Confronting the complexities of race


February 19, 2020

“I was called a settler of color once and it still hits me really hard to think about the complexity of that concept.”


I was born in Japan in 1995, and lived there for almost seven years, for seven years of my life. My dad then got an appointment at the National Institutes of Health, so NIH, in DC, and we moved to the states in 2001. Exactly a month after 9/11. So it was a really tumultuous time for us because we are actually Muslim Americans. So my first exposure to the United States was post 9/11 as Muslims in DC. I remember a few things, not too much, but I just know that was significant.

For example, there was a coloring activity that we would have to do at school where, you know, it's like all the children holding hands around the globe and you would color, right? She [my mother] remembers feeling insulted because the teacher gave me a black crayon. And she was like, my daughter's not black. She's brown, there are different shades of colors. You know, everyone else got like a white or like a tan crayon, but she gave me a black one. So that's like, one thing that I remember. We honestly never explicitly spoke about race unless it had something to do with us. So I think for us, the racial marker was our religion, because I think religion has become racialized in time. But growing up, we definitely always spoke about, you know, you're not Christian. You're not American. You know, we're Muslim. We do it this way. We're Bengalis, we do it this way. I really wasn't allowed to, like, for example, hang out with people outside of school, because my mom especially did not trust that other people would treat me the same or like maybe they would feed me the wrong food.

But I think what has most influenced me is I've encountered these concepts and ideas about race, not necessarily in books and movies, but through community organizing, and working with the native population in the United States has significantly shaped my understanding of race, of coloniality, of my role in all of these projects. I was called a settler of color once and it still like hits me really hard to think about the complexity of that concept.

So it was a Native American woman who called me a colonizer of color. Because I hadn't even thought about, for example, this coat. She specifically noticed that when I entered tribal land, I wore brand name clothing. And she couldn't stand it. And for her she was like, you know, when you're in tribal land, like you're almost laughing at us for not having, you know, the capital, the resources, the affluence to own the things that you think are basic, like a winter coat.

And even still, even though I think I've come to terms with the complexity of that term, and that in, you know, critical race theory, for example, in racial justice conversations, that concept doesn't really stick, especially if you're in decolonial work. Concepts like ‘settler of color’ don't really stick because it's not the same; you cannot categorize immigrants to the same level as European colonizers in the United States. But I will not be like, today, I will not be the first person to bring this up. I will comment on it if the discussion follows. But I think that like, yeah, that apologetic or like sorrowfulness like still, like resides inside.

About the interviewer

Claire Rafford is a junior at the University of Notre Dame majoring in English and minoring in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy and Business-Economics.

Syeda (Fiana) Arbab

Syeda Arbab is a first-year student in the Keough School of Global Affairs focusing on sustainable development. She has spent most of her career advocating for racial and social justice around the country.