It’s confirmed: however dire the events that take place in my country, they are less important than what happens in the world of my white American friends.
Let me lay out the context.
The day before the US election results were announced, a blanket anxiety lay over my social media over a possible Trump win. I was unfazed, and apparently, not the only one: The Guardian published an article on the same day from a familiar name. “The rest of the world,” wrote the ever-unapologetic Mohammad Hanif, “has had it with US presidents. Trump or otherwise.”
His article was a searing overview of the US’s sinister, imperialistic policies over the past decades: the military dictators bankrolled, the drone strikes conducted, the massacres overseen. “Elect the person you believe will save the US soul,” he wrote, “but don’t send him out into the world to save us.” Finally, I thought, a ready-made perspective that I can share with others, without having to gesticulate awkwardly over dinner.
So I shared it with a group of friends. A group of eight from around the world, out of whom one is an LGBTQ friend from the US. We’ll call her Lauren.
She messaged me separately.
The sharing of an article laying out a Pakistani perspective on the US elections leads to accusations of insensitivity by a white American. Are the gut-wrenching tragedies of people of colour not equally important and equally relevant to the global conversation?
“This article really rubbed me the wrong way,” her message began. “If Trump wins again, it has a huge effect on me personally. As a gay woman who could have many of her rights taken away, I am not delving into its merits today. I just want my country to be safe and fair for me and my family. Why would you share this now?”
I panicked. I thought to myself, it’s true, he is not my president. My rights will not be affected. The name Joe Biden may remind me of the name Barack Obama, which may take me back to a decade of violent instability, but that is irrelevant right now. These are my friend’s country’s elections, not mine, and she has a right to stake her claim. My side-story as a Pakistani is irrelevant right now. I should have considered her worry first. I should apologise.
“I’m sorry,” I replied quickly, guiltily. “I saw this headline and I was in the middle of a million things, and I just unthinkingly shared it. It was insensitive. I’m sorry.”
I was in the middle of berating myself further when she replied:
“This comes off more as a sh***y ‘I’m sorry I made this situation uncomfortable for myself’ sort of apology,” the text began. To paraphrase the rest: I was thoughtless, insensitive, and I gave hollow apologies.
I needed to sleep on this before replying.
Not too long ago, Al Jazeera declared Karachi as the most dangerous city in the world, in an article titled “Karachi’s Killing Fields”.
Vice Media did a five-part docu-series on this a few years ago. It starts with the first title: “Karachi — Pakistan’s most violent city”.
“We hear about violence in Pakistan all the time,” says the narrator, over shaky camera footage of bloodied men on stretchers, Edhi ambulances, burning rickshaws and the charred remains of abandoned cars. “As Americans have escalated drone attacks in the Taliban areas, the Taliban have increasingly moved to the cities. And Karachi, with its huge Afghan population, is the perfect place to blend in.”
I remember the dull thud that shook the windows when an attack near Gymkhana happened. We had been at my sister’s house in PECHS, when the glass windows rattled and, just a few minutes after, the streets were inundated with the wails of ambulances. My nephew was six at the time. He turned to me and asked, “Ab hum mar jaayein ge? [Will we now die?]”
Now, as I am writing this article, I struggle to remember which attack this was. Was this the same one where my classmate, who lived near the Sindh Club, came to school with legs scraped from glass that a nearby explosion had blown out her window? Which was the one where I almost missed my flight because all main roads were blocked by burning vehicles? Oh, remember the time the airport was overtaken by the Taliban, and all planes were blocked from entering the city? Or one of the first Shia funerals I went to, after my classmates’ father was shot point-blank in the face in broad daylight? Around when was it that I would carpool home, and giggle with my friends while pointing at Suzukis with bearded men holding Kalashnikovs, saying, “Do you think that’s them? It’s the Taliban?” All the while pulling our dupattas tighter around our chests.
In trying to distinguish all these events, I realise that Wikipedia has separate pages for each year: grim hyperlinked titles such as “Terrorist incidents in Pakistan in 2013”; “July and August 2011 target killings”, “Improvised explosive device bombings in Karachi”, etc. I click one at random: it’s a chronological list of every attack that was made each month, condensed into a bulletin point. It’s a long entry. I scroll for a while before the page ends.
When Lauren read Hanif’s article, had she considered any of this? Did she imagine the everyday realities of those who live in the list of affected countries? Had she given any thought to where I may have been coming from?
I brooded over her text all next day. By now, it looked clear that Biden was going to win. Perhaps the knee-jerk stress reaction had worn off. I took this moment to reply.
“The article does not say anything about LGBTQ rights,” I said in my response. “It talks about the export of war, and disastrous foreign policy. I grew up in a city besieged by terrorism because of it, so I cannot deny it. However, I recognise that the timing was insensitive, and for that I apologise.”
She responded: “I’m confused by this. Let’s meet in person.”
Somewhere on the internet, there is a video of a man standing in a field in Waziristan, talking to an interviewer in Urdu. "I come to your house, and inside your house I kill your brother, your sister, your mother or your father, or your little innocent children. What will be in your heart?"
Brown University estimates the total tally for Pakistan at 65,000 dead in post 9/11 effects (Pakistan estimates the death toll at over 100,000), a tally that does not include “indirect deaths”. “Indirect harm occurs when wars’ destruction leads to long term, ‘indirect’ consequences for people’s health in war zones,” the report says.
I put off meeting Lauren until the results were officially announced, and it was clear that Trump was out. The stress must be over by now, I thought. Her head must be clearer.
As we got a drink and sat at a table, I congratulated her on the Biden win. Then I said, “Let’s get the elephant out of the room.”
