Part One: Schooled in Racism

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This will be part of what I hope to be a series of posts about racism.  Recent debates around the lack of diversity in the knitting and crafting communities in general on Instagram have really brought to the fore thoughts I have always had about race.  Since reading Reni Eddo Lodge’s book and engaging with the work of Robin DiAngelo, both of whom gave voice to a lot of what I could never articulate, I have decided to no longer remain silent.  However, my voice comes with caveats: it is not up to people of colour (POC) to educate the white majority about racism.  We are not here for your use.  Our voices, are not here for your edification and vindication.  Your education into anti-racism is not our burden to bear.  However, many POC do bear the burden of anti-racism education, but the work is exhausting (Eddo-Lodge, 2017).  This work is in addition to everything else POC have to endure: having to explain every little minutiae of our existence; fighting for social space in a hostile world; justifying why we should have a seat at the table every single day; being at the table but never being seen; always, always having to work smarter and harder than our white peers. The sheer existence of a POC is exhausting.  We should not have to bear the burden of your education too.  My voice is for me alone; if you take something from it as a POC, then I am glad to have helped.  If it is educating to the white majority, then I’m equally glad.  But this is not my reason for writing, nor will it ever be.

*****

Let me start by narrating stories, from my own perspective, from my past.  I worked, as a teacher, in a very white, middle-class area.  I taught English, Literature and Media Studies to 11-18-year-olds. I wore, and still do wear, a headscarf.  I prayed on the school premises and I was the only Muslim member of staff in the building.  The few Muslim students who did attend the school would smile and nod at me, even the ones I had no direct contact with.  Suddenly, they had an adult who was ‘like them’ and they were no longer a voiceless minority.

Obviously, I encountered racism, from the Year 8 girl running past my classroom shouting “Ali Baba” and a group of Year 11 boys asking me if I had a “chocolate muffin” (a reference to my private parts) and finally to the parents at Parents’ Evening who often insinuated that a head-scarved Muslim woman, clearly foreign, could not teach English.  Having top marks through school, college and then attending a prestigious university did not help me at all: I was still, and always would be, an alien.  (I was not the only teacher of colour; there was black female Science teacher who left a year after I arrived; I cannot speak for her and talk about the racism she encountered – that is her story).

What stands out now from the whole experience was how it was all dealt with: on two different occasions, two white children (in different classes) verbally attacked me for being Muslim and Asian.  They tried to humiliate me, they spoke to me in mock Pakistani accents, one threw something at me in full view of a class.  When things were reported, the school response was dire: both were moved into other groups – with white teachers – and it was hoped the issue would go away. In mediations, both teenagers said on separate occasions that I was not English enough to teach them: she’s a Pakistani though, why should we learn English from a Pakistani? I do not blame these children; after all, they are products of society: the boy’s father was openly aggressive to me at Parents’ Evening while the boy sat, smirking.  He said that his child was not progressing because, being Asian, I did not know how to teach English; if I did, his son would have made progress.  When I approached a senior manager about it, they ushered him into another room and I never saw either of them again – the senior manager apologised, helpfully holding my elbow: “I’m sorry you had to hear that,” but never was the issue of racism openly addressed.  The situation with the girl was the same: move her out of the class, then you don’t have to teach or deal with her.  Either way, it was brushed under the carpet and never addressed until it was brought up later – but that is a tale for a different day.

Fast-forward to teaching in very racially-mixed school; different environment, different issues and the racism was more covert. And acceptable.  Even when it was not covert, it was acceptable.  And sometimes, I helped it happen.  When teachers would remark, “these black kids” or “these Asian kids”, I would often sit there and say nothing, my silence reeking of complicity.   Once, a middle manager had a run-in with some unpleasant boys and she came to a staff meeting riled.

“Why are black boys so rude?” she exclaimed.  “And if they’re going to be so rude why do they have to come to our school?”

Silence.  Everyone did shift uncomfortably in their seats, myself included, and a few members of staff tried not to make eye contact with me.  Wretched and mute, I did not speak up.  I did not challenge her.  Because I knew from past experience what would happen.  Every time I had previously spoken about race, I was mocked and the eye-rolling would begin: “Ah, here, she is, with her race card.”  Eventually I joined in with the derision, internalising their white fragility and silencing myself with ridicule.  “Look at me, with my race card, let me pull it out of my pocket.”  Writing these words now, I feel a deep sense of shame.  And guilt.  I did not challenge anything, I did not attempt to change the conversation about race for the betterment of students of colour, for the black students, the Muslim students, the immigrants and children of immigrants: the aliens.

Why dwell on these two stories from my past when I could have picked anything else?  Because they illustrate beautifully that racism is not an event, it is a system (DiAngelo, 2018).  The former shows that when there was an opportunity to address the issue of racism amongst students and parents, it was largely ignored, not even creating a ripple.  Why?  Because the system is designed to maintain the status quo; the racism is not contained in the word “Paki”, but in the system that allows such a word to go by unchallenged, unquestioned and ignored.  Even when challenged and students punished for open racism (the girl from the first story was given a sanction), the event was treated as a stand-alone racist incident rather than part of a system; it is easier and more comforting to think of racism as hate speech than to address systemic issues. We would like to believe that because fewer people shout “Paki” in the street anymore, there is less racism; when in reality, the opposite is true.

