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Submission 035

Is it Cuz I Is White?

Growing up as the only ‘white’ person in a school in Pakistan had made me all too
familiar with racism. I am actually of mixed race, my father being Pakistani and
my mother a white Britisher. Prior to my school years, I had never been made to
feel I was different from others and embraced both my White and Asian roots. My
peers, however, were not so accepting.

When I reached the age of five, my mother enrolled me in a renowned


‘International’ English medium school, where she had been offered a headship role
in the English and History Departments. The school prided itself on its high
academic standards and its affiliations with prestigious universities abroad. To
all extents and purposes, it would appear to be a model institution. However, I
was in for a rude awakening: the treatment I was to receive from my peers in the
first few weeks would forever alter my perception of the world around me and lead
me to constantly question my ethnic identity for years to come.

On my first day, I was understandably nervous about starting at my new school and
felt reluctant to leave my mother and attend my first lesson. However, I did not
really have a choice in the matter. I was left in the care of a tall, thin female
receptionist and led down a dimly lit corridor lined with perfectly identical
doors. I had expected to receive a warm welcome and be given a tour of the school,
but instead I was walked briskly down the corridor to my classroom at very end of
the hall.

Once comfortably seated, I was eager to make acquaintances and hopefully,


friends. Before leaving me in the care of the receptionist my mother had advised
me to ‘smile a lot, be nice to people and make a good first impression on your
teachers.’ I looked around the classroom observing the unnaturally unresponsive
petrified expressions on the sea of faces. This perception of my peers was
probably an illusion resulting from my own insecurities about the Kafkaesque
‘castle-like’ appearance of the school, associating it with the setting of some
evil-scientist horror movie.

At this time in my life, I was not particularly shy and during my first lesson I
made many vain attempts to communicate with my peers; for some such attempts I was
reprimanded, relinquishing my hopes of making a good first impression on my form
tutor. Perhaps I had an inherent tendency to suffer from acute paranoia, but I
sensed that my peers really did have a preconceived idea of my character based on
their own assumptions, which they used to justify by making me feel as if I were
not very welcome in the ‘community’. As the day progressed, my class spent most of
the day in our form room with little or no academic work, probably to get all the
children comfortably settled in. As it drew nearer to the end of the school day,
the majority of children had already settled into their own ‘gangs’ and proceeded
to play how most children play at that age: with blocks. I, however, remained in
the seat allocated to me upon my arrival and grew increasingly uncomfortable and
disheartened until I reached a point where I became so vexed by the prevailing
social arrangements ,which seemed to exclude me, that I chose to approach a
‘group’ on my own: BIG MISTAKE.

I made a bold move and sat down in the middle of the group of four, grabbing a
few discarded blocks, but before I even had the time to decide what to make, the
blocks were snatched from my hands by a short boy of dark complexion, who said in
Urdu, the native language of Pakistan “Oi Goray, kaiyeen aur ja kai khailo!” (‘Go
play somewhere else, white boy!’).

I was quite taken aback, not by what he had said, but by the sudden disappearance
of the blocks I had been so eager to play with. In my naïve childhood innocence,
little did I realize that I had just experienced my first taste of racial
discrimination: these children had been raised to associate my fair-skinned,
hybrid appearance with everything anti-Asian culture and, more importantly, anti-
Islam itself and would be looked down upon by their families if found to be
associating with me.

It was ironic; however, that they should embrace this set of values, since if
they were really so religious they would know that ‘religious and racial
tolerance’ was a fundamental component of their religious beliefs. Although it was
pointless to raise the issue, I always took comfort in the realisation that their
palpable hatred for me was not fuelled by a religious obligation but rather
stemmed from pure ignorance. Their bigotry was a direct result of being brought up
in a conservative domestic milieu, in which the values of the elders were
unquestionably imposed on and accepted by the younger generation and of being
immersed in a social environment that remained resistant to change and unreceptive
to external influences. This is largely the legacy, or should I say, the cultural
heritage, of Asian society: any deviation from this is tantamount to a gross lack
of respect and a betrayal of one’s cultural roots.

Nonetheless, this incident set the trend which would continue to manifest itself
throughout my school years at Choueifat. I had been naïve to think that in time I
would enjoy the same multi-cultural atmosphere as people back home in Britain.

Shortly after the tragedy of 9/11, droves of Pakistanis, who had previously
immigrated to the United States or to the United Kingdom, suddenly found that they
were the focus of western hostility and were subsequently subjected to religious
discrimination, since the West had consequently begun to equate Islam with
terrorism. Therefore, they were obliged, by force of circumstances, to return to
Pakistan. In order to facilitate the cultural transition, especially for the
generation that had been born, bred and educated in the States, they naturally
flooded into the most prestigious ‘International’ school in Pakistan.

