A reflection on being a person of colour by Ronia Ibrahim
I recently moved to Newtown. It’s a place populated with an abundance of people that look like me; look more than me. Here there are Somalis; Indians; Chinese; Filipinos; Pacific Islanders. Heck, there’s even heaps of Muslims, a small mosque, and two halal butchers. I grew up in Lower Hutt and as a child, Newtown was just a distant destination: where we went to buy our spices from a particular Indian grocer; where we bought meat from the only halal butcher in Wellington. These days that grocer has closed down, and now I’m sometimes-vegan, and the halal butcher business has expanded through the rest of the Wellington region.
These days, I am also awakening to the fact of how whitewashed I feel. In theory I should feel the opposite — I am supposed to be the love child-dumpling from the melting pot metaphor: I come from a mixed background, half Chinese and half Bangladeshi. On top of that, I am also a child of immigrants and a visibly Muslim woman. Carrying these labels begins to feel trivial though, as I’m entering more spheres like Newtown, where suddenly I am not a minority, I am normal, and my race is something that’s just a by-product of who I am, not a defining factor.
Growing up, I was made to feel like a spectacle. I was different, by default. The food I brought to school, the clothes I wore, the religion I practised, these were all treated as alien. The henna on my hands was a disease. The dumplings in my lunchbox were gross. The language and the culture of my parents was a joke. My whakapapa was a subject of shame and alienation. As a result, I distanced myself from my culture, often diluting or refusing to express that part of myself for the comfort of others, and to keep myself safe. Realising this now has brought a lot of guilt and attempts to reconcile with the internalised hatred. Acquiring more POC friends has also been very helpful in embracing my religious and cultural identity after years of hiding away. But it’s also made me feel like a fake. Unlike my friends, I can’t fluently speak my parents’ languages, I can’t cook curry, I don’t own any cultural clothes, and I don’t even know what my own name means.
In Gen Z culture, Main Character Syndrome is an inside joke/coping mechanism that involves thinking of oneself as the main character of their own movie; each day is simply a scene playing out; each affliction necessary for character development; each achievement proof of my protagonism. In my first year of University, while wrestling with a new, relentless feeling of emptiness, I took to this coping mechanism a little too well. I attributed my depression to simply a matter of character development: plot that needed to be resolved by filling that gap with hours at the gym, impulsively booking a table at Zinefest, and drowning myself in my studies.
Assignments were opportunities to not-so-subtly investigate my own life and identity. I would shamelessly insert myself into the English Literature canon, spending a few minutes during assignments to weep quietly or stare blankly at the question sheets, suddenly overcome with the revelation that I had skewed my current life experience to match exactly the dilemmas of Anne Elliot in Persuasion. In my final Photographics project, I did a series of self portraits showcasing my Chinese culture. In my NZ Literature class, I channeled my inner Tayi Tibble with a prose-poetry piece on encountering racism in childhood. Recently for my Comics class, I wrote and illustrated a whole comic-zine on my “racial imposter syndrome.”
There’s a certain revelation you experience when you’re surrounded by brown people who seem to be very comfortable with being brown
I never really had an identity crisis until I went to Uni. That’s not to say I was so sure of myself throughout school, but when you get to the tertiary sphere everyone is just so woke and everyone questions everything, whether you’re stoned or sober. I relish in it, the deeply existential side of academia. Makes me feel smart and important. In some maniacally redundant way, the loaded questions of who you are and where you come from just become abstract analyses. It’s kind of self-flattering. Oh I’m worth questioning? I’m the study, the specimen? It’s a fun experiment: to zoom out and refer to yourself in third person, attempt to understand someone you’re supposed to know better than everyone, but whom you’re actually not sure about at all.
There’s a certain revelation you experience when you’re surrounded by brown people who seem to be very comfortable with being brown. People who simply live, seemingly without this perpetual existential anxiety. In recent months I have been trying to re-learn and reconnect with my cultural identity. I consume to absorb: I eat my parent’s food with a new, self-aware presence, savouring each cardamom and peppercorn. I attempt to drink chai. I studiously listen to Bollywood music, hoping that the supposed sounds of South Asia will embed in my brain and will trigger some flourishing, cultural awakening. I create to know: by rambling in these essays, ranting in slam poetry, lamenting in my zines and poems, trying to prove to the world, but mostly myself, that I know how to be brown, that I’ve done it all along. But as I try to “catch up” with cultures I sought so long to repress, I start to think that maybe I’m doing it wrong. The revelation comes to me when I’m walking down Riddiford Street, passing the faces that should feel familiar to me but make me feel so out of place. I realise I may have been pretending the whole time. Because what is writing essays, reading poems and putting flag emojis in your bio, if not merely a signal, a performance of one’s cultural heritage? What if talking about my brownness is just a distraction from the truth of my actually fragmented, illusion of identity?