The second story demonstrates how effectively white people shut down any conversation about race: mockery and ridicule is just one of the many powerful tools of white fragility.  The racism was overt when the staff member commented on the rudeness of black boys, but the racism was in the system and not just contained in one event. Her racism was protected because she was white and in a position of power but, ultimately, the racism is in the silence, the seat-shifting silence, the lack of challenge, the subtle system of muzzling that took place daily and covertly, so I always felt that any conversation about race was ‘playing the race card’.  Truly, I never viewed any of the colleagues in the room as ‘racist’ (and I still do not see them as such) but their silence as  privileged white women, when they could have spoken up just maintained the well-established system of not challenging those in authority – especially when they are the same as us – when it comes to racism.   As white women, clearly in a more powerful position than me, they could have challenged it – no matter what the politics in the department at the time.  Whiteness does not equate to racism, nor is white privilege the same as racism, but it is exactly that: a colour privilege that POC do not have; a position of power; the sheer act of whiteness is a power in itself.  The fact that neither they nor I said and did anything other than shift uncomfortably suggests complicity – just writing that down fills me with more shame than I can handle, shame that I will always carry with me.

In both cases, there were overtly ‘racist’ incidents; what is comfortably referred to as ‘hate speech’, the kind of racism that white liberals/progressives can label and distance themselves from.  We cannot be racist because we do not say these things, is the narrative.  However, in both cases, it was not the racist language that is interesting, but the reaction to the incidents: sweep it under the carpet, move along now, there is nothing to see here.  Silence.  Always silence.  And it is this deafening silence that screams to POC:  It is not that there is racism in the system, it is that racism is the system.

Once again, it is not that there is racism in the system, it is that the racism is the system.  The system is not racist, the system is racism.

Narrating these stories, even in the factual way that I have attempted to is difficult and dangerous.  I know that ex-colleagues may read them and be upset with me since they might recognise the incidents.  So much so that I feel the need to say I did and do have happy memories of working with many of these colleagues, some of whom are good friends – note how I feel I have to say this to avoid censure.  I am acutely aware of the perils of potential employers seeing this and deciding against employing me.  I realise I may lose friends over this, friends who would be horrified at my descriptions of a system of white privilege and racism that they have, however unwittingly, upheld and benefited from.  White liberals/progressives cannot stand the thought that anything they may have said or done could be construed as systemic racism and the defences will come up (DiAngleo, 2018).  These are all risks I am now willing to take.

I have never spoken openly about race with any of my white friends for fear of backlash, because I knew it may (would) be construed as an attack, but not now.  I am older and I am a mother. I see the world for what it is: my girls live in a world that will always be hostile to them because they will never be English enough, assimilated enough, white enough.   And I need to prepare them for this.

They cannot be allowed to go into the world naively believing, like I did, that if they work hard, get a good degree and a good job, they will be treated fairly – the same as white counterparts, because they never will be.  They will need schooling in racism and they will need to be able to navigate such a system – a system that is racism.  Despite the fear I feel right now in just typing and pressing ‘publish’, I need to speak and write to make up for my silent complicity all those years, a complicity that burdened me with guilt and shame, the scars of which I still bear today.

 

DiAngelo, R. (2018) White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. Beacon Press.

Eddo-Lodge, R. (2017) Why I’m no Longer Talking to White People About Race.

If you want a place to start learning about white fragility, listen to this talk by Robin DiAngelo.

Complete NaNoWriMo and Emerge (relatively) Sane

It was November 2017, the days were darkening, in more ways than one, so I embarked on a novel-writing mission: 30 days, 50,000 words, a complete novel.  NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month was the brain-child of Chris Baty; launched in America it is now a global phenomenon with people logging on from all over the world to upload their manuscripts and “win” at the end of the month.

The idea is you write your first word on the 1st of the month and then finish a novel in 50,000 words by the 30th, uploading it onto the site’s word counter.  There is no monetary prize, but something far greater: the satisfaction of knowing that you did it; you climbed the Everest of novel writing, conquered the wave of self-doubt and planted your 50,000 word flag atop the mountain of procrastination.  And you have a printable certificate to prove it.  And a victory dance – just make sure you film it so you never forget.

I first signed up 8 years ago; newly engaged and waiting to be wed, I thought it would be a great way to while away the winter months until our January wedding.  But given the insurmountable obstacles, I never really got it off the ground: I was working fulltime as a secondary English teacher, planning a wedding and getting ready to move to a new city.  Also, I just did not have the stamina and the discipline – surprising considering I was living with my parents with no husband and children.  Fast-forward 8 years and 2 children later, and I finally found my inner-NaNo and channelled it.  I channelled it so hard that I powered through sleep deprivation, various child ailments and finished fairly sane with only a few minor, pre-scheduled mental breakdowns before the end of the month.

Many marvelled at how I did it, but I will admit, it was easier than I thought, not because of anything I did, but because of my circumstances: I am currently not working, but looking after the children fulltime; my eldest has some hours in a private nursery and I have a husband who has some flexibility in his working pattern.  Despite all this, it still required some effort and dedication so here’s how I did it:

  1. Plan and Prepare

Before you embark on the NaNoWriMo of your writing career, you need to embark on the NaNo of your mind.  Deep.

