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Khadijah Rotimi: The politics of growing up as a Nigerian Pakistani girl

Being a mixed raced Muslim woman whose faith is automatically recognised by my choice to cover and wear the hijab, I feel like a melting pot of different identities, cultures and customs. I am half Nigerian and half Pakistani so I have two strong cultures and I don’t fit into the standard definition of being mixed. At times I have experienced situations where I feel like I am not able to express my appreciation of all aspects of my identity at once without this creating some sort of external conflict. I have never experienced the comfort of fitting into any given category in society, be it the Muslim community, the Asian British community, or the Black British community. At times it feels like other people try to dictate my identity to me based on their own ignorant perception of what I am, rather than accepting my own perception of my identity.

 

I do identify as black as well as being biracial, however I feel like some of my experiences are unique to those of a fully black Muslim woman due to me also being half Asian. Also I am equally as proud of my Pakistani heritage, therefore I am reluctant to solely identify as black. Furthermore since wearing the hijab from the age of fourteen, the way that I am racially perceived by society has changed drastically and this has caused me to struggle with my identity. I have often felt estranged from the Muslim community due to my ethnic background – it is evident to me that colourism is unfortunately still a huge problem. Moreover, one challenge for me has been the fact that since wearing the hijab, my Nigerian side which I am very proud of is often swept under the carpet, and/or insulted by certain Muslim communities who have a very ignorant perception of beauty; I am often the receiver of back-handed compliments. Also, whilst the hijab has become a staple part of my identity, for some reason being both black and Muslim is often seen as two entirely separate entities that cannot coexist in one person (even though Nigeria is 50% Muslim!). I often struggle with my relationship with my hair and how it is also an important part of my identity that I grew up with, which is to me, the most visible indicator of me being black. Since wearing the hijab I have often been accused of pretending to be half Nigerian and sadly this sometimes makes me miss showing my hair because I feel like my black side wouldn’t be questioned as much. When I was a child with my hair on show no one ever doubted my Nigerian side.

 

When I first started wearing the hijab as a fourteen year old in high school I suddenly felt less attractive and more invisible, some of my so called “friends” who were mainly non- Muslim and black stopped saying hi to me in the corridors like I had suddenly become irrelevant. I didn’t realise what a big part of my identity my hair was and how without it I was no longer seen as “popular”, my tight bouncy curls had always been my main identifier and the first thing everyone noticed about me. I felt less pretty and like I had become invisible. However, at the same time I was happy that it has weeded out fake friendships. Some black girls said things like “oh I didn’t know you were Muslim”, as if you can’t be both black and Muslim. When I started college my Nigerian classmates would be shocked when they found out my mix and whilst most of them had a surprised but positive reaction, some wouldn’t believe me until they had quizzed me enough to be satisfied that I wasn’t making it up. I was asked questions such as “name a Nigerian dish other than jollof rice if you’re really Nigerian”. It wasn’t until I told them my whole family history and traditional dishes I grew up eating like efo elugusi that they finally realised that I wasn’t some sort of imposter pretending to be black.

 

When people hear the words “mixed race” they automatically think of “black and white”, growing up, I became used  to most people presuming that I fell into this category seeing as my hair texture, skin colour and features all fit the stereotype. Growing up in a primary school which was predominately white and Indian, I did sometimes feel alien due to the way that I looked, for the first time in my life I was forced to become very aware of my physical appearance, something that as a child I had never given much thought to until kids decided to pick on certain features. I remember being called “poo skin” and “Pakistani monkey” by some of the ignorant bullies who were no doubt echoing what they has been taught from their racist parents. Or questions like “why is the end of your nose so flat”, “are you having a bad hair day?”. Once my peers found out that my mother is Pakistani and not white that’s when one white boy started calling me a “paki”, (much to the amusement of some of the Indian kids).  I quickly realised that my white teachers didn’t care about the racism I experienced as unless my parents physically came to the school and complained to the headmistress then literally nothing was done. I remember towards the end of primary school I had just begun to feel like I had found my place and I was comfortable in my own skin. You see now it was seen as cool to have curly hair and be mixed race.

