Finding an Identity Divided by 8,000 Miles

The walls of the small religious private school I went to seemed to be a perfect symbol of my childhood mindset — simple, colorful, and neat. Up until the 5th grade, I spent my days inside these walls. I found that I fit in. None of us questioned our identity. We didn’t think about it-it came naturally to us, something we never had to bring up or talk about. Never once did we have a discussion saying “What are we? Who are we?”

However, in middle school, I transferred to a small STEM school called Metro Early College High School, slightly bigger than my previous school, and quite diverse. This was when the question of my identity began to grow inside of me. And it wasn’t only me: kids around me, all from different backgrounds (and especially those from Muslim backgrounds), began to too. Where did we fit?

We weren’t American enough for our peers- but we weren’t ethnic enough for our family back home.

“In this country American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.” — Toni Morrison

As a Pakistani-American I struggled to find where I fit in. Was I just Pakistani? Was I just an American? I am constantly trying to find the parameters that define these terms. These questions continued to lurk in the back of my mind throughout my school life.

Though our school never seemed to outrightly single out minorities, an “us vs them” dynamic seemed to begin to emerge-and “us” was a different group every time, either separated by race, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity.

Our school never actively responded to any of the situations that come out of this, and many of us frequently labeled specific staff as racist or homophobic due to their actions or lack thereof. We often noticed that teachers would pick on those of color more often than those who were not — though it was whispered among the halls and ignored by many, inwardly, we all knew it. In fact, occurrences like these were not limited to our school — across the US, black students were expelled at three times the rate than white students.

Sometimes discrimination was more outright.

I, myself, witnessed these happenings around me — a friend of mine was once labeled as a “terrorist” in the hallway, and even after reporting to the school, no action was taken.

Maha Khan, a junior at Metro, has also noticed the lack of action taken by the school.

“I don’t believe my school handles diversity well….mainly because when there aretimes that other students make offensive or racist remarks against others, they don’t do anything to help the situation or prevent a new one from happening. No new policies or rules are enforced. They just inform the students not to do it again and they go on with their day.”

Speaking further about the situation at her school, she described an incident where a white classmate called an African-American girl extremely derogatory terms multiple times. Taking up the situation with the school, she expected to receive help, but the boy was given a “warning” and was dismissed.

“He was just completely let go. I was shocked.”

Unfortunately, schooling in America has a history driven by intolerance. Nowadays, teachers and administrators often ignore uncomfortable topics such as racism. Moreover, students of color often are given limited access to higher level courses and in-school resources.

The way the school handled these situations passively increased resentment among students towards teachers. Furthermore, it created a culture where students stop reporting these kids of incidents, as they become aware that nothing would happen.

This dynamic was present throughout my experience in middle school and contributed to the growing sense of an identity crisis within me and others around me.

I lived most of my life here. I was been born here. I went to school here. Yet, I was singled out. I was still a foreigner to some, a symbol of oppression to others. Did I belong in Pakistan, then?

Muna Malik: “A lot of the kids that I interviewed and photographed are going through an identity crisis, but also trying to figure out how to blend their cultures.” Courtesy of Muna Malik.

My question was seemingly answered.

I moved to Pakistan my freshman year of high school. I hoped to find some peace within myself, but instead, found an even deeper identity crisis. In Pakistan, where I went to school, two main ethnic groups existed — Pathans (Pashtuns) and Punjabis. Pathans are often looked down heavily by Punjabis for being uneducated; however, they are often praised for their lighter skin (a sad beauty standard arising from centuries of colonization).

As a Pathan, It was in this unusual circumstance that I found myself caught in. As I sat in class, people would turn to me and say, “Tum Pathan hai?” “Are you Pathan?”

Students and teachers would often make remarks like this, laughing, promoting unfair stereotypes of Pathans. I remember vividly when a girl turned to her friend and laughed saying, “All these Pathans-us Punjabis, we own them! They work for us.” There are countless stories I’ve heard of teachers singling out Pathan students, asking them mocking questions. “Pashtun jokes” were common. These kinds of racial divisions seemed to exist above the school. The same people who I would laugh with, sit at lunch with, take classes with — these same people held an inward grudge towards Pathans. And many Pathans hold this grudge towards Punjabis as well. Sadly, Pakistanis are highly divided by provincial lines and different subcultures, often forgetting they all come from the same country.

Where I had hoped to find some peace within myself, I began to feel more conflict.

As of July 2018, I have moved back to Ohio, to Hilliard Davidson high school, which, like Metro, is diverse. Unfortunately incidents such as racist flyers posted around Hilliard City Schools recently have shown that there is still racism and ignorance present throughout the school. However, attempts of inclusion here were met with horrible solutions.

A few weeks into the school year, students of minority backgrounds received a bright yellow paper, in the middle of class, highlighting “Diversity Club”. This club was not as much as a place to celebrate diversity as a lazy attempt to provide students of diverse backgrounds with a place to meet. This may be caused by the fact that most educators do not know how to handle racism, especially since over 80% of teachers and administrators in the United States are white, a study from the U.S. Department of Education reports.

These were two of the racist flyers posted around Hilliard. Source: ABC News

Those who did receive the paper had mostly negative reactions, including Hadiya Akhtar, a sophomore who attends Hilliard Davidson.

“This club sections off students and makes them feel even more separated; what makes me so different than others that I have to meet twice a month, miss class, to discuss about…stuff? I’m fine, thanks.”

Though this club must have began with good intentions, the execution and effort put into creating an opportunity for those of diverse racial backgrounds was lacking.

Incidents and situations like these are not isolated to Hilliard Davidson.

Many schools do not know how to respond and correctly address problems of diversity and inclusion of all races. Students across America, especially those of immigrant parents, struggle to understand where they belong.

It is high time that institutions began to talk to students directly to gain insight into the issues they face and to understand that second and third generation immigrants, people of color, and those of any minority are strung in between chasms of cultures. Institutions of learning need to acknowledge these facts instead of shying away from them. Students and teachers alike must be educated as education is the key to ridding of ignorance and prejudices.

“Every voice raised against racism chips away at its power. We can’t afford to stay silent.” — Reni Eddo-Lodge

Hopefully, one day, we can exist in a world where nobody is asked, “But where are you really from?”

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