Prepare yourself.  Plan as much as you can.  Use anything and everything at your disposal to ensure you can make that word count in November.  “Preptober”, as the founders of NaNo call it, is very important.  Some buy some books to help them on their journey, others write in journals or create complex plot maps; some even decide the story is in their heads and they are going to fly by the seat of their pants the following month.  Whatever your method, mentally prepare yourself.

I bought both books written by the founders of NaNo as I like to feel like I’m doing something tangible towards my goal; one was a series of exercises designed to help you plan your novel and other a guide to getting 50,000 words done in 30 days.   So during October, I read them and completed as many of the exercises in the book as I could.  Then I saved the chapters of No Plot, No Problem to read at the start of each week during November.  Often, I deviated from my plans, but they were always there, in the background, like a security blanket: something to fall back on and look through when the words had dried up.  It was comforting to have most of my story arc already planned out, whatever happened during November, the story was already written in my mind.

Prepare your house and workspace.  This is just as important as planning your story.  Knowing where and when you are going to work will help keep you from dithering.  The books help too as they teach you to schedule time.  But ultimately, as a mother, time, space and mental energy after a day of mothering needs to be planned for.  Psychologically, you need to be prepared that when the children are sleeping, or when the eldest is upstairs listening to her stories, you are going to throw yourself at your laptop and type like the wind – no matter what.  This means easy access to everything; if that means the laptop is going to sit on the dining table for a month, that’s what needs to happen.

Make sure everyone has enough clean underwear and clothes to last at least a couple of weeks, if not longer, just in case you don’t get chance to do the washing.  Freeze meals if you need to.  Do whatever you need to do to free up writing time.  Like I said, NaNo starts in the mind, before you even touch a pen or a keyboard.

I found I had very little time for batch cooking, but when I did make a bigger meal, I froze some of it, even if it was just a few curry bases.  It took the pressure off in November when I had to focus my mental energy on writing.

  1. Lower your standards

This one may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but do you really need to shower every single day?  Do you really need to change yours and the kids’ clothes every day?  Do you need to clean the kitchen thoroughly, or vacuum?  The answer is no.  Yes, it might be less hygienic, but no one is going to die if you don’t keep on top of everything.  Typically, women have a tendency to take on more than they can handle, to prove they can do everything, but it does not have to be this way: you don’t have to have everything together, all of the time.  Give yourself a month off from house chores or, like I did, do the bare minimum to keep yourself and the house ticking over.  (Before I’m attacked by feminists, foaming at the mouth, yes, I know men can do chores too, and mine does, but ultimately, it’s generally the person who is in house most who does the housework – this is a post for another day.  Please don’t send me pro-feminist hate mail).

Sometimes, you will have to order takeaway for dinner.  This does not make you a bad person or a bad mother.  It is only temporary.  And it is fine.

Lower your standards for your writing too.  When reading No Plot, No Problem, a sticking point for me was the promotion of what I like to call “fluff” writing.  The premise was that high-fluted, literary prose was overrated and it was always better to write simply.  This goes against everything I feel as a writer; it goes against the very essence of my own personal craft, but for NaNo, it works.

Here’s how: instead of sitting in front of the keyboard, trying to write deep, meaningful prose, I sat down and bashed out and average of 1,667 words a day of simple, easy-to-read, easy-to-write sentences.  That’s not to say I ignored who I was as a writer, but because my focus was on finishing rather than it being a work of literary genius, I picked a plot that I knew I could finish. I knew I would finish because it was plot-driven and always moving forward, propelling my word count quite organically without me trying very much.

I haven’t given up my goals of writing the way I want to write; I just shelved them for 4 weeks so I could complete this project, to prove to myself I could; for the experience and the thrill.  It really did not matter if the finished novel was a masterpiece (it isn’t), but it’s finished.  And for NaNo, that’s what matters.

  1. Kill Your Inner Editor

Although this is part of lowering your standards, it deserved a separate spot.  I can’t stress this enough: DO NOT EDIT.

You are wasting time, precious time that you do not have.  The baby might wake up any second, demanding a go on one of your mammaries; the oldest might come bounding down the stairs needing a poo in the middle of a 40-minute CD – you thought you had 40 minutes, right?  Wrong.  With kids, you never have the time you thought you had.  Don’t waste the time you do have by editing.  Editing is for later, or never if you don’t want to use your NaNo novel for anything.

I dealt with my inner perfectionist by scrolling up as quickly as possible after I had written a section and just putting one word in front of the other.  I resisted the urge to read things back at the start of every writing session by quickly scrolling to the blank space at the end of my document and diving in as quickly as possible.  Initially this was painful: it was not how I trained myself to write, but it worked.  And even now, writing this post, I am using the same technique.  The baby is asleep and I have a limited window so I need to get everything down as quickly as possible and edit it later.

That’s your key word: LATER.  When you hear that inner editor saying, “Just have a look,” in that sexy, sultry voice of hers, tell her, “Later.”  When she nudges you because all those wiggly red lines are spelling mistakes so you might as well read the last section through, gag her and say, “Later.”  When she flashes her sexy bare thigh at you for that cheesy last sentence, that cliché and that eye-roll moment between two characters, drag her to the cupboard by her hair, lock her in there and scream, “Later!”

