You’re labelled already, before you’ve even had a chance to say or do anything, if you’re from an ethnic minority background, and particularly if you’re from a Muslim background, you’re not an individual in your own right, you’re carrying the can for everyone else too. That you may have your own individual struggles does not matter. You represent a group, first and foremost. You’ve got to answer for your community and ‘your people’. Your mistakes have a far greater price attached to them, they’re reflective of others who come from your background. You’re supposed to hold yourself to a higher standard.
I recall going on a school trip once with other 14-15 year olds. The man responsible for our group at the trip wasn’t too pleased some of the kids were misbehaving. They were shouting and cussing one another, chasing each other, when all he wanted us to do was behave on the trip, but something interesting followed his rebuke of the boys’ behavior. ‘You’re supposed to be representing your communities’.
There was nothing particularly unique about the bad behaviour of the pupils, the issues and problems presented by them were the same as the problems presented by other pupils up and down the country. Yet what was unique was the response that followed and the special burden that we began to realise was being placed upon people from our kind of background, and that was this. Our mistakes weren’t just ours, and nor could they be written off as childish misdemeanours. Apparently, we had an added duty to represent and reflect our communities, even if we had no conception of ‘our communities’ at the time, and even if we were just young boys at school messing around like other school kids. We were not to be afforded the luxury of just simply being ourselves, we were also assigned the role of being markers for something far more significant.
This way of thinking, in which minorities are only ever treated as a collective and whereby their individual experiences and struggles are overlooked, is widespread and runs deeper than many would like to admit. I’ve been asked to explain the actions of others, after a terrorist attack for example, the usual ‘mate, why do you think they did this?’ or ‘why didn’t the community do more to prevent it?’. Of course, rarely do we here such questions asked if the perpetrator is not from a minority background. How many times did we hear people from white Caucasian backgrounds being asked to explain the actions of the man who reportedly drove a van into a crowd of worshippers outside Finsbury Park Mosque? In the aftermath of the Las Vegas shooting, did we hear demands for walls to be built or for the shooter’s ‘community’ to do more? As Khaled Beydoun put it ‘whiteness seems inextricably tied to the presumption of individuality and indigenousness.’
I’ve often had to ask myself questions based on the idea of my race and identity being tied a to a notion of collectivity. If for example I were to hand in an assignment late, would it look bad not only on me, but those from a similar background to mine? When you’re clearly one of a kind in any organisation or field, when you’ve broken the mould, you’re told to be a representative for others ‘like you’. It can never be about you as an individual, being judged on your attributes alone. The judgement passed on you is about the wider category to which you belong.
All of this occurs because being a minority, your identity is compartmentalised and you’re an ‘other’. It’s about time those from minority backgrounds were also given the ‘luxury’ of being treated as individuals and not be judged according to a wider category to which they belong. It’s a basic right.