“I continued avoiding the ethnicity section on surveys or simply ticking “other” so I wouldn’t have to admit it”. Yasmeen Thantrey shares her experience of navigating her asian identity.
I have brown skin and almond eyes. My hair is thick and black and grows in the wrong places. When it is sunny I get darker and when people ask me if I’m mixed race the answer is simply “no”. It has taken me twenty years to accept that I am Asian.
I am finding that as I am growing older, I am becoming more reflective. I cringe at my teenage years but also feel sad when I realise how far I have gone to reject my roots.
Growing up in a post 9/11 western society was never going to be easy, but as soon as Islamophobia became mainstream, and the news became biased, I conformed.
The first step was refusing to speak any Punjabi. This created long-lasting damage that I wish I could take back. I had a flimsy relationship with my grandparents on both sides because of this language barrier.
Refusing to wear a Shalwar kameez that had been lovingly bought back from Pakistan, unappreciated and unwanted, I would slump in my jeans and jumper and pick the polish from my fingers.
Then I became a vegetarian. It was an excuse to not eat halal meat, which was such an obvious identification of my family’s beliefs and faith. Videos on Facebook showing slaughter houses and rumours about how animals are killed according to the Qur’an made me want to disappear into darkness.I knew that behaviour like that isn’t condoned but I was too small and too ashamed to speak up.
I tried scrubbing my face with lemon juice and heaping on the sun cream to make me fairer. I longed for that gaunt pale grunge look to match my too-tight skinny jeans and studded belt. Being diagnosed with anaemia, I stopped taking supplements, because a symptom was pale skin.
I continued avoiding the ethnicity section on surveys or simply ticking “other” so I wouldn’t have to admit it. Telling people the long winded story of how “my dad is from Kenya but no, he’s not black” instead of honestly and proudly saying “I am Pakistani”.
But I also never understood why my ethnicity mattered if people couldn’t use the information to make a decision. Surely that would be discrimination? I still struggle seeing the point when applying for jobs or university, it makes me feel like a statistic.
Even though I do not identify as a Muslim now, I will always be connected to the faith because I was raised as one. Every time something terrible happens in the world and the word ‘terror’ is thrown about prematurely, I tense, hoping that it isn’t linked with a Muslim. This was not the Islam that I, and so many others, was raised with.
I am Pakistani. My name is Arabic, because yes, my family are Muslim. No, I’m not ashamed of that, and no, I am not going to repress that because that is my history and that is my culture. Now, what I am ashamed of is that the society that I grew up in made an eight year old make the conscious decision to reject who she is.
Photography by Yasmeen Thantrey