Because you won’t finish if you spend your writing time editing.  WRITING time, not editing time.

  1. Find your writing time

Ideally, you would find yourself two hours of every day to write your 1,667 words, but it does not always work that way.  Work with what you have.  When the kids are sleeping/in nursery/distracted with some toys, make sure you’re writing, even if you write 10 words in that time.  We’re relatively screen-free, so finding writing time when the children were about was difficult, but there were 10 minutes here and there when they were busy and paying no attention to me, so I took advantage and pummelled out some words.

I found that, apart from nursery times, the evening was the best time for me to write: the three-year old was sleeping and my husband was around to keep the baby entertained for the hour I needed to make up my word count.  It was the most productive and satisfying hour of the day and it made me feel great.  I would bash away at the keyboard, sometimes chuckling away, knowing that the baby had just been fed and would be fine on the sofa for an hour: she was fed, she was changed and she was loved.  Make use of your loved ones to find yourself the time to write.

This was one of the most important things for me.  I could not have made it work without the support of my husband who pushed me to get the laptop out.  We had some horrendous days and nights with the children being ill, and there were a few days I was behind with my word count, but I made use of him and of the Saturday sessions at my in-laws and always got caught up.  Every Saturday, we would sit side by side, clacking away on our keyboards, me working on my novel, him working on earning the money and I would break off to feed the baby and then hand her back to my mother-in-law and continue clacking away.

Wherever you can find the writing time, do it.  You have more time than you think you do, you just have to find it.

  1. Visualise your goal

Thinking you are going to finish, visualising the end point will help, especially in the middle when it becomes a slog.  I found having a wall of post-it notes with the word count for each day really helpful.  Being a visual person, it helped immensely that I could use a marker and strike through each word count goal and see progress right before my eyes.  The first 1,667 words very quickly turned into the first 10,000 this way.

“If my mind can conceive it, and my heart can believe it – then I can achieve it.” Muhammad Ali.   Imagine yourself finishing, and you will.  InshaAllah. (God-willing)

 

 

 

I also cheated a little and bought myself an early victory present (which my husband ended up paying for) as it meant I HAD to finish.  I couldn’t NOT finish; after all, I had bought myself a present.  (This was actually not intentional; what I wanted as a prize was a limited-edition yarn pack – see this post on Instagram –  and I was worried they would sell out so I bought it prematurely.  Even so, it served its motivational purpose).

 

  1. Be inventive

Use every tool at your disposal to help you finish.  Binge-watching a TV show?  Steal ideas from it: character names, locations, visuals – just don’t plagarise.  Bizarre conversations with your toddler while you’re typing?  Use her words in dialogue and tell her she “helped” Mama with her novel.

Sometimes, even staring out of the window or at a particular colour can generate ideas.  The room you are writing in is full of ideas and when you’re stuck for a description, just pick something random and describe it.  Eventually you’ll work it into your story.  Remember: the goal is not to write a masterpiece (yet); the goal is to write 50,000, no matter what.

Need inventive ways to increase your word count?  No problem.  This is where those long Arab names are useful.  Give your characters names that are two or three words long: Abdul Rahman, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Umm Habiba.  You get the idea.  Just remember not to hyphenate as they will only count as one word.  Genius.

Be inventive in where you write too.  Technology has moved on so much in recent years.  With the beauty of the Cloud or One Drive, you can access your files across multiple platforms.  Download software on your phone so you can write one handed on your phone and access your manuscript.  I found having One Drive on my phone meant I had no excuse when it came to writing during night time feeds, however, I found it easier to just use the laptop so I waited and made up my word count every chance I could jump on.

 

Everyone’s situation is different therefore you may need to tweak my advice to suit you, however, I do believe that a 50,000 word novel in 30 days is definitely achievable with two young children – mine were 3 and 6 months old.  I found it easier and more motivating to complete it in November, when the rest of the world was doing it – it meant social media was full of NaNoWriMo posts every time I logged on to procrastinate!  However, there is nothing stopping you from picking a different month for your novel sprint.   Novemeber or not, I would definitely recommend it.

NaNoWriMo has developed my writing stamina, given me an insight into the research process involved in novel-writing and above all, shown me that my goals are definitely more achievable than I once thought.

 

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Schooled in Disparity

Audio to follow.  For now, the audio file is on the Facebook page. Click here.

Written when the recent Disparty Report was published (2017), coinciding with our search for a primary school, I wrote this spoken word poem to reflect all my frustration at how, despite being British-born, third-generation, my child still faces systemic prejudice, discrimination and reduced life chances. It is a system based on structural racism at every level; something that is starkly apparent to us since applying for schools.

Note: The audio references the Macpherson Report as 1996, when it is in fact 1999.  Corrected in the text below. 

