When I was three, my uncle asked, “Lena, do you want to go to America?” After a moment of consideration, I replied “Let me go put on my shoes.”
We came here when I was four. We came because the country I was born in was unraveling. We came because my father’s brothers were here. We came because my parents feared for our futures. We came because it was dangerous there. We came because my parents thought our lives would be bigger and fuller in America. We came because everyone else was coming. We came because, in many ways, we felt like there was no other choice. We came for the same reasons everyone comes.
We settled in Queens, New York City, the best and brightest city in the world, second only to Karachi in our opinion. We learned English. The younger ones of us shamed and threatened into erasing any trace of accent, any hint of colonial legacy beaten into our parents’ tongues. We went to public school. We spent time with our neighbors, our white and brown neighbors who were hustling just like we were. And yes, we hustled, hard. We worked wherever and whenever we could. We studied. We were told that if we tried, really tried, the bold futures we had imagined would be in our reach. We did what everyone does.
Some of us made it. Some of us escaped our neighborhoods in big cities that sometimes felt like small towns. Some of us cried when opening acceptance letters to institutions created for traditionally reserved for the white upper class. Some of us breathed deep sighs of relief. Because despite our tiny apartments and the unpaid electric bills and the swastikas painted on our doors after September 11th and whispers of “terrorist” -- we would be okay, because we had been carefully selected for a better world.
We went to Good Schools. We met people our age who had never worked a day in their life. We met people who had never met anyone who was not white. We tried brie. We reserved our Queens accents for homecomings. We learned about revolution in ivy laced buildings. We trusted our white peers because they were smart. They were different. Sometimes they said things that made us cringe, sometimes we had to call them in, but they were good people. They told us they were good people.
We went to work. Or we didn't get jobs. We went home to ailing and aging and loving parents. We visited our friends in big new apartments in our cities. We admired the molding of pre-war buildings. “The neighborhood is still coming up but we got a really good deal.” We visited for months and watched as police towers parked on their corners and sidewalks slowly emptied of black and brown families. Their glowing ruddy cheeked parents took us to brunch. We talked about the news. They talked about pogroms and honor killings and urban poverty and how it was “so sad” and America should “do something”. We stayed silent. We mentioned Guantanamo and drone bombings and the prison industrial complex. They stayed silent.
We went home. We told our friends about hate crimes and occupation. They nodded sympathetically. That evening, they called a hotline when they Saw Something. We told them about Oscar Grant, Mike Brown, Sandra Bland. They shook their heads in disbelief but crossed the street. They dismissed extended family’s vitriol. They lowered their eyes and stayed silent on the F train while a woman’s hijab was ripped off her head. They asked us why we were so angry. They asked us why we couldn’t just relax. They said we were being sensitive.
They wail and weep. They ask how this could have happened. They take to the streets. They chant until their throats are raw. They march until their feet bleed. They told us they were afraid of this new world, this new world that’s different from the world that belonged to them. How did this happen? How could this happen?
We tell them this has always been our world, but it’s just worse now. We ask them, where were you when the prisons swelled? Where were you when another Black person was killed? Where were you when immigration policies and surveillance culture disappeared our families and communities? Where were you when your friends and cousins and uncles and neighbors and newspapers and governments and schools set this stage? Where were you?
We tell them to get their people. We tell them that this is in their hands and they can no longer deny direct responsibility. We tell them that the ones who feared us were right to be afraid. We are dangerous. Because even though we are scared and exhausted we will be alright, those of us who have never been alright, we will survive only because that’s what we’ve always done and that’s what we’ll always do. With them or without them.