Columnist Shaheen Pasha: My pain is not your distraction

  • Shaheen Pasha

Published: 11/6/2018 1:30:40 PM

The Twitter notifications began to buzz on my phone before my alarm even went off. Groaning, I reached over to examine the headlines flashing on my screen, mentally preparing myself for the latest barrage of bad news that would inevitably provide today’s lesson plan for my journalism classes. 

“President Wants to Use Executive Order to End Birthright Citizenship.” I read the New York Times ​​​​​​headline twice before the words sank in. Then I sat up in bed, a dull pain spreading across my chest. As I read the article, the rational side of me dismissed the sensational story. I’m no constitutional historian, but even I knew enough to doubt the President’s claim that he could deny citizenship to babies born in the United States with a simple signature. The selfish insidious side of me chimed in as well, reasoning that it wouldn’t apply to me anyway because both my parents were legal residents when I was born, the sole member of my immigrant family guaranteed citizenship by virtue of taking my first breath of air in a New York hospital. 

But rationalization in a time of irrationality does little to assuage the pain of his words. As the daughter of Pakistani immigrants, and as a Muslim and a woman, Trump’s rhetoric serves as a perpetual reminder that no matter how American I feel, my identities will always be considered foreign and problematic. My children, who have never been to my parents’ homeland, will forever be judged because of the brownness of their skin and the religion that they practice. We will always be the other in a sea of white faces whose identities are never questioned or attacked. It was in this mood that I walked into my office, complaining to my colleagues about this latest attack. I should have known better.

“Don’t take it to heart. It’s just a distraction.”

One colleague, one friend after another echoed this view, patting me on the arm gently as they said it. “It’ll never happen, Shaheen,” they said. “It’s just a distraction, ahead of the midterm elections, to make people forget about what the real issues are.”

Similar takes flooded social media. Gentle dismissals and reassurances by some. Angry admonishments by others for the country to keep focused on the elections. That’s what mattered, that’s what was important, don’t get distracted from the issues. 

The only problem is that, for people like me, Trump’s racist, Islamophobic and xenophobic words are a very real issue. Being a person of color in the United States today is to be told by white society how to process our own grief. Don’t cry, get angry! Don’t just get angry, vote! It’s being told which issues take precedent. Everything else is a distraction.

My pain is not a distraction. My fear of an administration that has increasingly tested the boundaries of civility and decency is not a distraction. My anger and disgust over policy proposals that directly seek to strip all the dignity and pride I feel in my multiple identities is not a distraction. It’s a way of life, and one that is too often dismissed by those who have the privilege to see an attack on my reality as nothing more than a distraction. 

I know their efforts to pacify my rage by downplaying the impact of Trump’s words didn’t come from a place of malice. I knew that, even before his election when I — and my brothers and sisters of color around the country — tried to warn everyone else that his words were dangerous. 

“He’s lighting a match to a stick of dynamite hidden in the ground,” I remember telling one friend a month before the presidential elections. “Don’t give him that much power, Shaheen,” he responded. “No one takes him seriously. It’s all performance. Don’t let him spook you.”

But that dynamite is being lit over and over again. From the Muslim ban to Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s contentious confirmation to the rise in violent attacks against marginalized communities, we’re witnessing explosions across the country. How many more examples do we need as a society to understand that Trump’s words aren’t distractions? They’re promises aimed at upholding white supremacy.

After the 2016 election, many of the same friends who assured me that nothing would happen walked around so shell-shocked that I didn’t have the heart to tell them, I told you so. Many were experiencing their first real societal loss, the realization that the America they believed in had an ugly side to it. It was a grief they needed to process and rage about. They didn’t need platitudes. They just needed some space and understanding from me. Maybe even a hug. As a friend and an ally, I tried to do that for them.

I just wish people like me were given the same courtesy. Growing up with my many identities, I’m inured, on some level, to the hate. As a person of color, I’ve understood from birth that there are no guarantees in life. I’ve even come to accept that for every inclusive smile bestowed upon me, there are 10 others hiding their discomfort around me behind plastered, manic grins. I’m not afraid of that. But I am hurt and I am angry. I’ve earned the right to feel and express those emotions.

But they’re uncomfortable emotions for those closest to me who have never known what it feels like to be considered other in their own home. To feel targeted and small and dismissed. Trying to calm my feelings of oppression by dismissing the significance of the oppressor only serves to preserve their sense of comfort by ensuring my silence. And that is the ultimate distraction.

Shaheen Pasha teaches journalism at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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