“When you sent that article, you didn’t consider what the election results would mean for me. My right to get married and my right to healthcare was all under threat. Your apology was insincere, and it missed the point — which is that you didn’t bother to consider my perspective or feelings.”
Then the tears began to stream down her face.
“You avoided meeting me, and I noticed, but you cannot be so averse to hearing it. Your parents never taught you how to express emotion, and this makes it stifling to be around you. Because I need to be able to tell you how hurtful your lack of consideration was.”
I have my own failing here. Somehow in all this, I was still giving her the benefit of the doubt; I had assumed, stupidly, that she had understood where I was coming from. Surely she must know about the destruction her country had caused mine. I had so stupidly assumed that she knew I had been as concerned for the stability of my country and the safety of my family, as she had been for hers.
But I could not keep narrative control over the conversation, because I needed to soothe my sobbing, hurt friend instead. If I stepped in with my perspective, I would reinforce her claim that my parents have left me unable to empathise. I rationalised it and thought, well, she is the US citizen in the room, not me; she has more of a right. If there is zero acknowledgement of where I am coming from, it must mean it’s not relevant. Stupid of me to ever bring it up.
So I said: “I suppose you’re right. I need to reconsider the intention behind my apologies. I guess I need to introspect more. I’m sorry I made you feel this way.”
My eyes remained dry. I was too baffled to emote.
Fourteen thousand, four hundred and forty US drone strikes were carried out between 2010 and 2020, across Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia.
Sixteen thousand, nine hundred and one were killed.
Of these, an estimated 454 were children.
This count doesn’t include the ripple effects from splinter groups, who attacked the rest of us in their vengeful bids of anger against the US government.
That night, after meeting my friend, I went home feeling smaller than I have felt in years. I didn’t sleep until dawn.
It took a couple of days before I realised it: this was manipulation. My perplexity turned, finally, into anger, an anger directed mostly towards myself. Because what was behind those moments of my repeated apology? It was a worldview manifesting itself: that our story is just “not that important”.
After all, we were just the collateral damage on America’s noble quest of counterterrorism: death tolls were just necessary, inevitable background noise. We have all heard this in our classrooms: an American dog’s life is worth three Pakistani human lives. US-led drone strikes violated our sovereignty, their war on terror caused our economy a colossal loss and their post-9/11 interventions killed 244,000 civilians across Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan. But this was all stuff that happened “over there”. You can’t link it to what’s actually happening in the US, and bring it up now. It’s me who should’ve been more sensitive — my friend’s own personal stakes were important.
I let myself be entirely manipulated into this worldview. I will never not flagellate myself for this.
What was really going on in that exchange, between a white woman who grew up in the LGBTQ community in the US, and a brown woman who grew up in Karachi, Pakistan, during the 2000s?
Mamta Motwani Accapadi, fellow at the University of Houston, has said it for all of us. “The challenge and responsibility of any person who has a ‘one up/one down’ identity, with one identity that is privileged and another that is oppressed, is to recognise when their privileged identity is the operating norm.”
Consider the additional excerpts from her article, “When White Women Cry: How White Women’s Tears Oppress Women of Colour.”
“How might we assess the situation if, during [a] conflict, the White woman was crying while the Asian American woman continues to talk without any noticeable change in her tone of voice? ... Certain stereotypes of Asian Americans characterise them as unfeeling and/or devoid of emotion, therefore… the Asian American woman, showing no physical reaction, must not be experiencing emotion. We might conclude that the Asian American woman caused the White woman to cry, without regard for her feelings.
“The White woman’s reality is visible, acknowledged, and legitimised because of her tears, while a woman of colour’s reality is invisible, and overlooked.”
Consider, also, the words of Shay Stewart Boulay, blogger at Black Girl in Maine: “My experience has been that few white women can sit with emotional discomfort around certain issues... and when they are challenged, they take out the one weapon that society has given them. Tears. These tears serve to shut down any constructive conversation and instead ... the goal shifts to soothing the white woman and taking care of her feelings, typically at the complete expense of the Black person’s feelings.”
Lastly, consider the experience of Ruby Hamad, author of White Tears/Brown Scars: “When I have attempted to speak to or confront a white woman… I am met with tearful denials and indignant accusations that I am hurting her. My confidence diminished and second-guessing myself, I either flare up in frustration at not being heard (which only seems to prove her point) or I back down immediately, apologising and consoling the very person causing me harm.”
It was a textbook power dynamic. I had walked into a classic trap.
It took a few days of mulling over before it finally sunk in: I never should have apologised in the first place.
Yet, I did. I do so because her tears, streaming across me, held a gun to my head, and demanded a worldview so convincingly justified in its own self-absorption, that I could not dare suggest space for nuance.
That apology was a disservice to the thousands affected by crossfire.
In writing this article, I have dredged up a lot of memories from that era. I have come to recognise a quiet trauma that we all must carry, a trauma entirely unexpressed in our discourse. A trauma that shows up in our characteristic dark humour and gets written off, always, as “resilience”.
Our country has seen gut-wrenching tragedies. We should be able to talk about them without being attacked. They are equally important and equally relevant to the global conversation. They matter.
People of the US: the rest of the world hates to break it to you but, to varying degrees, your elections affect all of us. Which means that two conflicting realities will coexist, and they will both be equally valid. Pointing them out, regardless of timing, does not make one inconsiderate and selfish.
Please, resist diminishing us.
Please, just try to understand this.
The writer works at Minority Rights Group and is based in Budapest, Hungary. She tweets at @ifra_asad
Published in Dawn, EOS, April 4th, 2021