Brown Boy Problems: But Is It Really That Bad? (S1 EP7)

Brown Boy Problems: But Is It Really That Bad? (S1 EP7)

Mustafa Shaikh
5 min read

We're back to work this week. To remind you of where things are at, we're back in high school.

In Episode 6 of Brown Boy Problems, I was giving a breakdown of the different racial slurs I was most frequently targeted with.

As I think the information in today's episode, can be informative to others, I'm asking y'all, if you enjoy this piece, consider sharing it with a friend.

One more note before we get started. Loyal reader Jake let me know that I've been using the phrase "without further adieu" incorrectly this entire time.

I suppose this also begs the question as to why Jake didn't tell me about my incorrect usage for the last five months. Maybe he's one of those friends who doesn't tell you "you have something in your teeth" until a solid 30 minutes after he first notices the piece of lettuce embedded into your incisors.

Without further ado ...

It’s hard to explain the effects of constant racist insults, particularly to those of the white persuasion. They hear “Your dad is a terrorist,” and they think “Oh yeah, but that’s just nonsense. That wouldn’t bother me.”

Without a doubt the most pushback I get about racism is from my friends who were raised Jewish—their first instinct is to draw an apples-to-apples comparison.

One time 15 years ago I tried to explain to a Jewish friend why these two kids who were continuously making terrorist-related remarks to me were bothering me and he said, “Why would people calling you a terrorist bother you? I’m Jewish. If people say something about me being Jewish, that doesn’t bother me.”

It’s just not that simple. Short answer: you’re white. Still somewhat short answer: making a few off-hand remarks isn’t really what causes a slur to hurt. It’s how it fits into a larger picture that you aren’t taking into consideration.

Knowing that this is a losing battle, with inspiration from Covid, I’ll try to break things down in the progressive stages that racism affected me in high school. Perhaps in these more digestible steps, you may see how the infection spreads from a single slur to a raging mental health problem.

First Exposure: When racist insults first started getting hurled my way, I wasn’t even sure they were meant for me. There’s a certain confusion, in part, because for Americans, South Asia and the Middle East are one and the same. For those of the South Asian diaspora, they’re not.

Take, for instance, camel jockey. I wasn’t even certain what in the world that meant. That couldn’t be for me, right? I’ve seen more camels at zoos here than I’ve come across on visits to Pakistan.

But ya know, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are the same places for all intents and purposes in America.

(On a related note, I’ve had to explain to people at least 200 times in my life that Pakistan is not in the Middle East. I’ll even pull up Wikipedia’s “Middle East” page, and sometimes they’ll still insist that they’re right. And yes, I know some of you are also surprised to find out that Pakistan is not in the Middle East. The Middle East’s eastern border ends at Iran.)

A map of the Middle East for the non-believers.

Replication: What was an initial round of assaults has now turned into a steady barrage of attacks. I know exactly who they’re targeted at and what they mean: that I’m a lesser person than they are simply because of where my family is from and what we believe.

At this point, it’s not just a racial insult, but it’s also the expression of the idea that I do not belong here. For instance, “Shut up Mustafa. You guys should just go back to Afghanistan.”

It hurts. Every time I hear something like that it cuts deep.

I do my best to not show my feelings, but when I’m back home in the safety of my bedroom, I let them out. I’m in tears.

I’m bewildered that out of nowhere I’m somehow not accepted in society. We all want to belong, and for a reason that has nothing to do with me, I no longer belong.

Bedridden: At this point, I’m in a constant state of anxiety. Every time some conversation comes up about Muslims or Afghanistan or 9/11 in class, I’m on edge about how it’s going to be redirected into an insult about me.

I’ve done the best of my ability to build some armor around these insults, but it’s not too effective.

The idea of walking into certain classes where I know I’m going to be subjected to racial abuse makes me filled with anxiety. Oh joy, I get to be publicly humiliated and dehumanized for 40 minutes!

Peak Infection: The end game after weeks, months, and a couple of years of this: I’m just emotionally and spiritually broken. I now hate the color of my skin, as from my vantage point, that’s the cause of my unhappiness.

My self-hate got to the point where I would sit in my bedroom with tears streaming down my face cursing that I was Muslim. Cursing that I was Pakistani. Cursing that I was brown.

I’d ask, “Why couldn’t I have just been white?” Or, “Why did my parents have to raise me as a Muslim?”

It got to the point where multiple times I pretended my left hand was an eraser and rubbed it over my skin. I would visualize that my brown skin would be wiped away and I’d be left with white skin. That, to me, became the answer.

Now sure, no one comment was that damaging. It's within the larger context that pushed me to a spot in which I was visualizing changing the color of my skin. That’s a place that for many of you is inconceivable to imagine.

But for the sake, of it, if you have a minute before you check out of this email and get back to your day, just sit back for a solid minute and imagine it. Let that idea settle of being hit time and time again with sentiments that you are a lesser human being and that you do not deserve to be part of your community.

Maybe, just maybe, you’ll begin to understand how it’s not simply just being called a terrorist. There’s a whole lot more to it.

Did someone share this episode with you? Make sure to subscribe so you receive a new episode every week!

Do you have a friend who enjoys doing visualizations that involve verbal abuse? Can you do me a favor and share this episode with them? Sharing is caring!

Next week on Brown Boy Problems: band class becomes the last place I want to be.

This essay was edited by Matt Goodgal and Meena Rajulu. Blame all grammatical errors on him (including my usage of adieu) and all style issues on her.

You can catch up on past writings here.