The first time I realised I had ‘white-passing’ privilege was when I started university.
Fairly late, I know. As a second generation Moroccan Muslim growing up in and around east London I’d always considered myself a minority, but I knew I wasn’t a ‘person of colour’ (despite not knowing the term back then). Due to where I’d grown up, my interactions with white people were limited: my school peers, and the teachers who taught them, had always predominantly been Black, Asian or Muslim. I’d get the occasional comment about the ‘luck’ of my skin colour, which today we’d label colourism, but really they were few and far between.
Fast forward to moving to Southampton for uni, where I felt the biggest culture shock. I went from spending my whole life surrounded by people I identified and felt comfortable with, to being thrust into a world where young adults didn’t think twice about what their parents would do to them if they knew they were consuming alcohol during freshers week.
Just as I had come from an ethnically very distinct area, the same could be said for white students who had grown up in white towns or areas. For many, they just didn’t ‘get it’. I had white skin, tight curls, no hijab and I ‘talked posh’ for someone who came from East London, apparently. Yet it appeared many white people just didn’t seem to understand the multifaceted identities of Muslim women, or of North Africans, and most assumed I was simply half-white.
Whenever terrorism or Islam came up, I was told I was ‘one of the good ones’ or ‘not like the rest of them’ when I made it evident that I took offence to their generalisations. On the occasions I wasn’t outnumbered and so felt empowered to speak out, I would ask what they meant, and watch as the Susan or Tom of the day stumbled through their false reasoning, putting it down to me not wearing a hijab or not being homophobic, as if these two things were a common personality trait among Muslims, rather than just being people.
“Whenever terrorism or Islam came up, I was told I was ‘one of the good ones’ or ‘not like the rest of them’”
It bothered me not just because of the inaccuracy of Muslims are actually like, but also because these people seemed to separate me from ‘them’, and somehow expected me to be grateful? That I was deemed ‘okay’ and not expected, like many visibly Muslim and Arab people are, to passionately denounce a lot of the behaviour that extremists have, and all because I had white skin?
I was once sat next to a student who, when conversation turned to the issue of cultural appropriation, boldly stated they thought it was ‘bullshit’ and ‘didn’t see what they had to be angry about.’ I asked what they meant and watched their facial expression slowly alter as they realised they said this sat beside someone who wasn’t white. I followed with an explanation into cultural appropriation and why people of colour had every right to be angry or challenge it. I didn’t say anything new or insightful, in fact I probably repeated what Amandla Stenberg stated in the very YouTube video that sparked that night’s very debate. Predictably, the student accepted what I had to say, and said they ‘get it now’.
I realised from that encounter that my words in that space were taken more seriously because of the privileged colour of my skin. Despite not exactly being my own words, despite countless people of colour having doubtless said the same thing (and many likely going into more eloquent detail before me), I still had more power to be listened to because my skin wasn’t ‘threatening’ towards white people. That night, I saw first-hand how having white skin was an automatic free pass to being more respected and valued as a human.
I wish I had, but I never asked these people if the reason they felt so comfortable making these statements around me was because I have white skin. I already know the answer, but I find myself wondering frequently whether they do.
At times I believe that no, they don’t, it’s just unconscious bias. Then I’m contradicted, because these same people drop eye contact, restructure their argument or simply hum in agreement when a person of colour does enters the conversation. In other words, they completely shut down – cutting themselves off from all debate and conversation due to not wanting to appear racist or being made to feel uncomfortable because of their white privilege.
I wish I could say this confusion and desperate need to categorise me stopped when I graduated. But it was just the start. As an adult, I’ve experienced a barrage of comments about me were intended to be complimentary.
This even carried on into the workplaces I joined in the book publishing industry, where BAME representation was, and remains, scarce. I watched as a senior manager said an Asian book wouldn’t sell as well as a white book in casual conversation, and I watched as no-one in the room batted an eyelid. I, shamefully, kept my mouth shut, quietly seething.
And I heard another – despite so much evidence to the opposite – openly claim the industry focuses too much on diversity. I remember how that episode I gravitated towards the few other BAME people that had witnessed these incidents. Due to my skin colour, I hadn’t always been entirely sure whether I fit into the BAME category, but I also knew that I didn’t entirely fit into the white category either. As a result, I often felt stuck. Considering myself BAME felt as if I were unfairly taking up the space BAME people of colour already have such little of; but culturally and ethnically, I identified with them the most.
“I watched as a senior manager said an Asian book wouldn’t sell as well as a white book. Nobody batted an eyelid.”
I think back to those moments a lot, how care-free these people were in front of me, and I remember how white the book industry is – by most metrics almost 90% white. This lack of representation means many of the precious few BAME people within the industry continues to dwindle, challenging the white majority within it isn’t without consequence, many are ostracised or pushed into leaving, and those who do have the professional power to challenge white people within the industry are few and far between.
What ate away at me was that I was receiving the best treatment because of my skin colour. That my input was valued more because my skin made me more ‘relatable’, and made the conversations around white privilege softer and less threatening for white people. How I’ve been complimented as being ‘approachable’ on race and social justice, despite being on the receiving end of comments made to make me feel welcomed as the ‘other’.
White-passing people like me have become too comfortable in our place in our white world, and I think many have become too settled in to uproot themselves from it.
I am not a perfect human, and as a result figuring out the reality of my privilege in my skin colour took time and experience. When you’re white-passing, figuring out where to draw the line in where we stand with our ethnicity, race, and ‘otherness’ is slightly murky. As a result, what I identify with in terms of race and ethnicity is yet to be determined, especially as I continue to discover how these two different communities view me.
The biracial artist and actress Zendaya once said she was “Hollywood’s acceptable version of a black girl”. I think Zendaya’s words resonate with me, too. I am the acceptable form of a Muslim; the acceptable form of an Arab North African. It’s a win-win for white people when they befriend or employ me – I am a window display that they want to believe proves they’re unbiased, but I’m not ‘too far’ outside of their white comfort zone either.
But if I am considered ‘diversity’, then the bar is officially in hell.
Have a compelling personal story you want to tell? Find out what we’re looking for here, and pitch us on firstname.lastname@example.org