Schooled in Disparity

Don’t tell me you’ve only just heard
About what’s in this report of Disparity
Because to me that really is a travesty.
A massive divide between the rich and the poor
but that’s not all,
it’s the Black and Asian minorities who are victims of this barbarity.
Yes, it’s true, but this really isn’t news.
We’ve known it for decades in this nation,
we’ve been in this situation from before 1968,
The Joseph Rowntree foundation
to the Runnymede Trust and everything beyond and everything in between.
Highlighting disadvantage,
Held back in the workplace said Ruby McGregor-Smith.
The Macpherson Report of ‘99 still sticks.
Your racism is institutionalised,
Race and Work Survey 2015, racial harassment of ethnic minorities.
It’s institutionalised say the facts,
David Lammy and the over-representation of the BME;
the injustice system full of us ethnic minorities;
not something you can white-wash, paint over the cracks,
start facing the facts: we’ve been in this situation many times as a nation.
Listen up friends, the red, white and blue doesn’t leave much space for me or for you.

 

Don’t tell me that my child will thrive and survive in any school that we’re looking,
because my husband said something that got my blood pumping;
in my ears, in my brain, it drove me insane,
I tried to deny it but it came back all the same;
Over and over like an offensive refrain.

He said: Our child’s not white.

It hit me like a bus, that even today we needed to make a fuss about race,
like nothing’s changed.
It’s not the ‘60s, the ‘70s or even the ‘80s.
But he’s right.
Our child’s not white.
Don’t tell me that school’s are all the same, whatever their names because they’re not.
These days I’ve heard it a lot.
They’re not the same to us, because our child’s not white.
Don’t tell me that schools in my area are good enough for us,
because what you’re saying is we shouldn’t aspire for her to be the best.
That she should be like all the rest.
Don’t tell me our child can thrive anywhere
no matter what the colour of her skin and her hair.
Because it’s not true.
Your report says it’s so, even though this knowledge is not new.
You’ve sat on it a while, in your usual style,
pretending you care, when really, if you passed us in the street all we’d get is a suspicious stare.
Don’t tell me it’s a postcode lottery for everyone, I know.
But for us, we can’t move and not because of poverty,
but because your system doesn’t fit with our reality.
So don’t tell me that the Joneses moved for a school for their children,
that was a luxury their skin and their jobs afforded them.
White flight so now their future’s looking bright.
What’s that you say? Keep up with the Joneses?
Save up your pay. Take it to the bank, but wait! That job’s not for you, no thank you,
Your beard’s too long, too much fabric covering your hair, you say it’s not fair.
We won’t say it out loud but we all know it’s true:
Apply for 74 per cent more jobs before an interview,
then we might consider even touching you.

 

Now we finally got the job, we got the occupation,
now we’re part of the same situation.
Nine to five, or working around the clock,
we’re taking home the pay cheque and things are looking up.
The covert prejudice that says work harder, smarter for our satisfaction,
prove yourself because your melanin’s a distraction.
You see white colleagues lauded, applauded for doing the same as you,
but you can’t speak up because if you do
It’s a race card, conveniently your race card, in our face card.
Just work harder.
We’re not saying she’s better, but she’s definitely smarter.
I got straight As, a brilliant degree from an upstanding university.
I taught all my classes as well as I could, was told by OFSTED I was outstanding as could be.
I knew this teacher, she was an NQT, she needed help and so she came to me.
I planned her lessons, gave her all my stuff, but in the end it wasn’t enough.
Outsider, always an outsider, a minority;
Clearly more acceptable, whiter than me.
Acceptable, respectable, not matter what she said, no matter what she did.
My story’s not unique, my story’s not new, it’s a national reality for me and for you.
It’s not news, your report says it’s so; work so much harder for less recognition,
Just because we’re not Caucasian.

 

Is that a race card you see? No it’s reality, for her, her and her and for him and for me.
It’s not a brick through the window, it’s more stealthy;
unconscious bias, a prejudice or three.
For us stop and search more likely.
Don’t tell me a school can be anywhere, give her a book and it’s all fair and square.
Because our child’s not white.
Maths, English, Science and a healthy dose of Islamophobia;
Maybe under PREVENT she might be reported for drawing a cucumber.
And all before she hits double digits, and the concern that if she sits there and fidgets
Berated over and over because she’s under-stimulated
Another of the country’s brown misfits,
Not considered to be English though she’s as British as tea and biscuits.

 

Don’t tell me that we’re in this together, and she’ll be treated the same,
Because white privilege is to blame.
You shift uncomfortably, but I’ll say it again: white privilege is to blame.
Don’t tell me that I don’t care about the plight of the white working classes
and I just talk about the brown masses.
I rhyme what I know, my own reality, because if I don’t who else will speak for me?
Don’t tell me that it’s alright, because I’m seen as middle class,
with my middle-class diction and my middle-class books
and my middle-class house but not my middle-class looks.
Don’t tell me that this report is all new and my words don’t ring true.
Don’t tell me it’s the same for me and for you.
Don’t tell me when you’re sitting in your meetings, reading your papers,
That you really care, that something will change, that you’ll make it all fair.
“Burning injustices” of inequality, for all us browns and all the in-betweens.
You say it’s not about race,
O, serpent heart, hid with a flow’ring face!
Fake contrition, deceitful remorse, you’ll make it your mission, but we know it’s all false.

