White Feminism

White Women Drive Me Crazy

Originally published by Buzzfeed, this personal essay got over 1 million views in 4 days and I received hundreds of responses from people it resonated with which felt very cool and important.

Yesterday I stepped on a white woman’s yoga mat by accident and she looked at me like she had woken up to me standing at the foot of her bed, like I had just suggested we murder her husband and run away together. She looked at me like I had escaped from a zoo, like a hippo had found its way into this Brooklyn yoga studio and was casually waiting for the 8 a.m. class to begin. She looked scared, like she had just found out that the world really did end in 2012, and she had been going to yoga three times a week since then for no reason, because she is actually a ghost.

She looked at me like I did not exist in her world; but here I was, and she did not know what to do with me.

Sometimes white women look at the rest of us like they are hungry. These are the kinds of white women who might refer to us as chocolate, or coffee with or without milk, or Princess Jasmine. Common accompanying behaviors include commenting obsessively on our features; asking us to speak languages we have nothing to do with; really trying to take selfies with us; an uncomfortably overblown interest in our lives (especially when they find out we have heritage from Egypt or other suitably palatable brown countries their ancestors have stolen from); and using the brown hand emojis.

They say, “Are you okay?” when they know we are thriving.

Sometimes they look at us with grief and pity, like they’re watching a UNICEF ad rather than a person dancing very discreetly to Moby at a bus stop. This look comes from a place of assumption — for example, “It must be hard to be a liberated Muslim woman (let me save you).” And then surprise — for example, “You are so articulate.”

Sometimes they look through us with a hard, vacant stare after we have said something funny or clever, or when we look even better than we usually do. This look is also employed when it becomes no longer convenient or safe to be allied with us, and can be turned on very quickly and without warning. They say, “Are you okay?” when they know we are thriving. They say, “Are you okay?” instead of “I feel uncomfortable,” because they are not used to feeling uncomfortable and they are happy for us to be the problem instead.

Sometimes, when we defend ourselves, white women look at us with the utmost fragility. They claim access to emotions such as fear and pain without missing a beat, like they were born to do it, before we can even dare to consider that we may be frightened or hurt, too. Their eyes rattle in their sockets, saying, “Why do you punish me for having such a big heart?”

On an East London playground in 1999, the kids are playing kiss-chase. It was a playground game and potential site of trauma for many of us, where boys chased girls and girls chased boys, and if you were caught you were kissed. I didn’t play because I didn’t want to chase the boys and also I wasn’t invited to play because the boys certainly did not want to chase me, but I watched, and I wished I was a boy and I wished my boobs would come quickly. My first crush was either Mary-Kate or Ashley; I don’t remember which. I sat in front of the television before school, 9 years old, buck-toothed and wiry headed, lost somewhere in the space between wanting to kiss her and wanting to be her. Looking at her shiny pug nose felt warm, like toast or wetting the bed, and I was happy alone, watching her through the glass.

White women, especially the monied ones, are so dangerous because they are allowed to be so soft. Stroke by stroke, they construct a type of womanhood that viciously negates the fact their bodies still function as agents of white supremacy. They are so gentle with themselves that they simply cannot comprehend that they could be oppressed and yet still oppressive.

White women are innocent until proven innocent until proven innocent.

We are taught to walk home with our keys between our fingers for protection from men in the night, but no one tells us how to defend ourselves from the white women who will try to ravage us from the inside out, with a smile, a comment, a betrayal, a vital inaction, a look. How they will choose comfort over effort, how they will read this and think I am talking about someone else, another pardon. And even if we are told, even if our mothers tuck us into bed with a warning, we won’t truly hear it, because white women are innocent until proven innocent until proven innocent.