Although the ever increasing burden of ‘ignoring’ the derogatory remarks, racist
jokes and occasional beatings rendered my school days miserable, I was delighted
to see a deluge of British and American Pakistanis pouring into the school. I had
hypothesized that these new arrivals would undoubtedly be more broad-minded than
the company I currently endured and that I would at last gain acceptance in
school. This again proved to be a naïve assumption and my hopes were devastatingly
shattered, as I became the subject of a different genre of racism: that of inverse
racism.

This new influx of individuals had been forced to leave their homes, lives and
friends behind because of the treatment they had received from the non-Muslims
back in the United States and in the UK: their businesses had been boycotted by a
society that suddenly refused to patronize them after the very symbol of its
economic prosperity had been imploded in an act of ruthless carnage. They were
returning to their indigenous country unwillingly and resentfully, feeling that
they were paying for mindless acts of genocide inflicted upon their adopted
countries, of which they proudly carried the official nationality and passports,
by an extremist minority who were operating independently beyond their control. By
default, perceived as a Westerner because I was not of a pure Asian background, I
now epitomized the West that had vengefully snatched their livelihood from them
and I embodied the race they now hated. They perceived me as the enemy incarnate
and seized the opportunity to deal out a little ‘pay back’.

Indeed, these Pakistanis, who had been born and bred in the UK or in the USA and
who had previously taken pride in stating that they were ‘British’ or ‘American’
dealt me a treatment similar to that which they had received prior to their
arrival in Pakistan. Disowning their British birth rights, they constantly
followed me around, goading me, hoping to provoke me into a fight by pushing me
around in gangs, almost going overboard to emphasize their indigenous Asian roots
by affirming, “I might be British, but at least I ain’t a Gora (white person)”. It
seemed as though they were even less sure about their own identity than I was.

Ironically, I had been in Pakistan since I was ten weeks old. Although I was born
in the U.K, my earliest recollections of childhood dated from Pakistan. The
closest I had been to the U.K was a comedy or film on U.K T.V that my mother might
have sat and watched in my presence, or a picture postcard that some of her
colleagues might have sent her from their summer vacations. I felt like a
Pakistani and I knew more about Pakistan and had seen more of the subcontinent
than they had. I had travelled from my hometown Lahore, (situated about nine miles
from the Indian border), up the famous Karakoram highway, the old silk route, and
gazed in awe at its majestic peaks. I had drunk my seven-up by the falls of
Rakaposhi, bought a souvenir T-shirt at the tourist shop by Nanga Parbat and
fallen asleep to the torrential currents of the river Indus at the final trading
point. I had lain awake in fear during mountain storms as they raged through the
Himalayas and swelled the tributaries of the mighty Indus to such an extent that I
imagined the whole Indus valley might burst its banks and team over the floodplain
into my hotel room. I had stood at the Khunjerab pass and asked the soldier at the
border if I could step over into China. ”Good luck to you!” he had jokingly
returned. ”We’re 17,500 feet above sea level and the nearest village is 200 miles
away. If you digress from the road you’ll disappear into the glacier. How far can
you walk without losing your breath?” One summer, ironically only five days before
9/11, we had driven over the 10,500 feet above sea level Lavari Pass, down the
Chitral valley in the heart of the Hindukush mountain range. I had climbed up the
stony foothills of the famous pagan Kalesh valley and looked down upon the rugged
barren beauty of Afghanistan. These ‘returning refugees’ from the West ,suddenly
embracing Pakistan after years of self inflicted exile, sought to rob me of my
only sense of identity. I had experienced nothing of the civilized, developed
world from whence they came, and yet they categorized me as the very race that had
driven them to a country their parents had happily emigrated from and largely
disowned a few decades before.

On one occasion, a British-Pakistani named Kamran, a brash Londoner of stocky


build and a less than threatening appearance, succeeded in causing me to stoop to
the lowest form of self-defence, by insulting my mother (the ultimate offence in
Asian culture) and then landing a punch in my face, following a bristly diatribe.
How was I supposed to react? Indubitably overcome by irrepressible rage, in a
single decisive moment, I resorted to taking a hard swing at him, catching the
unexpecting Kamran square in the jaw and throwing him off balance, sending him
reeling backwards and bringing him crashing down to the floor with a mouth full of
blood. Although in reality the scene was not quite so dramatic and probably an
image conjured up by a combination of imagination and wishful thinking, he was
nonetheless taken by surprise and injured.