 

So, don’t tell me not to worry, don’t tell me not to fret,
About schools and education because she’s young yet.
Because our child’s not white.
We’re being conscientious, because we have to be,
We don’t have the luxury
Of sitting back, no plan of attack, because our child’s not white.
Don’t tell me it’s just primary, for most that’s not the key,
Because our child’s not white.
We’ve got start young, we’ve got to get it right.
Because our child’s not white.
Lay a strong foundation, teach her how to fight, not with her fists, but with other might.
Because our child’s not white.

 

Do I sound angry? Well, maybe I am.
Do I sound vexed because we have to plan?
I shouldn’t have to do this, I shouldn’t have to fight, it really isn’t right.
But our child’s not white.
She won’t have the same chances, the same opportunities.
We have to do it ourselves, rewriting our histories.
Don’t tell me what to think, don’t tell me what to feel,
Don’t tell me how to act, your concern isn’t real.
We want to be the same as our white counterparts:
We want to be represented in movies and the arts.
And not just as terrorists and downtrodden wives,
but as complete human beings with regular lives.
Because until we’re all the same and until it’s all fair,
There’ll be someone like me to rant and to shout,
There’ll be someone like me, calling you out.
Don’t cry fake news and try to turn the tides;
I never used to worry about race, or class or social divides;
I used to tell my parents it wasn’t true,
until I became a parent and saw it all anew with fresh eyes.
I saw the injustice, the inequality.
I didn’t need a report like yours to open up my eyes and to make me see.
All it took was one little child, with her big brown eyes and her beautiful smile.
I looked at her face and I realised, I would stop at nothing, so I planned and devised,
to get her the best of every experience;
but when it came to schools, I was told:
you deserve a substandard one because of your postcode.
So, it comes true the gulf of disparity, the racial divide because of where we live,
A self-fulfilling prophesy, keep us subjugated throughout history.
The past and the present has become one and the same
It’s not a brick through the window but nothing much has changed.
It’s not a brick through the window but nothing much has changed.
It’s a pig’s heads now, he’s the Lord of the Flies –
What’s the matter? You look a bit surprised, surprised that I’d know that,
surprised that I’m clever, surprised that I’m cerebral? Well, I never!

 

Is my offense rank? Does it stink to high heaven?
But even knowing Hamlet won’t make me less foreign.
To you I’m still the same, but you don’t realise
I’ve covered up my hair, but not covered my brain.
My opinion is offensive, maybe to you,
people online defensive: these Muslims, these immigrants, these…cockroaches.
I’m flying while Muslim, and in these times,
thrown off a plane for risky Arabic lines.
As Salaamu Alaykum. InshaAllah. Allahu Akbar.
Don’t tell me I don’t have to care and she can go to school anywhere
And she’ll have the same chance, because that’s not right.
You won’t listen to our plight
Because our child’s not white.
You’ve got your own agenda, not the same as ours;
sitting in your suits, you exercise your powers,
feeling vindicated in your ivory towers.
Women worse off, always the women, always the girls,
Why do we suffer when you tighten up the purse?
Don’t tell me we’re the same, because your make up rubs off, revealing who you are.
Your make up rubs off, when my melanin does not.
I do have to care and I do have to shout,
Because unlike you and the privileged few,
Our child’s not white.

Covered

A tumultuous black sea between her fingers, the fabric waved and rippled.  Midnight without moonlight, just the way she wanted it.  Hair, face, skin, nothing should be showing.  Shadows loomed on the wall beside her as she pulled on one garment after another, cloaking herself in her own piety.

Control.  Islam.  Superiority. Continue reading

Busy Being Mediocre

When waiting for inspiration to strike, the best thing to do is just write.  Even if it’s mediocre.  Just write.  Write now.  That’s been your mantra for a while now, but it’s getting old and worn.  Like tired old boots.  You just dragged out another cliché, while your pen bled from the pain of doing what it hates so much: being mediocre. Continue reading

Miss Read

I’ve started post after post and left them unfinished recently. I’ve not published anything since December and this lack of output has only been exacerbated by recent events. It turns out a completely innocuous letter to my cousin who died of cancer can be scoured for perceived ‘dirt’ and used to spread malicious gossip. Here’s what happened: someone in my husband’s family read my last post, a letter to my cousin who recently died of cancer in Kashmir, took a partial sentence that alluded to my past and turned it into something it really wasn’t. Continue reading

Daddy’s Girl

In the wake of the decision taken in parliament to bomb Syria, this was written by my talented husband for Rahma.  Originally published as a Facebook post, I felt it deserved more publicity. Why? Read it and you’ll understand.

Daddy’s Girl

Daddy loves to hug his girl and cuddle her each night
And Daddy loves to know that she is safe and hold her tight Continue reading

Never Yours

“You come to ours and I’ll teach you how to make bread properly,” he said to his granddaughter.  “Using a bread maker is not really making bread at all.  It’s not proper bread.  I’ll teach you properly, not like how your Mum does it.”

He had wanted his son, his only son, to marry his niece, his favourite niece.  Even now, he spent as much time with her as he could whenever she came to their city to visit with her young son.  She was the daughter-in-law he had always wanted, but instead, he let his son choose.  The right thing to do, but only because he wanted to be so forward-thinking, so enlightened; deep down, he always wished he had been more firm about it.  But he couldn’t, he had always struggled to reconcile traditional cultural values with his desire to be progressive and western. But this one, she didn’t even like them and he could tell.  

