When I think back to my High school experience I don’t really look back with fond memories. It was pretty much the most difficult 7 years of my life. I went to a Church of England high school with a predominantly white student population, and as as an ethnic minority Muslim, I was quickly made to feel out of place.
My struggles with fitting in were even more exacerbated when I made the decision to wear the hijab in year 9. I received a lot of patronising questions and remarks from several classmates and even from people I considered “friends” at the time: “You look like a nun”, “Are you really going to wear a turban to school?” and even previous assumptions about my Muslim family - “Aren’t your parents really strict?” “Your childhood must have been so deprived because you haven’t seen... [insert white show/film here] etc.
The trouble with racism in the UK nowadays is that it is mostly very undercut and subtle. It often takes the form of micro-aggressions and racial gaslighting, which can make it frustratingly difficult to pinpoint and prove. This can leave the recipient questioning if they are going crazy and simply imagined the perpetrator's remarks in the first place. Even reflecting and writing this post is difficult for me, because I was invalidated so much into thinking my experiences with racism and islamophobia were all “just in my head”.
One friend in particular, when I first got to know her, was super supportive of my struggles and over-showered me with compliments - a narcissistic technique I now recognise as “Love bombing” in a relationship. I was therefore genuinely really shocked when the friendship eventually turned sour and that very same friend said to me “If you don’t like it here (in the UK) why don’t you just move?”
For context, we were having a conversation in which I mentioned Britain’s colonial history and its detrimental impact on my country of origin, Pakistan. Yet I had not once indicated that I didn’t like living in Britain, a country both myself and my parents were born in, and have lived in our entire lives. So I simply replied “where would I go? Back to Queen Charlotte hospital where I was born?”
At the time, I didn’t think anything of it, but she would even use me as an example in class to make herself look inclusive of diverse friends “My (token) Muslim friend this…” She also implied that she was so above racism and unironically complained about how much she hated white people, despite being white herself. Now I realise that people who go out of their way to over-emphasise their supposed “wokeness” are likely to be overcompensating for racist tendencies below the surface.
I remember calling my friend out on her behaviour (albeit in an immature passive aggressive text on the group chat) and not only did they completely deny what she had said, but the group turned on me and told me that I was just “reading too much” into their jokes. What was even more painful to bear than the friends who took her side were the ones who remained completely neutral in the face of it. As someone who hates conflict and generally is avoidant of it, I can somewhat understand this, but the fact that they didn’t even try to defend me or see my perspective at all after knowing me for years really hurt.
I ended up cutting ties with that toxic person and lost the friendship group along with her too. These negative comments really took a toll on my mental health and self-esteem, which in turn made it difficult to concentrate on my GCSEs. I remember the specific time where I had recently fallen out with that “friend” was the day before a mock Maths exam. When I got my results back I had received one of the lowest scores in my set. And although it sounds silly now, I found myself simply breaking down in tears during class, which was super embarrassing and socially inappropriate, because I couldn't quite separate my emotions from the dispute I had had the other day.
Ultimately, I had to make a choice between my education and dealing with all the drama. I decided to keep my head down, focus on my studies, and try my best. Looking back on it all now, I was happy with my decision and proud of myself for pushing through it despite the hard time I was having. I now understand that a lot of the condescending comments made towards me were born out of complete ignorance.
Although at the time, I felt entirely alone and miserable throughout school, now I wouldn't change it for the world. I learnt alot from my negative experiences and it really pushed me to grow into the person I am today. Not only did it teach me to feel stronger and more self-assured in my own faith and beliefs, but it prepared me for life in the real world. I now have the confidence to stand up for myself and what I believe in, debate as a person from an Ethnic Minority backgrounds in a white-dominated space and bring my own unique voice to the table.
I recognise today though that a lot of my imposter syndrome also stems from the fact I didn’t feel like the system I was in was made for someone like me to occupy a space at the table. When I did over-achieve it was only because I somehow managed to “trick” everyone into giving me a shot.
I also felt like I bore the pressure of needing to prove myself as a “Model Minority” student. As a walking emblem of my religion and culture, I wasn’t allowed to get bad grades or misbehave in class because I felt the need to constantly prove to people that Muslims aren’t what they are portrayed to be in the media. I constantly tried to push back against all the negative stereotypes and always felt the weight of them on my shoulders. I realise now that I put a lot of this pressure on myself unnecessarily. The responsibility also lies with others in educating themselves to not believe the stereotypes. Regardless, people who want to be ignorant and racist will be no matter how hard I try.
I personally found university to be such a breath of fresh air after being in such a toxic environment for so long. I am grateful that I was able to connect with others who share similar values to me. I am able to feel, for the first time in a very long time, that I didn't have to worry about being the perfect example of a minority student, because I felt the pressure of being one of the sole representatives of an entire religion/culture. Instead, I could finally just be me and be fully understood without having to explain myself to others.
If I were to give advice to my younger self or someone who is also going through a similar tough situation, I would tell them to stay strong, have hope (it will get better), and to never lose sight of who you are and what you believe in!