‘Tum tou goray key ghulam ho’ is an often used (where relevant) expression in my country of origin – uttered by one brown person to insult another. It is a derogatory accusation, which challenges your sense of self-worth, not as an individual but as an entire race. The slur stems from our white-on-brown (British-on-South Asian, American-on-South Asian) history of oppression and the evergreen imbalances of racial powers. It means ‘you are the white person’s slave.’ Tch tch, ahem.
But a lot of our behavior patterns do imply some element of truth to this aged insult. Being a ‘ghulam’ is also a state of mind.
Our obsession with becoming white on the outside, and the dark sense of inferiority we often feel in comparison on the inside. Promotion of fairness creams, and obvious or subliminal glorification of the concept of fair beauty. ‘Selecting’ the paler sister in their reconnaissance for eligible girls for their disgusting sons. Using English language as an asset – not an asset for your communication skills, but for feeling better about yourself in comparison to the Urdu-medium others.
These are all telltale signs of a chronic inferiority complex that has become part of our brown genes.
It even reflects in our body language around white people. The humble back, higher-than-usual nervous pitch, the intermittent fake accent, an apologetic presence, and that suspicion in your gut that makes you feel cheap even when your conscious mind is telling you otherwise.
In my country (of origin), where white people have over the years become rare, this is the reality with varying intensities whether we admit it or not.
But when you move to a North American country, your inherent lack of self-worth takes another dimension. Your levels of interaction change. That conscious mind's voice telling you that you are not inferior becomes more prominent, sometimes as a matter of fact, other times as a justification to feel better. And the gravity of the sense of entitlement surrounding you hits you like your mother’s stinging slap on your innocent skin. You realize you have lived a great part of your life on the other end of the spectrum, feeling like you are not entitled to much because of your ‘kind’. Your sense of self-worth temporarily disconnects from your history and gives way to bitter enlightenment. The fleeting realization of your shaped ignorance dawns on you briefly. And you say ‘damn my brown bubble’ when it pops!
The confused clarity gets worse when you see that the gross sense of entitlement comes with a desperate need for constant validation. As if the historic (and continuing) subservience of other races was not enough validation. It confuses me to no end, and sometimes secretly gives me pleasure.
In one of my previous jobs in Canada, I suffered immensely due to a racist superior (in the hierarchy). I did not blame her race. I blamed her upbringing. So I chose to cry over the shoulder of a colleague. I remember saying the ‘r’ word with tears in my eyes as I was still reeling from the shock of trading my insignificance as a woman in my old country with my insignificance as a South Asian newcomer in my new country. In response, my fair colleague urgently felt the need to mark her territory and piss all over my victimhood to claim it in a quick swoop. She reminded me that the organization has more people of colour in numbers, and it is she who feels like the under-privileged minority as a white, blonde, and blue-eyed woman (a straight Pakistani man’s dream girl).
I gagged, puked in my mouth a little, smiled with disturbed amusement, said ‘sure’ (sarcastically), and walked away learning my first cultural-anthropology lesson in Canada. Days later, I overheard that same colleague stating that it was I who had suggested the notion of her being an underprivileged white minority in this setting. She stole the discrimination I had experienced (which is my heritage, mind you) and made it sound like it was my idea. Ironic how she needed my validation to feel marginalized.
I moved on, and am continuing to find my place, my people and my significance in short spurts. I am fortunate to meet, every step of the way, wonderful people who disrupt my emerging generalizations, and give me positive space to re-discover my self-worth in my brown body – and in my bright mind that still thinks in Urdu.
I still come across situations where the out-of-proportion sense of entitlement neatly paired with the need for validation manifests itself in my Canadian interactions. I get baffled each time, becoming increasingly interested to understand this aspect of human behavior. Maybe understanding it would make me feel validated (I too am a fallible human)!
Despite all this enlightenment of mine, I still verbally wonder – with my other enlightened brown friends – how is it that when a white person walks into a room and takes space, gracefully or not, it seems so much more organic and confident than when we do? I practice walking in like that in my head, but often fall back into centuries of learning as a woman…as a brown woman – to be apologetic for her existence - in any country. Poor me!