Anila glanced at her toddler, conscious that she was more than likely listening, but didn’t really understand.  But soon she would, though Anila.  She’d understand soon and that’s when it’ll begin.  Your mum just isn’t good enough.  It’ll start small: the fact that Anila didn’t kneed her own bread, by hand, and instead chose to use a machine; then bigger things like the untidiness of the house.  Come round here if you want a tidy house.  Then the fact that Anila was so strict with sweet treats and food in general, desperately trying to stave off inevitable obesity and propensity to balloon that was so rife in her husband’s family.  You can’t eat this puttar, your Mum won’t let you.  It’s not us stopping you, your Mum won’t let you.    All the while subconsciously sending the message that life with them would be infinitely better. She knew her daughter had their genes, she was reminded of it every time a family member looked at her and made sure they announced she looked nothing like her mother and everything like her father; but she clung desperately to the anchor if she controlled her diet her baby wouldn’t succumb to the various food-related ailments that plagued them all.  It became an obsession, not allowing others to feed or cook for her; Anila took food with her every single time she went to their house, just to hammer the message home. The message that this was one thing about her daughter’s life she would control for as long as she could, though she could already see the belts and harnesses on the dining chairs, ready and waiting, patient and hungry for their next meal, licking their lips, preparing themselves. 

Aisha’s cries pulled her back into the room and Anila focussed her whole being towards her toddler.  It was about survival.  Don’t say anything, it really isn’t a big deal.  She repeated the refrain over and over inside her head until the words merged, crashing into each other, thudding, colliding, smashing something inside her.  Aisha had taken a tiny tumble and looked to her mother for comfort.  Inside herself, Anila made herself smile, so it showed on her face, reassuring and comforting, a mother’s smile. She willed the smile to reach her eyes, to show her daughter it was genuine, and as the smile travelled from her lips to her eyes, Anila inhaled.  She’ll never be yours, not really.  She doesn’t have your name.  

Sohni!A shrill cry pierced the room and cut through Anila’s thoughts.  “Oh my granddaughter’s here! Come to Dado!”  Anila handed Aisha over, the cargo she carried inside herself for nine months and a lifetime before that, a cargo intended for someone else.  As her Dado covered her face in kisses, Aisha struggled to free herself and get back to the floor so she could play.  

Making sure she was never too far away, Anila sat down, away from the the doting grandparents and watched surreptitiously, warily.  She was never quite at ease there, and never would be.  Something never felt right inside herself; she was an imposter they willingly let into their home, because she was married to their son.  Their only son.  She was reminded of that every time his mother spoke: “We only have the one son so…” A refrain that punctuated many of her sentences in the first few years of their marriage, it hung around Anila, following her around like pungent fog, threatening to engulf her; it was as if having one son and one daughter was somehow her fault, so she needed reminding for the first few years. She’ll never be yours, not really.  She’s their only grandchild.  

“Mama.” It was always statement from Aisha, a need for validation from her mother every so often.  She would always look to her, beckon her, then carry on playing.  Her anchor on the turbulent seas of babyhood, she still needed her mother. For the moment, Anila held onto that, Aisha needed her.  A teacup fell to the floor as she played and Aisha kicked it out of the way so she could shuffle closer to Anila.  “Mama.”  Her inlaws watched.  Bending towards her daughter, Anila stroked her head, murmuring words of encouragement, indicating she should go and play with her grandparents.  

Acha, you don’t pick her up and give her pyaar like you should.  You should give her pyaar when you pick her up,” said Aisha’s Grandmother, as if not kissing her would scar her.  

The kissing wasn’t for Aisha, it was for her grandmother.  Her words shrieked, “Kiss her so I can watch!” Anila pursed her lips, and tried to smile again.  She distanced herself further, determined not to be comfortable; in six years of marriage, she had stop trying to be comfortable, and instead strove for discomfort and estrangement, wearing them like stretch marks.  Pregnancy hadn’t blessed her with celebratory stretch marks to show she outwardly owned the scars of childbirth; it was another reason to believe Aisha was never hers: if she came from her, internal scars were not enough to prove it. She’ll never be yours, not really.  They love her more.  

Shuffling over to the toys, Aisha continued to play and drew all eyes magnetically towards herself.  Anila breathed a sigh of relief, a heavy sigh, burdened with demons of her own making.  Her thoughts plagued her because she allowed them to, invited them in and closed the door so they couldn’t get out again, creating her own monsters, moulding them lovingly, like children.  

“Do you want some chai?” Aisha’s grandmother broke open the door to her thoughts and came flooding back into her head.  

“Na, no thank you, I’ve just eaten. We just ate before we came.” She shifted in her seat. Do you want some?” Anila asked her husband, who was busy on his tablet computer. 

“No, I’m alright thanks.” 

“Have some. If not, have some fruit.  There’s lots of fruit in the kitchen.”

“We’re alright really, we will get something if we want it, honestly.” 

They must eat something before they went home, they must.  “I’ll get some nuts out then.” Aisha’s grandmother forced herself up from the floor and walked towards the living room door.  The possibility of her son and daughter-in-law not eating something, anything, before they left was unacceptable. It wasn’t about the food, it had stopped being about food years ago: it was about about control. Anila had taken her son, her only son and married him, had a child with him and taken him. When they came to visit, they would eat, whatever time it was.  She had taken him and she would eat.   Determined to make them eat, she ignored Anila’s protestations and requests that she just come and play with her granddaughter. She would eat. She had taken him.  It was the only way to have foie gras.  She had taken him.  

