Recently I presented before a cohort of teens at a private school in Australia, speaking about human rights. For the most part, the session went well with some excellent questions from the floor. After the talk, a group of four boys approached me.
One proceeded to talk at me about ‘why Islam and Western Democracy could not exist’. He insisted it was obvious that Muslim women had no rights and were forced to cover up and that if I believed otherwise, I was ‘really being ignorant’. I recall being momentarily struck by his brazenness, reminding myself that he was likely sixteen years old and that I was fasting, at the time.
I realised quickly he and his friends weren’t engaging in a conversation, because they had all the answers. Obviously.
Through a fatigued smile, I argued the deficiencies of his case stating that my lived experience as a Muslim minority in the west posed no such issues, and that stereotypical perceptions created unfair examples for all religions, including Christianity through the Ku Klux Klan, for example. I realised quickly he and his friends weren’t engaging in a conversation, because they had all the answers. Obviously.
And yet, this is why I do these talks, in the hope that my message filters through to one of these kids, who might typically fulfill their destiny of an elite private school education and transition seamlessly into a role as one of our nation’s future MPs, CEOs, editors or judges.
The micro aggressions we endure in the course of schooling, working, travelling and just existing are a banal reality to which we are inured.
The struggle to be respected and included in private and professional spaces is a long uphill battle for women of colour. The micro aggressions we endure in the course of schooling, working, travelling and just existing are a banal reality to which we are inured.
As a seasoned speaker who happens to be a coloured Muslim woman, it has taken me years to establish a public voice in spaces typically dominated by majority Anglo-Australian persons. Asserting myself against misconceptions others harbour is commonplace. Exchanges sometimes border on awkward as I'm asked to explain my beliefs, dress and sometimes, the political underpinnings of a Muslim majority nation I have no connection to.
Challenges also prevail in dialogue within migrant Muslim communities with some men talking down to me, feeling the need to assert cultural dominance over ‘who speaks’ and ‘who listens’. To this end, fighting racism and patriarchy is sadly, my norm.
I was questioned by a white woman participant about why I felt the need to identify as a woman of colour.
The double whammy of dealing with this is compounded when I experience backlash in some progressive women’s spaces. At a recent presentation on diversity in leadership before a cohort of emerging women leaders, I was questioned by a white woman participant about why I felt the need to identify as a woman of colour. She argued by mentioning race I was making it an issue; it never ceases to surprise me how racism causes discomfort to those who don’t experience it.
I cannot emphasise how emotionally exhausting these struggles are.
I explained to her that erasing race from the conversation ignored discriminatory realities women of colour experience specifically – and asking us to not bring it up is the very reason it must be named. I cannot emphasise how emotionally exhausting these struggles are.
The burden of unpacking bigotry should not weigh on the shoulders of people and women of colour, specifically, as they continue to navigate their way through social, professional and personal minefields that continually locate them as interlopers - in worlds where they battle for the cultural capital others embody with ease.
While it may seem easier to believe that we just ‘need to work harder’ to gain success, we know otherwise. Any shortcomings we possess are disproportionately targeted and racialised.
Conversely our successes are seen as exceptional or glossed over as the outcome of affirmative action and tokenism. The effect of both is to reduce self-esteem and to diminish – you can never win.
A colleague of mine working in the migrant service sector shared with me an experience during a review where an opportunity was provided to anonymously share ideas about improving the work place.
When the suggestion was offered that a more culturally diverse staff might be conducive to servicing the diverse needs of the clients, a staff member of Anglo-Celtic background broke down and cried. Apparently she felt very emotional about the fact that her community of British ancestry lacked representation. Seriously.
It is precisely the silencing of minority voices in this vein when it comes to real structural change that reinforces systems of prejudice and prevents meaningful change from occurring, beyond token ribbons and banquet celebrations.
People are not born racist; that is nurtured, not natured. What is worrying is the more dangerous form of exclusion from power at the highest levels of society, politics, law and publishing and how that shapes the reality of those at the bottom. Through covert and overt messaging from media, leaders and communities, these views are brewed to create a narrative of privilege that is invisible to those who benefit from it.
As women of colour, we do not lack agency or capacity, but rather, opportunity. It would appear the opportunities for success for women of colour are scant unless we are willing to fight for them or make enough noise that we ruffle some delicate institutional feathers. For this reason, we should not apologise for disrupting the status quo, but rather be applauded for fixing it.
Let’s not wait for a seat at the proverbial table of decision making and just grab one. Or better yet – let's make our own tables with way better food. Food that we make and profit from and get credit for and is not diluted for fragile personalities. It’s time for a masala revolution.
Tasneem Chopra is a cross-cultural consultant. You can follow her on Twitter: @TasChop.
Is Australia Sexist? premieres on SBS Australia, 4 December, 8.40pm, and will be available to stream at SBS On Demand.