 

Before I started wearing the hijab everyone assumed I was either black (usually Jamaican) and white, or mixed Indian and Black Caribbean. No one had any idea that I had any Pakistani in me until they asked me where I was from, however Nigeria didn’t surprise anyone as I was automatically identified as being mixed race-black plus something else. However, since wearing the hijab the way that people racially perceive me has changed drastically. Now people usually assume that I am either fully Asian (Pakistani/ Bengali), or some sort of Arab such as Sudanese, Egyptian, Yemeni, Omani, Moroccan, or east African, usually Eritrean. It’s always a shock to people when I tell them I am half Nigerian. I’ve been told many times that I don’t look “black” at all which I always find quite odd because l have African features, such as my lips and nose, it’s amazing how simply covering your hair can have such an impact on how you are perceived.

 

One thing that bothered me growing up was constantly feeling “othered” and the lack of representation in the media. I remember wondering why baby dolls always had to be blonde and pale, why couldn’t any of them be brown with curly hair like me? It’s a misconception that children don’t notice these micro-aggressions of feeling “othered” on a daily basis. I’ve literally had to tick “mixed other” on every form that has asked for my ethnic background. There is a box for mixed white and black, mixed Asian and white, however this is no box for mixed black and Asian,  as a kid this made me think that I’m not even the “normal” type of mixed raced.  However, I do recognise the fact that although there wasn’t (and still isn’t) nearly enough positive representation of a wider scope of ethnic people in the media, light skin women are always the go to when it comes to showing your “token black girl” whether it be on a TV show or magazine cover. Although fetishisation is a massive problem which I will delve into soon, light skinned women, be they fully black or mixed with black are always portrayed as attractive in mainstream media. We are seen as the “acceptable” type of black beauty. I literally can’t think of any mainstream TV shows that casted dark skin girls as being intelligent and beautiful, even the so called “black shows” like My Wife and Kids.

 

Moreover, one of the main challenges for me has been the fact that since wearing the hijab, my Nigerian side is often overlooked, and/or insulted by certain Muslim communities who have a very ignorant perception of beauty. Since wearing the hijab I’ve developed a very thick skin towards racism and backhanded compliments, particularly from the South Asian, Arab and East African communities. I’m often told that I’m “too pretty to be Nigerian”, or “pretty for a Nigerian”, I think my least favourite is “but you look completely Pakistani mashAllah”, as if to congratulate me for my apparent “lack of blackness”. It’s as though, because I am half Asian, the Asian community have a sense of familiarity towards me which makes them feel as if it’s perfectly acceptable to give me back-handed compliments as they assume I also share their racist beauty standards. I would like to be able to fully blame this ideology on colonialism however as much as it pains me to say, I think that the idea of lighter skin being more attractive predates colonialism in south Asian communities.  A lot of the time I am guilty of ignoring these awkward encounters with new people as I know I am not likely to see them again and I can’t be bothered to educate them. However in situations where I have called someone out for their ignorance it’s usually a variation of the same response: immediate shock and embarrassment  that I took their back-handed compliment as an insult to begin with, then come the incessant pleas that they’re not racist because their “friend is Jamaican” or one of their family members married a Ugandan, and last but not least I get bombarded with more lovely compliments as if to shut me up -“aww you really are so lucky you’re so unique, you’re so pretty mashAllah,”.  Therefore, due to this false sense of familiarity they have with me which gives them the confidence to be so outright, in a way I probably experience more explicit- in your face racism from the Asian community than a fully black person would (although I’m sure many black Muslim who have tried to marry into an Asian family would disagree with me!).

 

This year, me and one of my best friends who is Somali decided to make a YouTube channel where we mainly vlog halal food places in London. There were a lot of comments from trolls accusing me of pretending to be black and saying that “it’s pretty clear you’re not Nigerian” etc. In addition to this, I also received more of the usual back-handed compliments congratulating me for being light skinned. The sad thing is that these comments mainly came from people who were Nigerians were accusing me of lying, or East African people with a superiority complex. One of the things that struck me out of all of this is the disunity amongst the African diaspora living here in Britain. Some Somali people don’t want to claim the fact that they are black and instead say they are Arab whilst looking down on other black people, similarly many West African and Caribbean people ridicule Somali people and don’t consider them as being black.

