The Responsibility of Representation

The burden of being ‘different’ is felt by all who are, I’m sure. But sometimes I think I have underestimated that burden itself. Sometimes I have not realised the significance of my brown face and covered hair, my actions and my words. The significance to those around me, not all, but many.

The burden of representation.

What I mean is that sometimes when you are the only example of a brown muslim woman in a place i.e. a Cambridge college – you often become (unwillingly, unwittingly, unconsentingly) the example of a brown muslim woman. This can at first seem fine. What of it? It is the nature of a place lacking diversity. But when you think about it, it’s terrifying. If you weren’t there then there would be no example. And fine as that may seem, when you one day realise the impact your very existence has on people’s understandings of brown people, muslim people and brown muslim female people – the enormity of the burden of your presence hits you.

It comes in dribbles and in floods. Through chatting to people in the cafeteria; through mentioning you need to go ‘pray’ in the middle of pre-drinks; through explaining why you wear the hijab to your friends; through being the point of contact that people seem to make when asking for any opinions on anything to do with the ‘non-Europe’ or ‘non-Christian’ world; through becoming the inadvertent defender of ‘Islamic Feminism’ by simply being one; through existing in spaces people never thought you could. And I promise I am not overstating it’s importance, because I myself would honestly not have considered it had people not told me. From friends telling me that they’ve learnt so much about the world through hearing my experiences, to strangers asking me to enlighten them on Islam – as the only visible representation of it they can see. People ask me about their presumptions, perceptions etc and often tell me how talking to me has ‘enlightened’ them. That may sound lovely, an ego-boost in fact, but more often than not it’s terrifying.

First it is exhausting, but second it is scary. If I hadn’t been there to say the thing, to do the thing, to refute the generalisation, to not fit the stereotype – then they would never have realised their own ignorance – seems to be the implication. And that is scary in of itself of course, but also scary in the burden it puts on my existence. In my actions I am not allowed to be anonymous, to be intimately human – but instead I ‘enlighten’ people’s perceptions of entire categories of people  who identify in similar ways to the ways I might. Of course you could say that that’s silly and the burden is in my mind, I should do as I please – and I do tend to – but when you consider that often, as a person who is clearly ‘different’ in a place which is largely lacking in diversity, you are the only example around – then your words, actions and choices take on new significance. In fact, your existence does. And that may sound over the top but today it really hit me.

I met up with my best friend from home today. We both went to the same primary school and high school, grew up in the same multicultural area etc. She would wait for me at lunchtimes when I prayed in empty classrooms, she saw me decide to wear the hijab, she witnessed every Ramadan I fasted since the very start. I was normalised to her, she was socialised to me. Brown and muslim people were no rarity, my existence was unimportant for who I was, other than her best friend. Today whilst we caught up she told me about the ignorance of her peers at a different University in the UK. She said the topic of Islam often came up and that she often had to weigh in and refute, challenge and clarify ignorance and misunderstandings. She chuckled saying that her expertise relied solely on her experience of being my friend.

there you were thinking you were just existing

That hit me. Because in all those little things you do which make up your life you never intend them to be taken as points of reference for entire groups of people. But in merely existing by her side, she used my existence to de-mystify and ‘enlighten’ people on their ignorance on the other side of the country. Of course that relives me and thrills me. I am overjoyed that our friendship has had that impact. But again, it terrifies me. Had she never known me, had her friends never known her – then all that ignorance would remain and all those assumptions would go unquestioned.

…Which makes me realise that they must and do – prolifically – all over the place and all the time where simply through ignorance people proliferate generalisations. Of course there is value in knowing a person who can challenge your generalisations, but what angers me is that people cannot simply question their own assumptions or work to expand their own knowledge without being forced into shock that their stereotypes may be wrong simply because of someone’s existence. The woman that asked me to give her my email address so that she could find out more about Islam, the boy who said he’d never have thought the hijab could mean anything other than oppression had he not had a fleeting conversation with me…. all these examples terrify me. How much ignorance goes on? And why oh why must it rely on black, brown, muslim and ‘othered’ people to exist in ways that defy the generalisations propagated by wider culture to make people first think?

This is the burden of being brown that I am talking about. Being the unasked representative of your race, religion and gender is exhausting, and frankly, terrifying in what it implies about the masses of this country.

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