So maybe it was pure coincidence, but I couldn’t help but see the irony, or the unfortunate plot point that had been handed to me, when the only Indian clothing store in Newtown, Rachna’s, (est 1987) announced its relocation, shortly after I had moved in. WE ARE MOVING it read, TO OUR NEW STORE IN LOWER HUTT. Crap. After realising I had thrown out all my cultural clothing, I had been looking for a salwar kameez to wear for the first time in years. But perhaps the world knew what I was up to. Rachna’s was swapping places with me, relocating to my hometown as soon as I had arrived in an aura of displacement. It knew that I had been faking it this whole time, and it was not about to let me put on my costume. I was only a brown woman by blood, and the fragile skin I had sewn myself — the guise of creative expression and solemn reconciliation — was only a distraction from the gaping, jalebi-sized hole in my identity.
Writing and creating content about my experience being a POC in Aotearoa is valid and important. But in some ways I question the morality of letting others relish my pain, and that I am being narcissistic. To be narcissistic, though, is to be full of self admiration, which is vastly uncharacteristic for me. “Egotistical,” Harry Ricketts, my creative writing lecturer offered, and I guess that’s true. I can’t help it that life feels like one big feature length film for me. It is both a blessing and a curse, to go about your day and find that somehow, the assortment of cabinet food at the cafe, or the way the bus driver looked at me this morning, is somehow a metaphor for the meaning of life. It is for that reason, I suppose, that I am a writer.
A common dilemma many POC creators face is feeling obligated to make work centered on our ethnic identity in order to be noticed
For someone who often feels really brown and really small, standing at a local poetry reading or sitting in a classroom, it can feel really empowering to be given the space to detail my experiences. But it also becomes a repetitive, tiring narrative. Justifying my worth because of the colour of my skin is already an everyday reality, yet often it seems I will only be heard when I serve trauma on a silver platter. There’s this common dilemma many POC creators face, where we feel obligated to make work centered on our ethnic identity in order to be noticed, where our voices are only valuable for our “foreignness.” My first poem published was a piece recounting the racism I experienced in primary school. While I was ecstatic that I was being published in a national journal, I also couldn’t help but feel as if my work was only valuable because of the diversity I brought to the lineup, and not because the poem was genuinely good (it was honestly pretty mediocre). I’m grateful to have been given a platform, and to be a voice for stories that need to be told, but something about the responsibility of that, paired with the guilt of not feeling like the right voice anyway, makes it an achievement difficult to celebrate.
But I’ve also accepted the fact that often, my life will feel a bit like a one woman show. Standing out from the crowd is an everyday reality, so I may as well make use of it. Recently I went to see The Mourning After, a play by Sri Lankan writer Ahi Karunaharan, and the final solo show of Peter Paka Paratene at Parliament, as part of Kia Mau Festival. Karunaharan’s play detailed the stories of a Sri Lankan family after the devastation of the Boxing Day tsunami, featuring complimentary chai, a live band and a stage covered in sand. At Parliament, sitting next to the friends and whanau of Paratene, it was touching to celebrate his life and mahi, despite not sharing these memories, but still feeling connected to them. Even as an audience member, their stories make me feel seen and proud to be a person of colour and an artist. As I leave these shows — like the narcissist, or the specimen, or the egotistical artist I am —I make a silent reminder to myself to actually write that solo show I keep saying I’ll do.
In some strange turn of events, or character arc, being an artist has turned my fear of being a spectacle to having an insatiable need to be looked at. Art and art-making helps me imagine that: all the loathed stares; the lunch my parents made rotting in the rubbish bin of my Year 2 class; the minuscule Bangla and the broken Mandarin; the boys at high school who yelled “alla-hakbah” at me every lunchtime; the inability to feel joy; and the constant feeling of smallness, can be justified. It helps me find a reason to keep going; to keep believing that there is cohesion within the chaos; that this feeling of all consuming grief has purpose, is proof of my protagonism.
But it also feels like the guilt and yearning I hold now is a punishment. That this is payback for years of denial and hatred. That the guilt I carry will fester into an uglier form of shame, the kind that is irreversible, that is sinister and looks you in the face and tells you, it is your fault and you are paying for it now and you will carry this for the rest of your life, you will wrestle with these feelings of isolation and this unending yearning for something you never had.
Or maybe it is a calling back to the shores of where you departed a long time ago. It is returning home. It is relearning. It is being courageous and curious of the hate you carry. It is telling and retelling your story forever, because you are always evolving, and you will never cease to be a story worth telling.