Acknowledging that racism has been your experience requires bravery and that is something I embraced in my 20s. I attribute finding courage to face my experiences of racism because of this one moment that I had with Anjum Rahman.
Post 9/11 I became somewhat of a poster child for the Muslim community. I am not sure how I signed on, but I took on a mammoth responsibility of being a spokesperson in the media on issues related to Islam and Muslims. My aim was to ensure I was always putting the best foot forward for a community being marginalized for the actions of a few somewhere out there.
It was a casual encounter with Anjum.
Almost in passing, but one that made me stop in my tracks. It must have been bothering her, my projection in my media interviews of how the Muslim community receives no backlash here. How we are all very grateful that ‘New Zealanders’ are so welcoming towards us.
So in passing she said to me, “You deny that racism exists”.
And she was right!
It requires a level of strength and courage to say that racial bias exists and to go against the grain of the leadership of your community who are telling you:
“We only want to present the best picture, that we are grateful, happy and peaceful.”
So today I can acknowledge that Anjum was right, and that one moment made me realise I didn’t have the strength to call out what was inherently wrong. That one moment made me realise I too was othering the community, asserting they equally belonged.
Why did Muslims need to feel welcomed over and over again when we have been around for a few generations in this country?
Why was I not pointing out that racism and xenophobia were intricately linked?
Why was there a fear of speaking about the not so pleasant stories?
Were we always going to be the guests here hosted by ‘New Zealanders’?
Were we not already New Zealanders participating and voicing concerns?
So here are my three very vivid memories of racism here, amongst the many others.
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My very first experience of racism was in intermediate school, not long after we arrived in New Zealand. I came to New Zealand with no English except with the knowledge of alphabets. It was a sunny day, and most of the kids were outside on the field or on the courts. Mum had given me daal (lentils) with rice to take to school for my lunch.
As I didn’t have much of an ability to communicate with my peers I did not manage to make any friends in intermediate so lunchtimes were a lonely affair. I sat in the netball court to have my lunch, and as I opened my lunchbox a boy from across the court yelled out: “Ewww she is eating shit!”
The other kids hanging around the court laughed, and I can still visualise the disgusted looks on the faces of a few till today. I cried. And that was the last day I ever took “ethnic” food to school. Kids want to fit in and I had learned, painfully, that my “ethnic” food didn’t fit in. My teacher was quite lovely to me but when people laugh at who you are it impacts on your dignity, it impacts on how you see yourself. I cannot forget that incident and I think that was the making point for where I am today and how I think about things.
So yes, I over-compensated in order to fit in. I remember the boy who called my daal shit was of an ethnic minority too – which is why I don’t think racism is a problem only some people have, it is a problem anyone can have. I grew up as a minority within a minority, Pakistani by origin surrounded by mostly Indian kids. Throughout school or even through my parents the history between our countries, and the trauma both our peoples had faced was not knowledge I was privy to. Which is why it took me to get to my 20s to learn and understand biases I experienced appropriately and to be able to call them out.
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My second vivid encounter of experiencing racial discrimination is when I first started wearing the hijab (headscarf). It was 2001, and I stopped at the intersection between Mt Eden Road and Mt Albert Road with my friend. We were waiting for the green light when this car pulled up next to us and these two young Pakeha guys who were about the same age as us both shouted out:
“Go back to where you came from!”
That would have been the very first time that I ever questioned myself as to whether New Zealand was home. That somebody else, a stranger, had decided that my home was somewhere else. My friend and I didn’t even talk about the two guys who’d just shouted at us. We didn’t talk about how that made us feel. We just carried on.
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The fact that we didn’t talk about it is why I decided that sharing our stories is important because I think we have this cultural practice as New Zealanders which is insidious - we don’t want to rock the boat, so the ideal thing to do is not to really address the issue at all.
I had migrant parents and post 9-11 especially, we were nurtured to be the person that does not call out racism. I was encouraged to just give out the message that we are really thankful, integrated and part of society: ‘Don’t make it worse by making it seem that we are complaining’, was a common message. I also think it is more difficult for migrant parents because they often don’t have the tools to help their children deal with prejudice they face. So many parents migrate for the better future of their kids, so there is a culture of encouraging young people to count their blessings even when experiencing racism.
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My last encounter that I want to share, and one I feel is a growing concern is when I applied for a job. The employer said to me, “Our preferred candidate was a white woman, but she didn’t want the job in the end… ”. Institutional racism exists in New Zealand, and now it is OK to verbalise it.
There is the shame factor attached to racism. We shouldn’t be ashamed of someone else’s behavior. Racism can also cause doubt about ones sense of belonging, so we need to call it out.
Tayyaba Khan moved to New Zealand when she was 10. She has grown up in Japan. She feels lucky to have experienced living in different parts of Auckland – from Dominion Rd, Freemans Bay, to Papatoetoe adding to her rich connection to the city, but also her understanding of the socioeconomic differences and inequality. Tayyaba is grateful she knows people like Anjum Rahman and Wong Liu Sheung who role model for her when voicing out is necessary.