civility and barbarism. In this instance it’s about the perceived narrow mindedness of my parents and despite her clearly ignorant views, her open mindedness.
There’s so much that happens in a short encounter, so many misconceptions at play, so much ignorance to challenge and so much frustration that comes out of it. This post is already long enough so I’ll save the thoughts I haven’t documented here for another time but I think it’s important to realize that beginning a sentence with ‘I’m not racist but’ is insulting. If you have to preface a sentence with such a statement then you know full well the content of your statement or your assumption is racist. If you have enough sense to lead with that then you know you’re about to offend someone, so don’t.