A scroll down my Twitter timeline showed me the latest horror perpetrated against eight women, six of them Asian women in a shooting in Atlanta.
My heart sunk. #Stopasianhate was trending.
Under Covid-19, anti-Asian sentiment has soared with a spike in reported racial incidents; and now this horrific shooting targeting women at Asian-run spas.
I think back to my own experiences as a visibly Muslim Malay woman, growing up in Sydney. We arrived from Malaysia in 1996 when Pauline Hanson’s anti-Asian rhetoric was in full swing. It made it clear my family and I were not welcome. High school was already challenging enough, and worsened because my Asian classmates and I were bullied by some of our Arab classmates.
It didn’t end there. There were the microaggressions I experienced at university: an elderly man complimented me on how well I spoke English. A smiling girl told me, “You’ve got that 'thing' on your head, you’ll be fine,” when it was raining after our chemistry lecture, right before running off, hands over her bright red hair.
There was the English lecturer who made me – the only brown hijabi in a sea of white faces - shrink in my seat by reading out an unflattering poem about a Muslim woman who wore a face-veil (niqab) on a tram in Melbourne. I spoke to him after my lecture about how offensive that poem was. He smiled at me and said I was welcome to raise my hand and discuss it in class.
All three incidents left me feeling bewildered, hurt, angry but unable to understand why – not until many years later. These were the beginning of a thousand cuts I would experience simply by openly existing as a hijabi Malay Muslim woman.
There was also the sexual fetishisation I experienced in the office while I was in my 20s. One of my white male colleagues telling me I was the office’s 'forbidden fruit' because I was the hijabi Asian woman who didn’t date. I laughed uncomfortably. I was working as a telemarketer to save up money for my ticket and expenses for Jordan. Another colleague – Arab this time - warned me that in Jordan, because I was an Asian woman, I would automatically be considered a maid and treated poorly. I was appalled, but not surprised.
There were the incidents of outward hostility – I was yelled at by a bunch of young men in a car while I was walking down Haldon Street in Sydney’s Lakemba: “Go back to your own country!”. I was yelled at again at night in Central Station while I was waiting for my train home, by a man who said, “The French did the right thing!” At first, I was afraid because I was alone, and it was at night, but then rage surged through me because I knew he was talking about the hijab ban. I got up and yelled back – I don’t even remember what I said – then he and his friend backed away in surprise into their train. Shaking with anger, I spoke to a female security guard about what happened. “I’m sorry that happened. Not everyone is like that,” she reassured me.
Not everyone is like that, but too many are.
I am a walking target for three reasons – I am a woman, I am Asian, and I wear hijab. To live in the West as a visibly Muslim Asian woman of colour is to live with an undercurrent of fear. To be seen as less than human.
In 2019, a white supremacist murdered 51 Muslim children, men and women at two mosques in Christchurch. A white man has murdered again in Atlanta, this time targeting Asian-run spas. And there will be a next time. As much as it makes me sick, I know there will be a next time.
I think of my three little biracial children growing up in this era.
They are half-Malay, half-Indian—100 per cent Asian. They’re small enough for me to keep safe at this exhausting stage of parenting. Their needs are simple, and at this point, my husband and I are their entire world.
They don’t know anything about being a racial minority, because they’re now growing up in Malaysia (I moved back in 2014), where the norm is to be Asian.
We’ve carved out a good life here, with my kids, my husband and mother-in-law, and so far, the worst that’s happened is an angry little Malay boy telling my daughter, “You’re Indian!”
My daughter’s quick, hurt denial (“No, I’m not!”) broke my heart. I speak to my children about how they’re both Malay and Indian, and how beautiful it is to draw from two rich cultures. Here, we are safe enough to thrive.
When they become old enough to leave home at some impossible, bittersweet point many years from now – I fear for them. I fear that ever-spreading tentacles of white supremacy will hurt my children. There is no way they can ever be white-passing. If my daughters choose to wear hijab like me, then they will have three targets on their back – Asian. Muslim. Woman - just like me.
My son, although lighter-skinned than my husband, will still grow up into a brown man. I fear that the growing flames of white supremacy, fanned by hate speech, will reach them and hurt them, just as it has hurt me.
I have no control over their futures. All I can do is love them in the present and teach them that they are inherently worthy for being exactly who they are.
Part of me doesn’t ever want them to leave Malaysia but that is a futile hope. All children leave the family nest. All parents worry about their children. I just wish I didn’t have to also worry about a white man with a gun.
Raidah Shah Idil is a freelance writer. You can follow Raidah on Twitter @raidahshahidil.