A life lived: snapshots of a family

Pakeezah Zahoor has held roles in a number of cultural organizations and now works at the National Science and Media Museum. She has a background in postcolonial theory and is concerned with ideas surrounding race, culture and identity. This letter is written in response to the politics and practices of ‘the diversity agenda’. Replies welcome.

Can you see me? It’s just that my whole life I’ve been looking at you and trying to look like you. In fact, I think we’ve all been trying to look like you and to talk like you too. Perhaps we’ve spent too much time in attempts to reflect you, see ourselves through your eyes, talk about ourselves through your eyes. Just to clarify, it’s not because we hate ourselves but because we knew, though nobody told us this, it was the only way we’d be seen and counted. That constant pressure to evolve from our working class, free school meals, brown, immigrant selves; into as white, middle-class a version as we could muster. And I wasn’t even conscious of it until just yesterday, the fog suddenly lifting around a realisation that I can’t actually be other than who I am.

And you know, these days I’d rather look at my mum than at you. Hear about how she was betrothed to my dad at birth, how the thought to question this decision made on her behalf wouldn’t have crossed her mind. That she married my dad at 20 but spent 11 years in Pakistan before she was able to join him in the UK. I want to know how she bore that period of time with patience, determined that she would have a home of her own one day. I can’t imagine how my mother, beautiful and smart, spent her twenties waiting like that. I’d rather look at my dad, who moved to the UK at 11 years old, growing up in a country where as a teenager, he had to fight and defend himself against skinheads at the end of every school term. Whose teachers told him not to bother applying to University, who read stories about great leaders in Muslim history to give him a sense of place and to keep his identity intact. I can’t imagine my dad, a man of words, at 17 creating a makeshift weapon to use should he need to.

It would do you good to look closer at my mum and dad too. You say you want to engage with ‘diverse’ audiences, open up your establishments to everybody, showcase art from different cultures, reflect the society in which we exist. But you’re not even looking at us. How can you hope to establish meaningful engagement if you won’t even look at us? Why do you expect our participation when your understanding of our context is so limited?

It feels to me that the reality of the immigrant experience has been so steeped in shame that as a culture we’ve skimmed past it. Its being too unsightly – that poverty and confusion and shame, to find yourself in a country you don’t know, that constantly tells you that you don’t belong, that you’re not good enough and that you should just go back. And then to stay and try to make a home for yourself anyway. Our parents didn’t tell us about some of the uglier things they had to deal with, and no one else talked about it either. Being an immigrant almost certainly meant being working-class and working low-level jobs regardless of your potential. They focussed on raising and feeding their families whilst trying to gain a level of financial security. There weren’t many spaces in which they felt accepted and safe so the spaces they inhabited openly were limited; spending most of their spare time in the homes of friends and family. There was a lot of good food and a lot of laughter. They certainly didn’t step into walled institutions like the theatre or art galleries, even the white working class didn’t go in there. And because they didn’t go in there, well their children, they don’t go there either. They’ve grown up unfamiliar with these spaces and they have inherited the same sense of not belonging. And it can go on like this for generations.

So when you ask, ‘Why don’t they come?’ I’d say that an open door doesn’t always feel like an open door and that some barriers are invisible. I’d say that we are all human beings and we need to feel understood in order to build trust. We’d like to see more of us in your institutions, so we could recognise ourselves in you. We’d prefer it if the dynamic between us didn’t feel so distinctly focussed on our difference but simply on who we are. If it didn’t feel like you are the hand that gives and we the ones who receive. Maybe that way we’d just walk in without having to be asked.

If we could try to comprehend each other better, with clarity and honesty, then perhaps we could communicate a way to move on from the past.

Posted by:Helen Graham