The writer has passed for White often enough that she’s occasionally forgotten she isn’t—and more so, worried that she might forget who she is.
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Sometimes I forget that I’m not White. I’m half-Pakistani on my mother’s side, but because that half of my ethnicity does not extend beyond my epidermis, I am otherwise entirely White like my dad—facial features and cultural features alike. I’ll be with a White friend and in the context of race refer to “us” as though our ethnicities are continuous, or I’ll be asked what my background is and for a millisecond wonder what that means. If I had been at the SAG Awards over the weekend, the conversation between Rashida Jones and Danielle Demski, a TNT correspondent, could have just as easily occurred between Demski and me. “You look like you’ve just come off an island or something,” she told Jones. “You’re very tan. Very tropical.” Visibly confused and rightfully so, the Parks and Recreation star, who most contemporary entertainment reporters know (or should know) is the daughter of legendary Black music producer Quincy Jones and White actress Peggy Lipton, replied with exemplary good nature: “I mean, you know, I’m ethnic.”
Ten years ago Rashida Jones’s sister, Kidada, admitted this happened all the time. In a 2005 joint-interview with Glamour, Kidada said her famous sib often “passed for White.” Rashida was shocked. “I’ve never tried to be anything that I’m not,” she said, going on to explain that she found it hurtful when people expressed awe at how White she looked. “I want to say: ‘Do you know how hurtful that is to somebody who identifies so strongly with half of who she is?’“ Rashida explained. “If you’re obviously Black, White people watch their tongues, but with me they think they can say anything. When people don’t know ‘what’ you are, you get your heart broken daily.” But for someone like me, who identifies so little with half of who she is, questions about my ethnicity don’t break my heart as often as they surprise me.
I remember one recent Christmas sitting in the living room of my boyfriend’s father’s house in the U.K. My boyfriend is White and so is the rest of his family. At one point his father made reference to “the Paki shop” down the street, a racist colloquialism particular to England that is less willfully un-p.c. than it is a stubborn anachronism. I didn’t notice the expression, no doubt under the familiar misapprehension I was as White as everyone around me, until my boyfriend’s father stopped speaking and covered his mouth before coughing out an embarrassed laugh. I brushed it off but my mind couldn’t—at that point I was the designated “other” in the room and it lasted for the rest of the visit. I felt the same sense of frustrated alienation in high school when a younger girl sitting next to me on the bus one day inquired politely whether a chicken pox scar in the middle of my forehead was my “Paki dot” (I politely responded that Pakistanis were not branded with bindis at birth).
Sometimes I will bring up my ethnicity so no one else has to, a sort of preemptive racial strike. “Yeah, but I’m half-Pakistani so …” try not to say anything Pakiphobic. Though my name nudges some people in the right direction, it doesn’t always. I feel less of a need to explain myself when I’m among a large population of Spanish people. Because of my Western facial features and tan skin, I will often get mistaken for a local when I visit South America or Spain, though it can happen elsewhere too. Once I inadvertently jaywalked in front of a truck in Calgary, Alberta (a predominantly White part of Canada), and the driver called me a “spic.” I took it as a compliment.
In her Glamour interview, Rashida Jones said she has missed out on Black and White roles alike, being considered, respectively, “too exotic” and “too light.” I find the way my color is coded is often determined by the culture around me. In Pakistan, fairer skin implies privilege and is thus preferable. I remember attending parties with my Pakistani aunt, dressed in full ethnic garb, and her friends exclaiming about how beautiful her “Gora” (White) niece was. The skewed perspective was so pernicious it tainted how I perceived my own color. I remember pitying the dark Pakistani and Indian girls I met growing up and being offended in my early 20s when, while holidaying in Greece, an infamously xenophobic place, a local man noted how “Black” I was. The irony was, though my tan had made me several shades darker, he was still much browner than me.
Sometimes I plumped up my Pakistani side. In high school, I volunteered on a beautification project in a low-income area of Calgary where a number of the other volunteers were present as part of their community service, including three Black boys. When they found out I was half-Pakistani, they expressed how “cool” that was. The fact that our classes clashed did not seem to concern them—race trumped everything. It was one of the few times I felt I had a racial advantage over my White friend.
Other times I didn’t feel Pakistani enough. My mother’s side of the family often wonders why I am so ignorant about their culture and I have occasionally felt angry at her for not exposing me to it growing up. And I’m pretty sure I recently failed a job interview when I was unable to remember which religion my Pakistani grandmother followed (Islam). I have spent time poised over grant and job applications and wondering whether I can actually check the “visible minority” box and whether or not checking it will work against me.
I don’t remember the first time I became aware of my ethnicity, but my mother remembers one of the first times anyone said anything about it. When I was 4 and my brother was 5, my father had taken us to a beach in Ottawa. A lifeguard approached the three of us and no doubt my dad expected him to coo—people were always cooing over us—but instead he inquired: “Are these your children?” At the time I was too young to know what that implied and now that I do, I wish I could go back to that moment and throw a copy of Stephen Cosgrove’s Tee-Tee, the book my mother was reading me around that time, in his face. The story follows a turtle named Tee-Tee who is searching exhaustively for whom he belongs, only to discover at the end that he belongs to no one but himself. “If you’ve ever wondered ‘Do I belong to thee?’” it concludes, “Remember, in his shell, a turtle called Tee-Tee.”
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