I had only been there for few months when one evening my father announced our departure to America. I was thrilled and nervous at the same time, but the thought of starting a new life kept me going.
Work life in America was nothing like I had imagined it to be. From having my school name and degree on top of the resume it trickled to the very bottom, because who is concerned with a degree that focuses on a language that is their mother language? Nobody!
Within months, my career path changed, my dream of wanting to be a teacher molded itself into fighting for my place in a foreign workplace. For three years that I worked with my first employer, I was the only South-Asian among the team of hundred and ten. People who came to that store asked me about my ethnicity and which part of the world I had come from. And I always answered politely, illuminating the truth of being an anomaly.
These inquiries never truly bothered me, but what aggravated me was the added responsibility of proving myself just because I was the woman of color in that place. It was obvious from the very first day that I had to fight harder to move up the ladder of success. No matter how many extra tasks I took upon to complete by myself, I was always considered the “next best”.
My exotic skin apparently served as an invitation for the male gender to ask me out while I tried assisting them in the aisle to find their favorite food. They did not even realize how unimaginably uncomfortable it made me feel. I always felt scared of walking away from them, it was something I had not experienced before. The fear of standing up for myself held me back from everything.
Even when I had mustered up the courage to tell how I really felt, not only to customers but my bosses as well, it was not long before it became obvious that I was criticized for being out-spoken, micro-managing people and being overdramatic with my work. In reality I was just being honest with my team members, trying my best to guide my fellow colleagues on tasks they could potentially do differently that increased efficiency. But my different color and a little taste of exotic accent gave away my characteristics and being negative rather than passionate. I was automatically labelled a certain way.
Soon, I began to notice that being a woman of color in a city where South-Asians were hard to find, a certain group of people displayed no sense of respect towards me. Their facial expression, their retrieved steps, their rolling eyes and their words — all made it very clear that they did not like my presence in the room.
Let me tell you a story, this one time at work I picked up the phone on the second ring and said, “Good Afternoon, thank you for calling, you are speaking with Afifa, how may I assist you today?’ But the very thing that the person on the other side of the line said was, “May I please speak to somebody who is American?" For a few seconds I found myself dumbfounded, I did not know how to respond to that inquiry, and naturally I told the person on the line that my manager who was an American was not in the office, and I was left in charge. So, I asked them again, how could I assist them? But what happened next was an act of pure ignorance and racism.
The person decided to hangup on me.
Four years and three employers later, I know that people will always look at me differently. I will receive respect from people who know what it means to be humane. I will get my success with companies that value work over color. I will become friends with people who care about who I am as a person and not about how many prayers I offer a day. I will learn how to survive, because this world will never truly change, there will be people like me, who will have to stand against people that have been mentioned above.
A century where we are still fighting for people of color, change will come only when people will learn how to accept different races and know that it is not the color that tells them who we are, it is how we were raised that shows who we truly are and what we’ll become.