09/09/2011 01:31 EDT | Updated 11/09/2011 05:12 EST

Your Skin Is Not Your Enemy


Few events can change the way you feel about your skin.

I was 10 years old during the Sept. 11 attacks, but I have little memory of the world before it. I was raised in a Calgary suburb so overwhelmingly white it made Salt Lake look like Compton. Racism is easy, and boy, are kids ever really good at it. After it happened, it really didn't matter how much your daughter loved Aladdin -- I was darker than her, and she was not going to like me.

Nearly every visible minority has a moment as a child when they realize they don't look like everyone else. For myself, and many others who looked like me, that moment came in the days and weeks following 9/11. In elementary school, I was one of three or four South Asian faces at our school. Children are cruel, but they're not too creative: calling me a terrorist and passing me notes with "Osama bin Laden's cousin" written on them isn't a real comedic stretch. Frankly, I'm a little embarrassed at their lack of ingenuity.

Come on, guys, put your back into it.

But realistically, my family was detached from 9/11. We lived far away, we are Hindu and not Muslim, and we come from India. We don't speak the same language or follow the same religion as those who were being profiled. Ten-year-olds are jerks, but I figured if it wasn't this, it would be something else.

Life went on, but so did fear within South Asian communities of being profiled. While we had no geographical, ideological or religious ties to the people who perpetrated the attacks -- and frankly, neither do a majority of Muslims -- we looked a lot like them.

And yet, it wasn't my Caucasian counterparts who showed the most racism after 9/11. I did. I bristled when people asked me if I was Muslim or if I wore a hijab at home. I was offended if someone asked if my family came from Pakistan or whether we were Persian. I began to think of it as "them" versus "us." I didn't want to be associated with "them." Not terrorists, but anyone who was being unjustly linked to them too.

Bluntly, I didn't want people to think I was Muslim. "They" were going to make my life harder for something "we" never had a hand in. "They" were the ones responsible and I wanted nothing to do with it. Being referred to as Muslim quickly changed from a harmless mistake to a black mark.

Having this reaction as a child is almost understandable, because what else could you think when your brain is still prepubescent? Still, there continue to be pockets within our communities who think this is a fight, and that we need to push back against the perception of being -- shudder -- Muslim.

I often wonder what would happen should someone from the Indian or Hindu community commit an act of equal magnitude in my lifetime, and how my skin will change yet again. Will people be uncomfortable being mistaken for an Indian? Will I revert to being a 10-year-old and cursing my dark hair and wide nose?

Some of the worst things I had heard about Muslims following 9/11 came from people within my communities. As a kid, it's easy to believe. As an adult, you can barely believe the gall.

Sept. 11 might not have necessarily changed anything for me or my family. Instead, it just highlighted some of the worst things in my nature and the inexcusable ways we react in fear. Racism is so easy. It's so convenient and casual and quiet. Ten years and I still have to remind myself that this isn't a fight between them and us.

Your skin colour can't be your enemy. Eventually you have to say, "You look like them, and I look like you, but they are not our brothers." They are not a part of our homes, our families or our communities.

There's a perception that 9/11 is the cause of racism against Muslim citizens, but that's just a convenient lie. Sept. 11 didn't create racism; it just brought it back to the surface and gave us a way to rationalize it. I'm still guilty of it, as are many in my community. It's still work to accept that it's not "them" and "us." You just can't hate someone for looking like someone else you hate. You can't even do it if they all look like you.

I'm fine waiting a little longer at airport security and having my passport questioned. I can deal with a few uncomfortable looks on international flights. All I can hope is that if someone who looks like me does something senselessly heinous again, I will have the sense to look past complexion through to intent.

That, and I hope schoolyard bullies get a little more creative. "Osama bin Laden's cousin?" Surely we can all do a little better than that.