On the beach last summer, my friend J said, “Think about Islamophobia, transphobia, slavery, prison … Black and brown men experience as much gender discrimination as white women.” And within the safety of a nonwhite circle of friends in the sunshine, with no white feelings to protect, no white shock to absorb, we leaned in and considered it: the person who asked J if they are a “rug dealer,” the racism and fetishization of feminism, and all of the times I have walked through a room of white women to stand next to a man of color without even thinking about it.

It’s funny, because sometimes a white woman is so delicate that I will elicit a full-blown horror reaction from her just by standing too close to her stuff, even though she is a white woman doing yoga and so in fact none of this was ever her stuff at all. It’s not funny, because this look becomes a call to the police, becomes another brown person incarcerated in a cell or a psych ward, another black person murdered. Despite having received more love in my life than is reasonable, and despite being told I am beautiful, as an instruction, from the beginning, this look is the reason I have always felt dirty — or at least never quite clean.

The look at the yoga studio felt familiar, like an old relative I had not seen in a while and didn’t want to see. As I registered the look, I regressed to the childhood version of myself who did not know why I was being looked at or what I had done wrong, but knew what humiliation felt like and knew what panic felt like and knew what it was like to be a wild animal, a beast or a pet. The depressed version of myself, unable to be looked at by anyone, watching British TV dramas with entirely white casts in the dark and feeling cozy, or some fake version of that. The adolescent version of myself getting hot for Mary-Kate, for Cameron, for Scarlett, waiting for them to notice me, lick my face, touch my hair. Brown people are the greatest time travelers, existing so many places at once and yet definitely also here.

This look is the reason I have always felt dirty — or at least never quite clean.

We eat eggs and I tell Y about how when I was 8 years old, I taught my white friend, B (actually called Becky), how to count to 10 in Urdu. How at school the next day she looked at her feet as she shuffled past me, and the white teacher pulled me aside and asked me why I was bullying Becky, because Becky’s mum said I was bullying Becky, and that maybe it would be best if I didn’t sit next to her anymore. She suggested this with the kind of half-arsed, sad-eyed, apologetic shrug that white women perform when it is less of a scene to administer psychological warfare against a brown child than it is to challenge your fellow white woman.

I remember well the acute shock and confusion of that day. I had been so damn sure Becky and I were having a good time. I felt so guilty, despite my mother’s insistence that Becky’s mother was a racist bitch and that I had done nothing wrong. I felt frightened of myself and my potential to hurt innocent white girls without even realizing it.

“It starts so young,” Y says, when I stop talking. “How we learn to doubt ourselves, second-guess our intuition, mistrust what we know to be true, and all because white people are meant to teach and not to be taught.” Eighteen years later, the affirmation still feels fresh, like it feels godly to tell this story to the person I love and not have to explain the experience of constant emotional contortion, not have to explain why it hurts.

About two years ago, I walked into some art event in downtown Manhattan, realized I was the only person of color there, and immediately walked out. I guess my time being a token was over. In this city where emergency vehicles wail like mothers, like the worst has already happened, I have learned not to live in the shadow of whiteness. I have learned that I am the sun, the object and the shadow. I have learned to bend over, to shake my arse, to put my fingers deep enough inside myself that at the age of 27 I finally put a tampon in right. Cleanliness is overrated, and I have always seen beauty in the city.

I dug my bare foot into the purple yoga mat and held the white woman’s gaze.

My first panic attack was on a Northern Line tube carriage in London during the summer of 2011. I didn’t know what anxiety was yet, but I had it pretty bad, and I had become obsessed with the fear that I would jump in front of a train or be blown up, should I successfully make it onto one. Despite having no idea how any type of bomb works, I would methodically check everyone’s hands to see what they were doing whenever I got on a train or bus. This was my secret, because I was ashamed that I had become the horrified white woman, but the more I tried to suppress her, the more anxious I became.

I did not expect to shout at the white woman with the yoga mat, because I do not shout. I cry, I stay in my bedroom for weeks, I write, I make sly remarks to people I love, I cut myself, and I slap people too hard on the arm when they make me laugh, but I don’t shout. Maybe I’ll prove them right if I shout: “Look, it speaks.”