It was the first time I had punched someone and was momentarily frozen as the
rage which had provoked my spasmodic execution of the blow dissipated into shock.
I had always perceived myself as a very frail person, physically inferior to my
peers and incapable of dealing any significant damage to anyone: a punching bag of
sorts.

This sudden turn of events was met with equal shock and even a little praise from
the spectators. However, I was given little time to bask in the glory of my first
victory, since a member of the School Discipline Department, Mr. Afzal, arrived on
the scene while making his daily rounds of the huge campus. He was a tall, sturdy
man with a resonant voice and a demeanour which demanded respect. He wore a
typically short army haircut that did not quite complement his bushy, black beard
which, as rumour had it, served as a camouflage for severe burns he had suffered
to the cheek and neck. Like the majority of the department members, he was a
hardened veteran, who had little tolerance for the ‘gross misconduct’ he had just
witnessed.

Naturally, all blame was apportioned to me by the witnesses who had originally
come to join in the fight and Kamran and I were led to the Principal’s office,
where we were both seated on opposite sides of the room and requested to write a
statement about the cause of the fight. Although I had never been in so much
trouble in my entire school life, I was gripped by a grim satisfaction knowing
with certainty that I had at least dealt Kamran a few broken teeth.

In the statement, I decided to pour out all the pent up frustration that I had
been suppressing and although I had been warned not to divulge the true cause of
the fight and the treatment I had received from my peers, who were now old enough
to realize they had acted wrongfully, I saw no reason in bottling up the truth any
longer.
My statement was a lengthy one; summarising all the ordeals I had been made to
endure at the hands of my peers, solely because of their narrow-minded attitude
about the colour of my skin and my ethnic origin. However, I need not have been
quite so graphically descriptive in my account, as there had apparently never been
any recorded cases of racism in the school. Moreover, had there been any, the
Director had certainly remained oblivious to them and hence failed to comprehend
the gravity of the situation and the impact it had had on me during my formative
years.

I cannot express the frustration I felt while attempting to elucidate the concept
of racial discrimination to the dense disciplinary body. Mr.Geha, the school
Director, together with his disciplinary subordinates, was dubious as to what
course of action to take due to the ‘obscurity of the incident’.

“He singled me out because I’m British! He started mouthing off and then suddenly
decided to take a swing at me,” I affirmed for the hundredth time, becoming
increasingly exasperated by the never ending interrogation which seemed to have
turned into a circular argument. “But that boy is also British!” came the ignorant
reply. “Yes! But he’s not white!” I retorted, becoming increasingly fatigued by my
apparently futile explanation which, incidentally, to my inward dismay, was
ironically beginning to come across as the most racist remark of all!

I had almost resigned myself to the fact that this incidence would be deemed to
have no significance and at the end of the day be treated simply as ‘an
unacceptable violation of school policy’ by the floundering, apathetic and, in my
opinion, ineffectual Discipline Department. This entire episode would probably
result in no more than a warning and a temporary exclusion for both of us, after
which we would return to school and I would be persecuted with a vengeance.

Panicking over their inability to resolve the issue, the Discipline Department
chose to involve my parents in the matter. My mother was made aware of the
incident later the same afternoon and summoned to the Principal’s office to help
resolve the issue. In the years during which I had been subjected to
discrimination, I had been able to confide my circumstances in my mother and
although she had always been sympathetic towards my plight, she had never been
able to assist me. Therefore, although she was naturally concerned, she was not
the least bit surprised by the news.

‘Shan has been in a fight with another boy,’ Mr.Geha informed her in a very
solemn manner, and he became even more alarmed when my mother appeared more
nonchalant and forbearing than distressed about the incident. She told them that
my actions were justified under the circumstances and that I had ‘been turning the
other cheek’ for years and had endured a great deal of unfair treatment due to the
fear that retaliation might lead to the very situation in which I now found
myself..
While all this was taking place, my initial panic had passed and I was beginning
to feel quite amused by the whole situation. Mr. Ejaz, the deputy head of the
Discipline Department, had been afraid to leave us unattended in case we decided
to pick up where we had left off. I dare say I may have very well been tempted to
go for a further bout as the effects of the adrenaline had not yet subsided and I
would have liked to box him again just for the sheer hell of it!

By now we had been informed that our parents had been briefed about the episode
and Kamran appeared so panic-stricken, that one might have deduced from his
expression that he was a prisoner on death row. I had figured out that however
intolerant of white people his parents might be, they would be even less accepting
of another blemish on his ‘not-so-spotless’ discipline record.

