Author Rukhsana Khan has talked in the past, though perhaps not in as much detail, about incidents of bullying and racist abuse towards her and her family, following their immigration to Canada from Pakistan. As Anti-Bullying Week in the UK draws to a close, and in the hope that by bringing such instances into the open they may never be repeated, we welcome Rukhsana’s guest post today.
By Rukhsana Khan:
When we first came to Canada from Pakistan in 1965, not only were we children bullied at school but my father, a tool and die maker, was bullied at work. Some of his fellow workers wouldn’t call him by name, they’d call him ‘black bastard’, and he put up with it because he had a wife and four children to feed. When we first arrived, he was making about $7 an hour. That doesn’t sound like much now but back then it was good money. However, within a year of buying our house in Dundas, Ontario, and my little sister and brother being born, he got laid off. He ended up accepting another job for $2.35 an hour. At the end of the month, after paying the bills, we had about five dollars a week with which to buy food; most of the time we ate dill weed and potatoes because it was cheap and filling.
We were the only Pakistani Muslim family in Dundas. The other kids in my class didn’t know much about brown people. When I was in elementary school the other children would tell me and my sisters that they were white because they were clean and we were brown because we were dirty. They said that if we went home and took a lot of baths we’d get white like them. So we tried it. We took five baths a day for about two weeks. When that didn’t work, we tried baby powder and finally, we stopped drinking chocolate milk for a while.
When I got to middle school things got so much worse. Suddenly it really mattered what clothes you wore, and back then it had to be jeans. I didn’t even ask my parents to buy them for me; I knew they couldn’t afford them. Instead I asked for some men’s polyester work pants I saw in the Sears catalogue. I figured they looked like jeans, they just didn’t cost that much. This attempt at trying to fit in was worse than if I hadn’t bothered but I didn’t know it at the time. Also, at school I often spoke out – a big mistake. I was always lucky to have some very supportive teachers, and stupidly I took to heart their encouragement to share my opinions and did so freely. I had very poor social skills. I read tons of books and in the books the kids who were outsiders and very different were eventually seen to possess extraordinary qualities and were valued – kind of like Cinderella. I don’t know what I was thinking, offering opinions and sticking my neck out when everyone else in the class tested the waters to make sure their words jived with the consensus before committing themselves to an opinion. That, coupled with the awkward way I dressed and my skin colour, really set me apart and made me a target for bullies.
Two of the most notorious of my bullies in grade seven and eight were the most popular boys in the school named John and Rick. John was very handsome. Rick was ugly but he had a very nice body so he was popular too. They formed the hub of the ‘in’ crowd. I desperately wanted to be friends with them. I thought I belonged with them. They were smart, witty and cool, and I thought they’d like me once they got to know me. There were other kids in the class I could have befriended but I thought they were losers and would only drag me down. There was one girl in particular, with very big breasts and bad acne. She was friendly enough, but I avoided her. John and Rick called her Betty Big Boobs when she wasn’t around. I never called her that: but I didn’t say anything to stop them either. I thought it was her problem and I had my own problems to deal with.
One day Betty didn’t come to school. I thought maybe she was sick but then the rumour went around that she’d tried to kill herself, and I felt horribly guilty for not having had the guts to stick up for her when they were calling her those names. I really thought I had the most miserable life in all the school; I never imagined someone else could have had it bad enough to consider suicide too. I vowed I’d make it up to Betty. I’d be really nice to her when she returned.
My teacher had to go to the office for something and as soon as he left, Rick got up and made an announcement. He sounded very official. He said, “Class, it’s come to our attention that our dear Betty has tried to end it all. We will now have a two-minute silence for our dear Betty.” And then John and Rick and all the bimbo girls around them started snickering and giggling through their own two-minute silence. I couldn’t believe it. Why didn’t someone say something? All the other losers just sat looking around at each other. Nobody said a word for that poor girl. I thought, “Why don’t I say something?” And then I thought, “I can’t! If I do, they’ll just jump on me. She’s not even here.” And I thought, “Just wait till Betty gets back. I’ll be her friend.”And I looked at John and Rick and I thought, “I don’t want to be your friend any more. I don’t even want you to like me, because if you like me, then maybe I’m like you in some way, and I don’t want to be like you.” I thought, “You go your way and I’ll go mine.”
Betty never did show up for school. And John and Rick and those bimbo girls ended up going to a different high school. It always bothered me that I hadn’t had the guts to say anything to them. And so I wrote my novel Dahling, If You Luv Me, Would You Please, Please Smile to kind of atone for that act of cowardice.