 

As well as experiencing a lot of racial prejudice from the Muslim south Asian community, I have also experienced similar encounters from the Somali community. I have many Somali friends from college and through spending time with them I have been introduced to some of their acquaintances who hold racist views towards my West African side. I’ve been told that I’m “pretty for a Nigerian” and “very light skin for a half Nigerian” (*rolls eyes*). The amount of ignorance these people have is clearly so deep that thinking about what to say to educate them is so exhausting in itself so I’ve been guilty in the past of not even trying. It baffles me that people can dismiss the fact that I am half Nigerian and that apparently that had nothing to do with me being “pretty” in their eyes despite the fact that half of my DNA is west African. Before befriending Somali girls in college I always assumed that I would be able to relate to the Somali community as a whole, given that they are probably the largest black British Muslim community in North West London, I was blissfully unaware of how- like the south Asian community, their community also has such deep-rooted issues when it comes to colourism and a superiority complex where some think they are better than other black people who aren’t east African. My Somali friends don’t hold these ignorant views and are proud to be black and don’t claim to be Arab, however there have been times where they have introduced me to school friends or family members whose response to my ethnicity is almost a congratulation for my apparent “lack of blackness” in their eyes.

 

Whilst these racist encounters do upset me, I am aware that by being a lighter skinned woman I do have a privilege. These communities I have mentioned and other ethnic communities do treat me better than they would if I were a darker skinned black woman because I am closer to their ideal of what is beautiful. If I wanted to marry someone whose family held these same backward views then they would be more likely to accept me and dust my Nigerian side under the carpet than they would to a fully black and darker skinned Muslim woman. I have come across half black mixed race girls who are not bothered by their light skinned privilege and add fuel to the fire by putting down women of a darker shade. They act like they are on a pedestal and immediately expect men to find them more attractive than their darker skinned peers. It is as if, in order to continue feeling like they are on top they ensure that they are perpetuating these harmful notions of colourism which I find very backwards and selfish – especially considering the fact that these lighter skinned women more often than not have a preference for darker skinned black men, so their children and daughters are likely to inherit a much deeper skin tone. These same men unfortunately also sometimes ridicule dark skinned black women and call them unattractive. I’ve heard some black men in college say that they would only date light skinned girls or that they would never marry a dark skinned girl. It’s a vicious cycle which exists in many communities including Muslim and non-Muslim communities here in Britain and globally.

However I have noticed in recent years that this is changing, I think perhaps partly due to social media portraying dark skinned black women for being beautiful. I do however find it insulting how in a lot of these pages only post the dark skinned women as extremely hypersexualised and oiled up as if to suggest that this is the only way they can be attractive.

 

From the age of seventeen to now, my twenty-two year old self still encounters men who only try to talk to me because they want a Muslim woman with black features which are seen desirable, but only on a woman who is lighter skinned and more “exotic” looking or white, it appears to be some sort of weird fetish. These same men ridicule dark skin black women who have these same features and say they don’t find any dark skin women attractive. I have had Asian men dm’ing me making rude remarks saying words to the effect of: “I wanna marry you but let’s forget you’re half Nigerian lol”. Its seems to me like they want a black woman or they have some sort of light skinned girl fetishisation but they know their family wouldn’t accept a woman like this so they try to talk to me because I’m half Asian and would therefore  be more likely to be accepted by their family. I have also experienced similar encounters from Arab and a few Somali men who are very crude and want to talk to me but also want to completely dismiss my Nigerian side and think that’s perfectly acceptable. I’ve been told that “Nigerian women and black women are usually clapped and I’m buff cos I got the best of both worlds and I look exotic”, it’s actually really degrading and disgusting how these men desperately seem to seek out women who have African features whilst systematically degrading black women. The irony is that most of these features which are now seen as desirable in society, such as having a curvy bum and bigger lips are features which many black women are far more likely to naturally have (and features which I definitely didn’t get from my Pakistani side!).

 

I hope that I have been able to give a small insight through my personal experiences, of how multi-racial Muslim women who don’t fit the simplistic definition of what it means to be mixed, like myself, often feel somewhat alienated from all factions of society unless they give into their “light skinned privilege” and in effect- become the bully by perpetuating colourism. However, it is important for me to emphasise the fact that whilst issues of colourism sadly exist in all Muslim communities from African to south Asian, Islam as a religion does not tolerate or teach that any race or skin colour is superior to another, sadly these ideas have all been inherited by culture and the slave mentality that colonisation and other systematically racist ideologies such as the caste system gave birth to.  I think that Muslim biracial women need a larger platform and recognition, if we cannot as a community create a space where all Muslims feel accepted and appreciated then perhaps biracial Muslim women need to step up, including myself and create our own spaces.

Khadijah Rotimi is a YouTuber who vlogs about Halal food with her friend Rahma. Her channel can be accessed at: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCNhmSLM76OPT61tU5VyuXKg

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