 Anila inhaled, welcoming the demons in, this time closing the door and bolting it harder, stifling herself.   In the kitchen, Aisha’s Grandmother ruminated on how many different types of nuts and biscuits she could load up onto one plate.  Holding his phone and dotingly watching his granddaughter, the image of his niece in his eyes, Aisha’s grandfather waited.  On the corner of the sofa, his son rested, excluded from their unholy triangle, pulled in three directions, yet somehow not included.    On the floor, Aisha played, oblivious to the struggle rolling in the storm clouds above her.  But soon, she won’t be oblivious, thought Anila, soon her mouth would be opened, soon, the food will be poured down her throat and the gavage would commence.  She’ll never be yours, not really.  The demon grinned.  They’ll make her theirs.  However they can.  

The Stroke Of A Pen Across A Page

You looked at me like you wished I was dead.  I saw your eyes.  Cold, hard, steely brown eyes, peeping out from beneath the hood of your scarf.  You couldn’t smile, you couldn’t return my salaam as doing so would be act of friendship, an act of humanity. And I’m not deserving of your humanity.  So you looked right through me, wishing me dead with those pudgy eyes, drilling holes into my soul.  

At first I didn’t realise why.  I questioned myself.  The slow tide of anxiety crept up from the pit of my stomach, ambling towards my chest, meandering upwards.  Then I realised.  Months ago, I asked you politely not to give my daughter your mobile phone as we were screen-free and you took offence.  Your boiling rage burnt me then as it still does.  It spilled over onto my hands, my face and chest; the hatred on your face made it ugly and twisted.  And still, those eyes: set back in your face, not round and large like eyes should be, but small, hard little marbles, recessed, unnatural, unpretty.

I tried to ignore it, but your passive aggression ate up everything in the room.  You spoke to others but your physical distance stifled me, bearing down like a weight on my chest.  Your silence filled up the room with hatred.  A hatred that your hijaab could not cover.  And I felt it again, like I felt it before:  the creeping, crawling anxiety, touching every organ as it moved its way up my body, into my chest, wrapping its fingers around my throat, squeezing, pressing.  I breathed hard.  I tried to push it down but it continued to gnaw at my insides while you were close by.  

I tried to leave the room.  I tried to get away from you.  But your rage followed me.  It clawed its way to my chest, sitting there, reminding me: you wanted me dead. Did you want me shrouded in that casket instead of the body that was actually there? The body we were all there to mourn? I always see it in those eyes, recessed into your face: you knew your nephew didn’t made the right choice; I was a choice you’d never approve of, no matter what.  I can’t help but wonder, if I left him tomorrow, would you be happy? Would you gloat? Would you try to find him another straight away? Would you offer to give my daughter to a more worthy woman? 

A million ‘what ifs’ float around my brain as I try to quash the juddering in my chest with the pathetic power of my breath.  My hands tingle as I realise I’m clenching them, even now, willing your rage to leave me alone.  My biggest fear isn’t you.  My biggest fear is I will be like this forever and pass it onto my tiny bundle of joy.  My biggest fear is she will turn out like you.  My biggest fear is I won’t be the woman I need to be for her to become the woman I want her to be.  My biggest fear is she will turn out like me.  My biggest fear is you.  

You look at me like I’m weak.  Like I’m a pathetic no thing.  And I am.  Because I can’t control the juddering in my chest when your passive aggression touches me with its cold steely fingers.  But at least you don’t know about it.  At least you can’t see how much you get under my skin and my soul. I save it for behind a closed bathroom door where I can hide with my shame.  Even my shame judges me; it looks down at me from the bathroom ceiling, mocking, sneering, shaking its head at my inability to cope without falling apart.  

You completed your Hajj, the most holy pilgrimage, a few years ago, and the scarf cemented itself to your head, but it could never cover your hatred.  Your hijaab didn’t change you, it just changed how much fabric the package came in.  If I was a nicer person myself, a better Muslim version of me, I could let you go, I could cover your faults with another hijaab.  That would be the right thing to do: speak good or remain silent. But I can’t do the right thing.  I found myself voiceless in front if you; that passive aggression silenced me.  There’s an unspoken rule amongst Pakistani Muslims: never, ever draw attention to the bullying aggression of an elder, it won’t be received kindly and you’ll get burned.  So I didn’t.  I left.  I left voiceless.  

But in writing, that’s where I will never remain voiceless, no matter what you do to me.  Write and be damned.  Write and deal with the consequences.  Write it down and send it away.  I know I said I wouldn’t, but now I will. From now on, that’s how I’ll fight back.  Mighty words that I never have the courage to say to your hate-filled tiny eyes.  Mighty word will become my allies and my armour.  That juddering you caused when you, sneering, refused to pick up my daughter’s hat that fell on the floor? That rage of yours that bore holes into my soul, filling me up with an uncontrollable anxiety? That pain? Be careful with that.  Because that pain you caused may just take you down with the stroke of a pen across a page.