A couple of years after that panic attack, I was standing in a huge crowd of white people at a music festival, wearing a backpack with some wires inside. I opened it to get something out and I registered a sharp feeling of gratitude that none of them seemed frightened of me. Guilt, even, that I had put them in a situation that could be perceived as a threat. I’m the bomb, I realized, standing there. I am the bomb. I had not become the horrified white woman; rather, her panic, disgust and fear, her grotesque theatre, had found a home inside me, and it had flourished to the point of saturation. I was seeing explosions everywhere because I was finally ready to explode.

“Listen, it was an innocent mistake,” I shouted at the horrified yoga woman. You could also call it a generally audible remark, or one tangible thing in a giant sea of mental fuckery. Innocent. I am innocent. I have always been innocent. “So if you could fucking relax I would really appreciate it.”

I walked away, waiting for remorse, shame or anxiety to visit, as they usually do after any sort of confrontation I get into in white people’s rooms. They did not come, and in the space they usually inhabit I felt something like peace, or at least it was quiet.

Later I ask my friends, “Is this what it feels like to give no fucks? Has my time finally come?”

“Sweet dominion over white emotion,” N replies with a slow smile. R the poet says, “I want their bigotry to die in public. I want to kill it enough to become human.” Emerging from a cloud of cigarette smoke, P announces, “I think Princess Jasmine was the first brown femme I had a crush on. I mean, she was such a great princess of color until white women ruined it.” We look at each other and laugh.

At work last week, my colleague pulled me aside hurriedly and said, “I’m really trying to work through something in therapy, but if I can’t, I might have to drop a bomb on you later, okay?” I said, “Okay,” but I also could have said, “Why do white people always want to drop bombs?” or “Sorry, this dumping ground is full” or “In 2017, can white women relax?”

I don’t know if I liked sleeping with white women because I’m queer or because they all smell so good. Like if I pressed my body against theirs and breathed deeply enough, some of their clean might rub off on me. I just wanted to feel clean. I wanted to smell good. These days I mask my smell with the scent of roses and a Burberry perfume I can’t afford and everyone says I smell good but I don’t fuck white women anymore. ●

Staying Alive Through Brexit: Racism, Mental Health & Emotional Labour

On Brexit, for Black Girl Dangerous.

It’s the night of the EU referendum. I am three thousand, four hundred and fifty-nine miles from London, my home town, and I am scrolling. The UK is sleeping but New York is five hours behind and I am here, trying to pet the dog and have a nice time at a BBQ, while watching the votes get counted. I report the result of each area to my American friends like one of those text message services you didn’t sign up for, and we talk about it even though none of us know what it means. I text my mum to tell her what has happened while she was sleeping and in the morning she replies, “whatever happens, happens” which I momentarily mistake for apathy.

A few days later I am at New York PRIDE’s Dyke March celebration. The music is good, the weather is good, I look good in the photos, my friends are nice and I am the most comfortably gay I have ever been. This should be a good or at least average day but I realize I am uncomfortable. My eyes are darting, focusing on everything and nothing and my chest is getting tighter with every step, until it almost feels solid. I recognize this as the beginning of a panic attack and excuse myself. As I leave, an intuitive friend asks me how I feel about Brexit. On a quiet corner I cry and gasp and try not to piss myself. Brexit. I have never felt so far from Home.

I am still awake at 5am, the tightness in my chest now a watermelon. It is hard to breathe. A dear friend from London has called and I struggle to speak loud enough for her to hear me. I am searching for hope like lost keys, it’s here somewhere, I just had it. She tells me a story to try and cheer me up, a story in which all is not lost and London, in all its super-diverse glory, in all its tolerance, prospers. In this story, my friend witnesses a drunk English man in London tell a group of Eastern European women he does not know that he is so glad they are there. I tell her that is not a happy story.

