28 Dec My Racist Encounters
My name is Akbar Bashir Ahmad.
My mom told me it meant ‘Great News’. I later on found out it was grammatically incorrect and didn’t mean what she intended, but the sentiment is a nice one. It wasn’t her fault really as she didn’t speak Arabic. In fact, even though her mother, (my grandmother), was from Pakistan, she grew up in Canada since the age of 3, her native tongue was English.
Her adolescence was very much akin to mine. In that, I didn’t really think about colour growing up. My classmates were mostly 1st generation, from Egypt, India, Hong Kong, China, Armenia, Czech Republic, England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Italy… your UN of cultures. In a sense it’s amazing to have this luxury to feel equal to your peers — you all feel you have the same starting point, same opportunities.
It wasn’t until university where I was searching for new groups of friends it became apparent of who I was. See my mother always wanted me to hang out with ‘good Muslims’ — she thought it’d lead to less problems. The funny thing is I never quite fit in because I wasn’t ethnic enough, either not being religious enough or not speaking their language, Arabic, Punjabi, what have you. And on the other hand I never fit in with the ‘white crowd’ as I was just a little too different, a little too ethnic. Eventually, I did find my people that are to this day, friends for life. But it was the seed of doubt.
When I finished my studies I took a year to backpack across Australia. Australia was the first place I truly experienced full-fledged racism. It was just after the London tube bombings, people were very much on edge around the world especially after 9/11. I remember seeing on the news a group of protestors walking through this neighbourhood with the Australian flag on their backs. They stopped at what was an Indian family’s house and proceeded to pelt their windows and car with rocks. The reporters caught up with the family afterwards to interview the visibly shook man who was describing mid tears his fear and how he felt the need to move back to India for their safety. A feeling I’d later understand.
I was living in the state of Queensland — the equivalent of the south in the States in terms of racism (so I’ve been told). People started looking at me differently, judging me with their eyes. I had to constantly wear a smile ‘look guys I’m friendly — I’m not who you think I might be’. Old ladies would get up and move if I sat next to them on the bus. A man came up to me in the street, told me to stop; lifted my shirt and said “just making sure you’re not wearing a bomb”, as he carried on with his day. I was 24. I laughed because I didn’t know how else to react as I’ve never experienced that before. On another occasion, when about to go hang gliding, the instructor singled me out and said, “I don’t want to be that guy, but you’re not going to blow us up or anything?”. I became paranoid. I eventually came back to Canada, what I always considered safe and home, and I couldn’t shed the angst. It took me 3 years before I felt comfortable in my own skin again.
Flash forward 10 years, I’ve met my love and decided to move in with her. Except it’s a little more complicated — she lives in France, a country recently riddled with terrorist attacks and socio-political problems. You can feel it in the air here, more than I did in Australia. People here have no problem staring, looking you up and down. There’s the military constantly patrolling the streets, security checks at all stores, museums and attractions.
I’ve been trying to find design work for the past few months here with no luck. Finally, one of my cold calls with a talent agent hit and messaged to meet for a coffee. It started off well and then he went onto the points I needed to work on. 1st being portfolio related, the 2nd point floored me. He said, “Your name; Akbar. It’s too ethnic, too Muslim. With everything going on here, people want something more… you know French, more white. If it’s between you and a François or Gilles, it’ll always be the latter. What I’m trying to say is you’ll never get work in France with this name”.
My heart sank. I felt sadness, hurt and then anger. I’ve been used to being judged by the colour of my skin, but never by my name. “It’s the last thing people shout before they kill, it’s the first thing they’ll see on a paper — naturally they won’t be drawn to you”. I responded, “But you know, I’m proud of who I am, my name and what it means. Back where I come from we don’t have this problem”.
The meeting eventually ended, I called my girlfriend and couldn’t help but sob. To know that I don’t live in that world I once thought was equal dropped on me. I had fleeting emotions telling her I wanted to go back home to Canada, to safety. I messaged my sister to tell her what happened — she encouraged me to look to leaders that encountered similar obstacles, ‘Barack Hussein Obama’, ‘Muhammad Ali’. It helped. It reaffirmed that I am proud of my roots, who I am and my name. Something I had so much trouble being comfortable with growing up.
Being judged is not easy — but being judged by your skin colour or name is plain ignorant. As Barack’s mother said, “To have this name was to be the beneficiary of a great inheritance, a special destiny, glorious burdens that only we were strong enough to bear”.
My name is Akbar, it means the Great and quite honestly, I am great. To abide to appease your ignorance and fear will never happen because I know my skin colour and name isn’t what’s wrong in this equation, it’s you who judge before you know. And for the love of god, if you’re in this industry and you do this, do me a favour, look at my portfolio and judge me on that, not what I look like. Better yet, quit and let someone with a higher mental capacity do your job.
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Also published on Medium.