What Are You? — A narrative essay by Shahbano Dar

What Are You?

            “Where did you come fro-… what race are y-… what’s your nationali-… um… what are you?”

What am I? I’m female. I’m seventeen years old, I’m 5’ tall and 110 lbs. I live in Cassatt, South Carolina and I go to North Central High School. I’m ranked nineteenth in my class and I’m captain of the North Central Silver Knights. These usually aren’t the types of answers people are looking for when they ask the question. I am Pakistani. I was born in Camden, South Carolina, but my parents were both born and raised for a portion of their lives in Pakistan. My father left Pakistan for college when he was 19 and my mother moved with her family when she was 9 years old and has lived in the United States ever since.

Growing up, I’ve always been the odd one out. Kids in school never quite knew where to fit me. I wasn’t pretty enough to be a prep, I wasn’t sporty enough to be an athlete, and I wasn’t quite smart enough to be top ten in the class. I was a cube trying to fit into a box with round holes. My peers knew that I was different, but weren’t quite mature enough to understand what that meant. I wasn’t black, I wasn’t white, I wasn’t Hispanic, I wasn’t Indian, and for some reason, if you didn’t fit into one of those general categories, you were too different to belong anywhere.

As I grew older, people in my grade began to understand a little more about where I was from. In a way, you could say that I’d gotten my own category in their mind. For some, that meant I was accepted more. The idea of me didn’t seem so foreign anymore; they’d gotten used to having me around and seeing that I really wasn’t as different as they thought I was. For others, that meant I had another war to fight – racism and ignorance.

People my age were only two or three years old when 9/11 took place, so many of us don’t remember the tragedy itself. However, the previous generation had witnessed it all happen themselves and many harbored a lot of hate towards Muslims. Many kids in my generation picked up on this hate, having grown up around it all their lives. Unfortunately for me, that meant that I’d have to take their blows, given that I was the only Muslim person the majority of these kids had ever met. The nicknames, the bomb jokes, the slurs, the insults, I’d heard them all. I could see the racist joke coming before the person even opened their mouth. I could hear the giggles and mean comments people whispered to each other from across the room. I could feel the discomfort in my stomach when someone who I knew would pick on me came close by.

It felt like I’d become the punching bag for all the pent up hate everyone had towards Muslims. I felt like I’d been vandalized with all the lies and stereotypes people were throwing at me, and the worst part is that I began to believe them myself. Sometime around middle school, I became afraid to tell people that I was Muslim because I knew what usually followed. I would just avoid the topic of religion and sometimes even race altogether, leaving people hanging when they’d all ask the same question, “What are you?” I’d put up a wall to block anyone and everyone out. I began to believe that there was something wrong with me for practicing my religion, but I knew that even if I didn’t, I’d still face the same hate for my race. I was very young and very lost about who I was and what to do about it. I knew I wasn’t a bad person; I’d never intentionally hurt anyone – but then why did I feel like one? Why did I feel like I had something to be ashamed of?

At the end of every day, I’d come home to my small Muslim family in tiny Cassatt, SC. I remember looking at my sister and wondering if she had to go through the same things I did – if she had to put up a wall or become a punching bag. I didn’t want to find out. I wanted to keep every ounce of my home life as normal as it could be. I wanted to be the outstanding role model of a sister and the perfect little Muslim daughter for my mother. I wanted to keep everything as if there was nothing wrong at school, but it grew harder as I began to doubt myself. Pretending everything was okay drained me, and I found that it only lead me to putting up another wall towards my family.

With all the negativity I was facing at school, I took to the internet to find a positive space for me to be. I ran a social media page where I’d post anything and everything that I liked with no rules and no filter required. I was free from the eyes of my peers and my family and for the first time in years, I didn’t need to put up a wall. I was free to be a just another stranger on the internet that no one knew and that was just the way I liked it. I surrounded myself with other people who accepted me for who I was and grew a following who supported me and gave me a new sense of confidence and a way of handling the ignorance I faced at school.

I hadn’t done anything wrong to deserve the way I was treated and I knew this now. I just needed everyone else to know this as well. It wasn’t my responsibility to put up with their hate, it was theirs to educate themselves enough to know better. I also knew that nothing would change unless I made it. I’d gone years putting up with the wrong things people would say about me, just pretending like it was a joke or pretending like I didn’t hear to avoid actually facing the situation. I realized that this was what I needed to change. This was what was allowing them to continue. It took every ounce of strength and confidence I had, but soon I began correcting people and standing up to their ignorance. When someone would make a joke, I’d be sure to call them out on how racist and incorrect they were. When someone would play dumb to make fun of where I’m from, I’d call them out on how uneducated they sounded. Once people realized that I wasn’t going to let them walk over me anymore, they stopped. I didn’t feel like I had anything to be ashamed of anymore and I wasn’t afraid to tell people who I was.

Though I’ve moved past the insecurities of being a Muslim Pakistani-American, it still bothers me to this day that something as unimportant as my race was the cause of one of the toughest challenges I’ve ever had to overcome. What should it matter what a person’s race, religion, appearance, sexuality, or any other factor that they can’t control about themselves is? People weren’t born with labels slapped on their foreheads. We all come into the world with the same blank slate and we are all equals. What am I? I am human.

From Instructor Poole:

I chose this essay because it reminds me why reading and writing is important. When we write about our own experiences in the world, it helps us to make sense of our lives. When we read what other people write–especially when it’s as well-done as this essay–we get to spend some time inside another person’s head, to see the world from their point-of-view. Doing that makes the world a better place.

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