And the unhappy stories keep coming.

“Haven’t you gone home yet?”

“Paki”

“Would you like a banana with that?”

I think about my mother as a child in 70s Britain, quiet, skinny, hairy, brilliant. The oldest of four, she was tasked with protecting both her immigrant parents and her younger siblings from the constant threat of physical and psychic white violence. I think about my grandmother who kept a bucket of water underneath her letter-box just in case a burning rag or a firework visited in the night. I think about my sister, my cousins, their brown skin, their Muslim names. I try to stop thinking. Eventually I fall asleep with my fists clenched.

The leave voters are not the problem. They are the product of hundreds of years of colonial divide and rule, most recently implemented via a vicious austerity program that has nothing to do with migration, and everything to do with keeping the elite rich. I am most fearful of the white middle class liberals who voted to stay, who think they are Good White People but are actually People With Power Who Never Listen Because They Don’t Have To. These are the people who see themselves as separate from the leave voters and the black and brown people being attacked on the street; distinct, commentators with so much to say. I have spent hours, days and years in conversation with people like this, discussing structural inequality in the UK, isolation, fetishization, why I had to escape—and still they seem to think racism started a week ago.

They are the people who really scare me, because after this recent spike of hate crime normalizes, and we are left with the constant, low-key, micro-aggressive, soul-destroying racism that has always characterized life in the UK for people of colour, they will forget. They will continue to talk over us, to tell us we are “moderate Muslims”, to get paid to write and speak about things they know absolutely nothing about and to doubt us every time we try to talk about racism. To truly consider what life as a black or brown person of colour might feel like takes work – hard work, a rupture in a free existence and then inevitably, culpability. I have yet to meet a white person prepared to do that work, to step into that vulnerability. There are cheese and crackers that need to be eaten after all.

We can talk to the leave voters all we want, and we can blame old people if it makes us feel good, but they are not the people in charge now or in the future. They did not create this and this does not serve them. I am lucky enough to have experienced higher education among the elite, the artistic and political leaders of tomorrow. They are scary. They think their white liberalism is ***Flawless, they pretend to listen but they do not hear a thing, they use our bodies and our stories, they put our faces on their websites and they pretend they can’t see us when we finally collapse, just like their daddies did. They put our heads on sticks and call it multiculturalism.

As the days continue, well-meaning Americans make conversation with me about Brexit. Every time, I feel a wave of sickness, pain in my chest and a scramble of thoughts, flashbacks, half-words, reveries. I hold my stomach and speak through long, measured breaths. Despite moving to New York on a scholarship to study the mental health effects of oppression, I am finding it so, so hard to admit to myself that a news story is making me feel like I’m dying so many times a day. I wish the white people telling me that I need to be gentle, that I should talk to those who are different from me, had any idea what it feels like to be this tired.

We will talk. Right after we have dragged the UK’s legacy of violence from under its ugly, expensive carpet, after we have learned it, taught it, remembered it, accepted it as an explanation for everything we see. We can talk after we have taught our children mental and physical self defense. We can talk after we have spoken to each other, about mental health, survival, and the anti-blackness we perpetuate within our own communities of colour, oppressing black people in a space they should be safe. We have lots to talk about. If only middle class white people would stop talking.

In 1980 my mum, a first generation Pakistani living in North London, won a writing competition aged 16, using the prompt, An Event of Importance to my Community. In it she writes:

Today it is unsafe for any Asian person to walk down the street without his colour, speech, or dress being made fun of. You, the readers, may think that I am exaggerating, but the truth of the matter is, that no-one has yet realized the seriousness of racial prejudice… I fear that by the time we grow up, we will be too full of bitterness simply to sit down and talk things over. If anything isn’t done, we are going to explode and you will explode with us.

