I stand in the aisle of the school bus while the other seventh graders snicker and block me from sitting next to them, as they have for the entire school year. Taking my seat next to the bus driver, I look out to the road with resignation. My great-aunt, adorned in a colorful sari, waves goodbye to me while the entire school bus looks on. I want to disappear into the dingy brown vinyl bus seats. With the newfound cruelty of adolescence, I scoff and loudly tell my classmates, “That crazy lady is just my maid.”
I now find myself in a mixed marriage, mother to a 3-year-old mixed-race girl who easily passes for white. Her fair skin, auburn hair and light brown eyes do not even hint at her Pakistani background. When I tell people at gatherings that I speak Urdu at home, some are very concerned about whether my daughter will be confused. Yet some are the same families clamoring for their children to get accepted into French-immersion kindergartens. Strangers have asked me whether I am her real mother or have assumed that I’m her nanny. It’s not their belief about my profession that’s disturbing — it’s their certainty that my daughter and I can’t be related because of the colors of our skin.
The author is Seema Jilani. She is a pediatrician. The surname is a form of Gilani:
Gillani is the sub-caste of the Syed/Sayyid family who are descents of the Prophet Muhammad and trace their lineage back to Imam Ali, who was first cousin and close companion of Prophet Muhammad. The family lineage of the Gilanis refers to Sheykh Abdul Qadir Gilani, a famous 12th century Sufi Scholar from Gilan-e-Gharb, Iran, hence the surname…
I don’t know if the author’s father claims to be a Syed…but it seems likely that they did not come from the bottom half of Pakistani society. The author’s husband is a journalist at an elite publication (it is easy to find who she is married to). As a brown person with children who also “pass” as white, I have had some uncomfortable experiences. Since I am a male I am not usually confused for a nanny, but rather someone who kidnapped sweet little white children. But by and large, life goes on. It’s not that bad or oppressive. I assume white people also experience rudeness. They bleed. They are human. They have feelings.
Pieces such as the above fulfill a particular role in modern cultural ecology. Affluent white liberals who have experienced the “Great Awokening” on race present a demand for authentic experiences of racism from “people of color.” Many of these affluent white liberals don’t know “people of color” personally, so they “educate themselves” through the media which they consume. Unsurprisingly, the people who produce the sort of media which fulfills the demand are themselves socio-demographically exactly like affluent white liberals (to give credit to Ta-Nehisi Coates, he is the exception). Ask yourself, when was the last time you read an op-ed or think-piece from an Indian convenience store clerk or a Bangladeshi cab driver? Almost always the op-eds and think-pieces come from professionals who likely experience the least “macro” aggression and the most “micro” aggression, and, who can speak the language of affluent white liberals and know exactly how to say the correct things (very educated people in low-wage service sectors jobs who do ‘freelance’ writing are never immigrants, and almost always graduates of liberal arts colleges).
No working-class person says “white presenting.” No immigrant says “white presenting.” I have had friends in academia tell me that my children “present as white.” Their race is a “performance”, masking their essential non-whiteness which is passed down by blood from me. There’s a lot of “interrogate” here. But that’s not the point. Normal people, who don’t have a college degree, don’t talk or think like this.
The point of this post is to point to the reality that a particular type of assimilated upper-middle-class privileged brown American speaks for the brown experience, but their own experience is very curated, the most “comfortable” for affluent white liberals to process. The frankly racist (against black people) immigrant Bangladeshi cab driver who is spending all his disposable income on sending his children to test-prep academies to get them into Stuy is less relatable. Alien. You won’t hear his voice, and since many affluent white liberals don’t many nonwhites personally he’ll be invisible to them. “Erased” as they say.
These op-eds are basically white affluent white liberals in “brown face.”