It was the winter of 2014 and I was surprised that America wasn’t on fire. Every week there were more reports of police slayings of black civilians. We watched America’s corrupt justice system protect murderers because they were white and held a badge. America was once again in the middle of a race war that the dominant media wasn’t covering and all my friends were on the frontlines of battle.
Being a person of color in America is a maddening experience. We all deal and interact with white supremacy in different ways, yet share the common threads of living in a society that doesn’t deem our bodies beautiful or worthy and constantly attacks them. We are simultaneously invisible and hyper-visible, devalued unless we are being exotified or fetishized for our foreignness. Historically, our bodies are not, have not been, ours. They have been examined, owned, interpreted, and rewritten by the white patriarchal supremacy that upholds this country. There is very little public dialogue about what our bodies actually mean to us, what they are, what they can do. We learn that our bodies are not sites of self-love and beauty, but as functions for labor, commodity, or objectification.
When I was in third grade, a girl in my class came up to me and asked, “What color are you?” I asked what she meant. I knew I was Pakistani and Kashmiri, but I didn’t know what color that was or if it could be translated to a color. “I mean, what color are you? Are you black or are you white?” All the other kids around us were looking at me too, impatient. It was a simple question after all, but for some reason I didn’t have the answer. “I think I’m tan,” I said and everyone looked confused.
Growing up as a Pakistani orphan, I felt a lot of shame about my race and body. I was outside America’s racial binary system, neither black nor white, but some weird, dangerous foreign I didn’t understand. My body was not like the other kids. I was brown and hairy in all the places a ‘woman’ shouldn’t have been. I had a crooked nose and a large mustache and sideburns. I didn’t feel like I fit in or like there was anyone who looked like me. After 9/11, I became even more aware of not belonging in America’s binary system — I was chased home by kids of all different races, called terrorist, had anthrax scribbled across my locker and constantly asked where I was from as people tried to gauge what I was.
I’ve had a hard time understanding my racial identity for most of my life. I knew I was Pakistani and Kashmiri, but I didn’t know what that meant. Was it the food we ate at home? Our language? What we wore? Our history? I knew those things when I lived with my aunt and uncle. But then, when I was 13 I started living by myself with my sisters, and that knowledge disappeared. I couldn’t speak Urdu and I stopped eating roti everyday and wearing shalwar kameez. I couldn’t even tell you who my parents were, let alone Pakistan’s history, a country I had only visited when I was a baby and my father was still alive. Did that make me not Pakistani? And if I was not that, then what was I?
In middle school, I filled out an application for a summer camp that asked me my race. My teacher told me I was Asian. This made the East Asian kids in my class scowl and whisper under their breath. They didn’t want me to be a part of them. And I felt like I wasn’t a part of them. I remember feeling like something was deeply wrong, like by checking the box I was agreeing to something that I wasn’t. Throughout my life I have struggled with being called Asian, mostly because my experiences with East Asian people excluding South Asians and Pacific Islanders from this category. I also felt like I was a fraud in spaces full of young, South Asian people. While I understood the language, I couldn’t always speak back and I didn’t know a lot of the cultural references that people were making. I also didn’t like the South Asian patriarchy that emanated from these spaces and when people found out that I was an orphan they usually looked down on me or stopped talking to me.
So here was my dilemma: I was Pakistani. Kashmiri. Muslim. Brown. Woman. Queer. Orphaned. Hairy. Child of Immigrants. Lower-class. And I didn’t fit in anywhere.
The category of ‘Person of Color’ was the first time that I felt accepted. It was vast, which I loved because it allowed me the ability to be an intersectional identity holder. It allowed me to place my brownness at the center of my being and then create a very specific understanding of who I was around that. It challenged the binary system of America. It allowed me to build with people I loved around a variety of issues and injustices that were important to me. The term has problems. It sometimes falls into that danger of being too big — when people use it as a stand-in or euphemism for a specific population it can be damaging. For example, saying that police brutality affects people of color doesn’t acknowledge that police brutality is targeted specifically at the black population and that there is incredible anti-blackness in Asian, Latino, and Native American communities. But what I like about the term was its political nature. By saying “I am a person of color” I was committing to fighting against Whiteness and to advocating for justice on the behalf of myself and other tan, brown and black folks in any way that I could.
In the winter of 2014, when America should have been burning, my friends of color and I were fighting. I saw the same thing happening over and over again — we were being made aware of the hyper-visibility of our bodies as people of color, and the distinct ways that they seemed to pose a threat to America and white supremacy. But also how the sheer exhaustion of fighting against systematic racism also made us forget our bodies and our needs as we neglected to take care of ourselves. We often reminded each other about self-care, but then didn’t follow through; ignoring the toll that fighting against these systems was taking on our bodies.
If we keep ignoring our bodies, or only choosing to acknowledge them in the presence of whiteness, how can we reclaim them?
How will we be able to truly love ourselves?
I wanted to do something for my friends of color to remind us of our bodies. To allow ourselves a moment to reflect on them, spend time with them and talk about them openly.
In January 2015, I started a project called Let Me Love Me, a call to arms for all people of color to shape a public dialogue on our bodies and our journeys with self-love. It is a fuck-you to the larger society, a love letter to ourselves written in a world that denies us love. I decided to take nude portraits for my friends of color who wanted to be part of this dialogue and project. “Nude” is very open here — it can mean lingerie, alone or with a partner, topless — whatever made people feel brave, vulnerable, beautiful and strong. Let Me Love Me became a chance to author our own images, to talk openly about bodies, beauty, and power.
I have fought with my body for the majority of my life. Growing up, my body was always too hairy or too masculine. I played a lot of sports but always struggled with weight and feeling like I wasn’t skinny enough. As a performer, I felt like my body relegated me to parts in plays that I didn’t want to play. I could never be the lead because all the pretty white girls got those parts. I was often unsafe in my early sexual encounters, because I didn’t love and value my body.
I still have issues with my body. I don’t treat it well enough. I don’t stretch enough or exercise enough and I eat shitty food. But I am working on it. Throughout the years, my relationship with my body has gotten a lot better. It wasn’t all on my own. People who love me helped by showing me my body was valuable and reminding me to slow down and appreciate it. But mostly, I got so tired of hating myself and being insecure about the way that I looked, about my skin and color, about my hairiness, about my separation from my parents and family. I knew that I wasn’t ever going to be anyone else and every second I spent picking myself apart was a waste of time. The world has already shown me that it hates and wants to erase people who have bodies like mine. Why should I make my erasure any easier?
Why should you?
If you are a person of color writing about your relationship with your body and exploration of self-love, please submit up to three poems or one piece of prose to HEArt’s special Let Me Love Me issue by January 31, 2016. We seek work that brings voice to the value of body/presence/wholeness in all.
Fatimah Asghar is a nationally touring poet, photographer and performer. She created Bosnia and Herzegovina’s first Spoken Word Poetry group, REFLEKS, while on a Fulbright studying theater in post-violent contexts. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in POETRY Magazine, PEN Poetry Series, The Paris-American, The Margins and Gulf Coast. She is a Kundiman Fellow and a member of the Dark Noise Collective. Her chapbook After was released on Yes Yes Books fall of 2015.