We explode every day and we piece ourselves together again. We explode for our ancestors, when we don’t expect it, and then again when we remember. We explode every time our trust is abused, every time it becomes obvious no-one heard us, every time we have to retreat, thicken our walls that keep us locked in, angry, safe. We explode.

Madonna Has Armpits

A few words on Madonna’s armpits for The Independent.

So, Madonna has armpits. She also has products to sell. Let’s just get this out of the way. Even if that armpit picture was timed to coincide with the release of her new advert, even if that was the case – that is besides the point. The point is, why is it, that still, in 2014, despite woman’s hour and twitter and feminist pop songs, a woman with body hair will get so much attention? Whether that attention comes in the form of a snigger on the street or dickheads like me writing articles about it. Why does it remain one of the unshakable truths of the universe, that if a woman makes the choice not to shave what her mama gave her, the human race, capable of designing video games, and building really tall buildings, and writing love letters, start hyperventilating and cursing and spitting at the sight of any hair below the eyebrows of a woman. What the hell is wrong with people?

The answer to that question dear friends is ‘the patriarchy’. I’ll give you the short version because it’s a really nice day and I’m getting bored of explaining that it is a very basic and very important human right that women be allowed to choose what they do with their bodies, with their minds, and yes, with their pubis. And no, women do not have a choice. If being jeered, humiliated and exposed, if being told you’re ugly over and over again, is the consequence of being hairy, that does not make a woman’s decision to remove it a choice, it makes it a necessity.  If it was a choice, Madonna having a hairy armpit or two would not be news, in the same way that if we lived any sort of half way decent existence, people not wearing make up would not be news. As my friend Ellie put it: “There are quite a lot of people who don’t wear make up. Mostly they’re called men.”

So why then, if women’s big bare faces and furry pits are so totally natural, if they are something that shouldn’t need to be celebrated or shamed but should be allowed to just exist the way that, you know, men’s do. Why did I drop my egg mayonnaise down my dress this morning from sheer excitement when I saw the picture? Because whether I like it or not, it is a brave thing to do. Women’s bodies gross everybody out so much that even for one of the world’s most powerful women, it is a brave thing to do. For some of the fierce feminist warriors that I know, leaving the house without make up on would be a brave thing to do. I believe there is no woman living in the Western world and soon, universe, for whom it is not a brave thing to do. Shall we all just take a quick moment to meditate on that?

I don’t care if Madonna is attention seeking, not least because that’s her job. I don’t even care if she glued it on, what Madonna did is an act of resistance. Now, I know we’re all waiting for Russell Brand to say something funny so we can share the video and call it a revolution, but fuck waiting. This is the revolution. Every time a girl is allowed to make real choices, rather than do what she has to, to survive, that is a revolution. Madonna’s armpit is the revolution. My armpit is the revolution. Beyoncé bringing feminism to millions of young people who otherwise might not have known about it is a revolution. Beyoncé in general is a revolution. Jennifer Lopez making valiant feminist statements to horrific music is a revolution. Men wearing make-up and singing La Isla Bonita on the harp is a revolution.

Madonna has a long history of subverting gender norms, and as she disclosed in this interview, a long history of hairy armpits. She said:

Drinking beer and smoking weed in the parking lot of my high school was not my idea of being rebellious, because that’s what everybody did. And I never wanted to do what everybody did. I thought it was cooler to not shave my legs or under my arms. I mean, why did God give us hair there anyways? Why didn’t guys have to shave there? Why was it accepted in Europe but not in America? No one could answer my questions in a satisfactory manner, so I pushed the envelope even further… But it was hard and it was lonely, and I had to dare myself every day to keep going… And I wondered if it was all worth it, but then I would pull myself together and look at a postcard of Frida Kahlo taped to my wall, and the sight of her mustache consoled me.

The issue of body hair is consistently dismissed as something feminists should be over. It will never be over because that girl that Madonna describes will always exist. That girl who wants to be allowed to be herself. I bet that picture is going up on some bedroom walls tonight.