One of my earliest memories of racism was when I was 9 years old. It's a memory that's always going to be with me, but for all the right reasons (you'll find out why soon). It was during a time when I started noticing that I wasn't like most of my friends or the people around me even. I was darker. I studied Urdu, instead of Chinese, Malay or Tamil. I didn't eat pork, but people were quick to assume that it was beef I didn't eat. But mostly it was because the colour of my skin was not as light as everyone else's. Other children were noticing it too, and a day wouldn't go by where I wouldn't hear about it.
This particular incident happened in my primary school, during those twilight moments between periods where one teacher left and we waited for the next to enter. It was a classroom of 45 third graders with 3 minutes of unsupervised freedom. Some might call it chaos. Me and Deepika, the only other Indian* girl in my class, happened to be sitting next to each other. We were minding our respective kid-businesses, when this Chinese** boy comes up to our tables...
"Eeeeeeeeeeeeee. So smelly! Smelly Indians!"
Being the non-confrontational person that I am, I look back down and ignore him.
"So dirty, never take shower! Go home!"
I shoot up a quick glance and return to ignoring him, feeling annoyed and scared at the same time. I hadn't done anything to him, why was he here bothering me?
"So black! You are black shit!!! Chao da!***"
I feel a surge of anger rushing up to my head, on the verge of yelling something dumb like "go away". But before I have a chance to react, I hear Deepika's high pitched, Hermione Granger-esque know-it-all voice - tinged with fury. She was coming for blood.
"Excuse me? Are you blind? My hair, this, this is black. Look at me. Look at my skin. This is not black."
At this point already I was internally screaming and clapping for my homegirl. You tell him! Dish out those facts! But then it gets better, and the following words have ever since been engrained in my soul.
"My skin is the colour of gold. I am golden."
My jaw may have dropped. I didn't know it then, but I was like literally shook. That's what empowerment felt like. I had never in my 9 years of existence heard anyone refer to me or my skin as something so beautiful, so valuable, so universal. It was the first of many revelations to come. It was a declaration of self-love. What a profound thing for a child to say. I often wonder who instilled her with this sense of confidence. They would have been so proud of this moment. Even when I think about it now, it's still so pleasantly surprising to me. It was life-altering. My world turned upside down and I was seeing things from a new perspective - one that didn't involve me constantly wishing I was like everyone else.
Verbal abuse and taunting is an unpleasant experience for anyone to go through, especially children, and I wish I could tell you that this was my only experience of it. Incidents like these turned out to be far more common than people would like to acknowledge it to be. It gets swept below the rug under the guise of "just being kids". But when we grow up, it masks casual racism as socially acceptable behaviour. Thanks to Deepika though, I learnt an important lesson from the onset about self worth and not taking crap from haters. I can confidently say it was after this day that I stopped being ashamed of a lot of my differences. I started opening up about things that I would usually try to hide.
Like the fact that I didn't know any Western music. At that age, I only knew and listened to Bollywood songs, because that and BBC News were the only things that played in my parents car.
Like the fact that I ate with my hands at home. It was much more efficient than clumsily struggling with a fork and spoon, constantly switching them between my hands - I could never remember which hand was meant to be used for which utensil.
Like the fact that I loved to wear shalwar kameez, but I rarely would in Singapore. I'd be so afraid that I was going to be made fun of, that I only wore them on Eid, Diwali or at weddings. This year I wore one while attending the Mulberry show at London Fashion Week. What a long way I've come.
This post barely scratches the surface of all the important and varying race issues (and all it's intersectionalities) that still need to be discussed, but for now it's a celebration of those golden words and the significance it's had in shaping who I am today. May we all have such empowering experiences. Stay golden.
Artwork by me.
Wearing: shalwar kameez from Amir Adnan, Junaid Jamshed and my tailor in Karachi.
* In Singapore if you're any kind of South Asian, you're simply labelled as Indian.
** The racial majority of Singapore. Equivalent to white people in a Western country. Yes, Chinese privilege is a real thing, guys.
*** Chao da = Burnt