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July 20, 2020

Asked to do a self-portrait at art class, when I was 11 years old and freshly arrived into the UK from Iraq, I enthusiastically drew myself as pink skinned with pale green eyes and bright yellow hair. Classmates sniggered at my picture in break time, and I wasn’t sure if I’d inadvertently walked into another opportunity to be bullied (I was an easy target in those early months) or another case of lost-in-translation— Art and Arabic were the only group classes I attended, as I was learning the language. Turns out it was a bit of both, but more, a culture clash that I continue to excavate deeper layers into.

In Iraq, I was a relative minority in how I presented physically: I was indeed ‘blonde’ compared to the standard black, my hazel eyes relatively ‘green’ compared with the average dark brown, and my skin ‘white’ in relation to the warmer, olive skin tones.

I’m setting aside for a moment the European ideals of beauty, which often grade beauty in a hierarchical colour palette. Setting that hefty piece of the puzzle aside for now.

Even amongst my international schoolmates, my colourings had shifted with the change of country. I was now olive skinned with mousy brown hair and brown eyes. The variation I experienced in my youth transposed into a monolithic non-European/ non-white category. Not only that, as I didn’t have a Middle Eastern ‘Fro’ or silky mane to proudly exhibit or the big black almonds to peer through, I teetered precariously on an edge.

At 21, when my first white hairs prematurely came out of their closet, I began to colour my hair darker than mere mousy, even at one point, dying my brows and lashes to match. I didn’t fit my own image of myself anymore, so I attempted to fit the image others seemed to hold of me. At university, I was mostly with white English friends and a sprinkle of Brits of South Asian origin, but I was firmly, the only foreigner.

A foreigner who lived in a diaspora bubble. I proudly ate baked beans (an English national dish!), served cold (it’s surely sweet and intended as a salad side dish!). I enjoyed various privileges like being left out of the South-North England divide or Public-State school prejudices. Spared by virtue of being on the periphery and in a box all of my own. Even my religion was left alone, possibly with a potent mix of fear and ignorance.
And when talk inevitably shifted to childhood references, I stayed quiet, inwardly recalling the Ba’ithist propaganda songs and dances I took part in as a child, the school trips visiting ‘war heroes’ in hospitals, namely, dismembered and traumatised soldiers returning from the battlefields. TV programmes proudly exhibiting those with lost limbs still managing to survive daily tasks like brushing teeth and fixing lunch… no Magic Roundabouts or Where’s Wally.

In London, I’m a Londoner. Simple. In my therapy training course, I’m again a minority. Not just me as an individual, but ‘me’ on an institutional, and systemic, level. My college is not an exception in this, although other organisations have been more forthright in exploring both the minority position and ‘whiteness’. Black and Asian networks (BAATN), Irish communities (iCap), those working with gender and sexuality (Pink Therapy), others getting uncomfortable with discussions on ‘race’, ethnicities, culture and power (Aashna and Minster Centre).

The mental health professional field is contradictory. On the one hand, the intention is to heal, strengthen and support clients to live more fully, with integrity. On the other, the profession’s history has some pretty harsh realities of suppressing, even creating scientific justification for Othering those who are different; often dehumanising an ‘entire’ race or community, justifying and enabling atrocities from slavery to pathologising homosexuality, to putting many women in mental asylums for not acquiescing to the male figures in their lives.

I’ve been part of a student-initiative looking at our experience and relationship with diversity and difference, both personally and professionally, and although I’ve done a fair amount of work on this theme, I find it’s (I am) an evolving process. I only woke up to the historical element with Rose Cameron’s book, which covers marginalisation on an individual, institutional and systemic levels.

I’ve always been clear: I’m not white. I may look white to some, but that doesn’t matter, because I am not ethnically ‘white’ or European. I know what it is to be exoticised, Orientalised and objectified based on what I look and sound like. The frozen fear I experience, when the whiff of persecution sways in the air connects me as much to childhood experiences of war to my great grandparents’ stories of migration as refuge. Black Earth Rising is as much my region’s turmoil as it is Africa’s, from the draws of the colonial powers and corruption to genocides and survival guilt.

And I am white. I am visibly not black or brown. That reality, and privilege, of that reality, is something I’m choosing to be with. In the past, I’ve been frustrated at not fitting into any one category, of being an ‘invisible Muslim’, questioned on my Iraqi-ness by other Iraqis etc that I’ve often refused to accept the privilege that comes with that same facade.

I can relate to both explorations into whiteness and those from ethnic minority perspectives. And I’m not sure how I fit into any one of the organisations listed above. Beyond my individuality, my entire country is a misfit of ethnicities, religious, colonial influences (from Ottoman to British) and languages and tastes and smells, and I am still more white than the majority of my own family. When I don’t want to stick out, I can better hide under the umbrella of my relative invisibility. That’s my reality.
A sleeveless top and exposed hair as telling as my pasty olive tones.

I’m sitting with the privilege of not having my race thrust upon me at every turn by those unaware of theirs.
And I feel a nonverbal affinity with those of ethnic minorities groups, which I sensed without any cognitive understanding, when I chose my first psychotherapist in 2013, the start of my therapy training; I didn’t care where they were from, as long as they were ‘ethnic’, and basically, not white or European. I had experienced different colours of objectification that frankly, I was less interested in exploring their colour blindness than my own baggage. It’s not my job to educate my therapist, that’s their responsibility (and their training college).

However, the affinity I felt with ‘minorities’ also blinded me. I was unable to feel provoked when my formidable mixed race trainer/ teacher pushed me for a year, possibly in an attempt to explore transferences, yet was triggered at the first push from their white, male colleague. The same-ness I felt towards them and their race blinded me to their power, their hierarchy, essentially, them. My heritage of safety in same-ness needs to shift to truly accept- on a body and spiritual level- the beauty and richness of difference.

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