Love, Life Stories

I’m Desi, but I grew up obsessed with being seen as a white girl

When people said I sounded white, I was happy.

I think it all began with the rejection of my name.

When my parents enrolled me in head start at the tender age of three, my white teachers had no idea how to pronounce my name. It was them who took the liberty of changing my name to Sarah – my brown name, difficult and different, needed to be replaced with something easier. It was something that stripped me of the uniqueness that reminded my immigrant parents of the lands their tribe called home. My name was the first connection to go – against my will.

And it was the first layer of Pakistani skin that was peeled off.

By the time I was in the fourth grade, I didn’t even know how to spell Sehrish anymore. In fact, in my school records, my parents had ensured Sarah was included, so I never even had to correct teachers on the first day of school and tell them my nickname. It was better that way; I didn’t have to hear them butcher my real name, and I was happy with people not knowing that I had a name that was foreign and different.

I was Sarah.

[bctt tweet=”I was happy with people not knowing that I had a name that was foreign and different.” username=”wearethetempest”]

During the summer before sixth grade, I visited Pakistan for the first time since I was a toddler. I suddenly had a renewed pride in being Pakistani. By the time school started, I was donning shalwaar kameez and other traditional Pakistani clothes as I happily trotted myself to school. I had no preference when people called me Sarah or Sehrish.

That didn’t last long. The constant bullying and loneliness that came along with being and looking different had me dragging my mom to various clothing stores so I could get the same baggy pants and sweaters that all the cool kids were wearing.

It would be the beginning of my specific hatred of going out in public while wearing the clothes of my parents and ancestors.

By the time I was in high school, I had taken a specific interest in the punk rock and underground hardcore music scenes. I was in love with bands such as NOFX, Good Charlotte, the Misfits, and other various bands that rejected conformity and being like everyone else. This intense interest wasn’t because I was Pakistani, but because I was a bullied kid who needed an outlet. My style fluctuated from gothic punk rock to emo as I copied the styles of all the scenester girls.

It’s ironic and funny, really. While I was joining a subculture all about not conforming and rejecting the system, I was doing everything to show that I had conformed and fit into that particular scene. I wanted to be like the pale white girls that dominated the subculture with their dyed black hair and heavyset eyeliner. I wanted the white boys in their tight jeans and girlish bangs to like me.

It never occurred to me that I would never fit in – no matter how hard I tried.

It was at this time that I became obsessed with rejecting all of my brownness and proving just how white I could be.

[bctt tweet=”While I was joining a subculture all about not conforming and rejecting the system, I was doing everything to show that I had conformed and fit into that particular scene.” username=”wearethetempest”]

When Pakistanis told me they envied my pale skin, I was ecstatic. There is little doubt in my mind that the internalized racism of my community fueled my own hatred of Pakistanis. They, too, were obsessed with white skin and copying the ways of the white people. But I took it further than they did. While they still proudly claimed their heritage and culture – and refused to let it go – I rejected it.

When people said I sounded white, I was happy. I started telling people that I was mutt instead of the pure Pakistani that I am. When people claimed that I did not look Pakistani at all, I told them it was because I was “barely Pakistani”.

“That’s why I’m so pale for a Pakistani,” I would tell people proudly. “One of my grandparents is white – Irish or British or something.” (Yes, the present me is CRINGING writing this).

In my early twenties, I stopped trying. Not so much because I realized that I wouldn’t fit in, but because I was too busy with college and work to care about fitting in anywhere. The only thing I really cared about was fitting into the Dean’s List. By then, I had internalized certain things. Most my professors knew me as Sarah while one particular professor and adviser of mine refused to acknowledge me as Sarah because I would “always be her Sehrish.” I still refused to wear Pakistani clothes in public and had a specific hatred of “fobs”. When people assumed I was “Persian” or Spanish, I didn’t care to correct them. I was indifferent. I was an assimilated American, and that was the only thing that mattered to me.

I’m not sure if there was an exact moment that I “woke up”, but during my graduate studies that often covered race, colonization, and imperialism, it started dawning on me just how much I was playing into the system of white superiority. Furthermore, as the global dialogue on Muslims and Islam gained steam, I found myself defending Islam and Muslim countries – including Pakistan. The Islamophobia that started running rampant all over social media and television pushed me to defend Muslims and Pakistan. I defended because my Muslim and Pakistani parents didn’t deserve the stereotypes and unfair treatment.

[bctt tweet=”I went from being Sarah the American who pretended to be a part-white girl to Sehrish/Sarah, a Pakistani-American woman who was proud of her heritage.” username=”wearethetempest”]

I also defended, because I realized that this was an attack on me: an attack on the part of me that I myself had attacked and rejected for so long. And as I started defending Pakistan and Muslims more, I started realizing just how precious this part of my identity was. I went from being Sarah the American who pretended to be a part-white girl to Sehrish/Sarah, a Pakistani-American woman who was proud of her heritage.

In retrospect, it’s frightening to see how close I was to the edge of letting everything that made me who I was, go. It’s even more troubling to see that the society that I live in is what encourages white superiority over cultural and racial uniqueness. My story is not unique. In fact, I can guarantee that many first-generation American born children of immigrants grapple with their race.

In 2013, my now-husband was invited to the Commander-in-Chief Inaugural Ball. As he wore the obligatory Air Force blues, I debated on a ball gown or something that I felt was more true to me.

I wore a black sari.

[bctt tweet=”It’s even more troubling to see that the society that I live in is what encourages white superiority over cultural and racial uniqueness.” username=”wearethetempest”]

“Where did you get that?” Countless people asked me as they fingered the delicate gold jewels on the embroidery.

[bctt tweet=”My story is not unique. ” username=”wearethetempest”]

An Indian Commander even commented on how nice it was that one of my Indian or Pakistani friends would give me such a beautiful sari.

My reply was the same every time.

“I’m actually Pakistani,” I would tell them proudly. “This is one of our formal dresses, and I felt like it was more fitting for me than a ball gown.”