I Am Here to Stay and Take On Anyone Steering Away from the Route of Equity. For the Survivors and for Myself. Written by Zakia Afrin.
Blog Series: Confronting Inequities in Our Field - August 26, 2020
“———it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or fragments of their imagination-indeed, everything and anything except me”.
Ralph Ellison, The Invisible Man
I came to the United States after living a privileged life in Bangladesh, country born in 1971 in South Asia. My ancestors lived through colonial rules, bloodied partition, genocide, rape camps like many others in the region and we continue to battle the forces inflicting religious strife, political oppression. I say this to remind myself that it’s not easy to break my spirit. Back home, I was one of the most visible ones with a free mind and a free environment to thrive. And yet, I felt the words of Ellison become foggy when I read them or was it my tears? I have lost count of how many times, I have felt invisible among my peers and colleagues at different agencies and others in the systems.
There was the time when a feminist Professor at a Bay Area University I got introduced to by a colleague at Golden Gate University could not stop talking about the woman from Bangladesh who didn’t have 3 meals to eat, were we all that poor? I swallowed the thoughts brewing in my head- “What do you think the chances of a politician being elected as president after he brags about grabbing women by the XXXX? Women surely will not vote for this person!” What did she see in me?
I will spare you the many others that happened at airports, restaurants, hospitals because those are too painful to recollect.
There is still someone in position of power at the county level that I have encountered more than 10 years now who still meets me for the first time. Though we have attended numerous meetings over the years, supported various agendas, she never remembers my name or face. This selective amnesia makes me ask: What does she see in me?
There was the Judge who I met during a presentation on “Cultural Responsiveness in Working with Survivors of South Asian Origin” who told me to my face- These people are liars. This was after the beginning conversation on the diversity within South Asia across countries, languages, ethnicities, religious practices, political choices among other things. He put everyone in the bucket and labeled us Liars. What did he see in me? I am not sure I even existed as an individual in front of him.
And yes, there was the conference where a white male professor from a very reputed institution talked about gender relations in South Asia based on his expertise in an ancient language religious texts (pertaining to one group) were written in. As the diverse staff members from South Asia looked on, he reduced us to the worst stereotypes possible: women don’t call the police because they rape, Ghetto communities in certain parts of CA are not part of the mainstream ‘model minorities’, sex selective abortion existing within the Indian community and so on. This person did not even see me!
Maybe they see fragments of their imaginations about the others, But I am not the one to give up. I politely disagreed with the Judge and answered his query: “I do not lie. I believe most of the people I work with do not lie, it is a harmful idea”. Each time, the powerful person ignores me, I remind her my name and that we have met many times. To the conference committee, I detailed all the stereotypes mentioned, shared with my colleagues and expressed our concerns. I also offered them opportunity to learn with Maitri, the organization I call home.
A lesson in cultural responsiveness should be mandatory at all levels of workplaces, nonprofits included. I intentionally refrained from talking about many of our peer agencies. A call to them-Let’s look into our interactions with communities that look different than us. All people of color are not immune to the power plays, stereotyping communities and continuing harmful practices that keep us behind. It is not just white privilege; it is the surrogates who take on the mission of such ideology we need to stand up against. Many leaders of movements take on what could only be described as Professor West calls in the context of Black leadership; “race effacing managerial leaders …who tends to stunt progressive development and silence the prophetic voices (in the black community)by casting the practical mainstream as the only game in town”. (Cornel West, Race West 0679749861 (ISBN13: 9780679749868))
As individuals, many of us have the choice to walk away from such toxicity. Yet, how does that help? How does that ensure the well-being of survivors that I promised to play a role in? With whatever little voice I have if I can be that nagging thought that won’t leave the mainstream alone, that would be success. So I am here to stay and take on anyone steering away from the route of equity. For the survivors and for myself.