Meanwhile, regular lessons proceeded as usual, but the entire Discipline


Department had come to a standstill focusing solely on this ‘highly unusual’
incident. I was bewildered by the Discipline Department’s inability to solve such
a facile and self-explanatory issue, as the bulk of the Department consisted of
ex-army officers, including the Director; Mr.Geha, who had hired them, with
confidence in their ability as habituated disciplinarians.

Under normal circumstances, we would have been immediately excluded until further
notice, but the topic of racism was far too delicate to tackle in the conventional
manner and had to be approached with extreme caution, as the school’s reputation
as an ‘International’ and ‘non-sectarian, equal rights’ institution was at stake.

Eventually, Mr. Geha, an elderly Lebanese Arab male, who was typically sexist by
nature and cultural background, gave up trying to resolve the issue with my mother
and attributed his lack of success to her inability to be objective about her own
son and also to her being a ‘woman’. “Mrs. Bokhari, please send your husband in to
talk to me tomorrow morning,” he had instructed her, his whole tone suggesting
that he had every confidence that a ‘man to man’ interlocution would quickly bring
about a productive resolution and therefore an end to his dilemma.

According to my father, they had a ‘very nice chat’. Later that day the Director
called me to his office and in his advisory manner there was a veiled warning
about any future bouts of aggression. After all that, as I was exiting, he had the
cheek to enquire “By the way, what exactly did he say about your mother?” “Sorry
sir, I’d rather not talk about my mother.” I returned. He nodded understandingly
and dismissed me without further questioning.

Subsequently, I ceased to be the victim of bullying and the incident proved to


have been the climax of my persecution. Perhaps standing up for oneself earns one
a certain degree of social respect. The bitter feelings between me and my peers
gradually paled into insignificance and with mature hindsight, I can understand
the limitations of their perspective and therefore harbour no ill feelings. In
fact, since I moved to the U.K. they have made a tremendous effort to keep in
touch with me: perhaps absence does make the heart grow fonder. During my recent
visit to Pakistan for my cousin’s wedding, they came in droves to meet me. They
came bearing gifts, which in Asian culture, is usually expected on the part of the
visitor, not of the host. Had I born them any grudge, their goodwill would have
certainly dissipated it.

Having come from such a homogenous, conservative society the social mores of
which dictate that one must adhere to conventional values such as ‘arranged
marriages’ (i.e. not mixed marriages) and the resultant ‘hybrid offspring’ (i.e.
myself), the multi-ethnic flavour of London was a breath of fresh air. When I
first joined Canons High School, I must admit I met their policy of celebrating
cultural diversity with scepticism. However, having spent two years there, I now
realize that students have a genuine respect for all cultural ethnicities and
emerge from their time at Canons High School as more enriched and tolerant
individuals who make a positive contribution to society. There is no shortage of
academics in this world; however, broadminded individuals who have the capacity to
transcend cultural barriers and value the true essence of their fellow-men are few
and far between. Hence, I feel very privileged to have had the opportunity to
experience Canons High and I will always value my memories of this period in my
life and look back upon it as a happy one which more than compensated for any
bullying I may have experienced in my earlier childhood. In a sense it has
restored my faith in humanity. In future, should I encounter bigoted individuals;
I will regard their prejudice as a short coming inherent in themselves rather than
any reflection on myself.

Consequently, I have come to realize that many people fall prey to bullying at
some time in their lives. We are all different. Being different is not a bad
thing. It is this multifariousness within the human species which makes us who we
are and denotes our existence. Sadly, groups of individuals are predisposed to
instinctively perceiving these distinctive idiosyncrasies as inadequacies
incurring discrimination; rather than positive attributes which complement our
individuality. Nowadays, at least in this society, much emphasis is placed on
bullying. Consequently, we have come to realize that many people fall prey to
bullying at some time in their lives. Too often do people erroneously dismiss
bullying as an arbitrary ‘fact of life’; that must run its course, oblivious to
the dire reality of a victim’s affliction.

My awareness of this ‘fact of life’ has increased and I realize that it is almost
a ‘congenital need’ inherent in individuals to bully those who do not conform to
society’s norms and expectations and are therefore either different in some way or
in the minority. In his thesis ‘On The Jewish Question’, Karl Marx alludes to the
assertion that: ‘If the Jew had not existed, Hitler would have invented him’. Only
now can I fully comprehend the wisdom and truth in those words. Every society has
its ‘Hitler’, its persecutor or aggressor and every society has its ‘scapegoat’.
The scenario and the epoch change, but the principle remains the same. In the
microcosm of a school, a child might get victimized for his religious persuasion
or his ethnicity, and in the macrocosm of global politics, the International Bully
of the era ‘covets the resources and calls the tune’. Do we stand up for Human
Rights, or do we dance?