Model, Unicef Ambassador and Vogue Arabia Diversity Editor-at-Large Halima Aden shares how racially charged microaggressions have left her questioning herself – and how to take the power back
“A few days ago, I went to get my mail in my apartment building and as I was getting my key out, I saw an older white woman walking towards the door to exit. She looked up, saw me and quickly ducked down. I was waiting for her to stand up and leave when it dawned on me: she was hiding. Hiding from me. Riddled with discomfort, I gently opened the door and entered the room as she immediately rushed past me to exit. This isn’t the first time something like that has happened to me. Racist microaggressions are an inescapable daily occurrence for not only myself, but anyone who looks like me.
In my adolescence, I used to question myself. I didn’t have the words for such encounters and would often spend hours thinking about it. Racism is always taught in the form of an overt insult or attack even though, often, it is incidents like these – stemming from rotten stereotypes and the villainizing of black people – that sting the most. Sometimes, no words are uttered but the feeling of being othered is loud and clear.
A similar thing happened while I was waiting to get on a flight from Minneapolis-Saint Paul airport, where I was interrogated about my business class ticket while my white manager and other white passengers were welcomed by the airline, no questions asked. When I asked why I was the only one being stopped, I was given nothing but meaningless excuses.
I recount these stories to illustrate a much bigger point. Due to the nature of my work, I travel a lot and I consistently find myself as a hyper-visible minority – the only black woman and the only Muslim at luxury hotels, fancy restaurants, and in the first-class cabin on flights, to name a few. Many people refuse to believe that someone like myself can coexist in what they so evidently deem as ‘their’ space. A space that has for centuries been systemically reserved for whites only, while shutting the door firmly on the rest of us.
People often say, if life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Well, what if life doesn’t hand you the cup? What if life doesn’t give you water, or sugar? The reality is, we don’t have the same privileges. Four-hundred years of strategic oppression and systematic injustices have made sure of that. Even after the civil rights movement in the US, there were endless laws and policies put into place that till this day disadvantage African American and Latino communities in all aspects of life.
I don’t need to be the ‘bigger person;’ white people need to do better
For too long, I’ve been told to turn the other cheek when faced with racism, be it in my own apartment building or public places like the airport. Situations, where I’m not at fault yet, am still expected to rise above unjust mistreatment simply because it has been the easier solution. Easier than holding people accountable for their racism and demanding change. Well, I refuse. I don’t need to be the ‘bigger person;’ white people need to do better.
I’m going to use this column to fight against racism in all forms. Educate yourselves. Acknowledge your privilege. Actively practice anti-racism until it is as embedded into society as institutionalized racism has been for centuries. Starting today, I challenge you to visit, learn from, and consider getting involved in three organizations. If you begin with these three I’ve chosen to highlight, I hope you will be motivated to keep pushing yourself to find other great resources. The NAACP, Tory Burch Foundation, and Gyrl Wonder all work to advance young women and people of color, just like me.”
Halima Aden shares three causes close to her heart
The vision of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in the US is to ensure
a society in which all people have equal rights without discrimination based on race. Naacp.org
Tory Burch Foundation
Empowering women entrepreneurs by assisting with loans and mentorship. Toryburchfoundation.org
Giving rise to the ambitions of young women of color. Gyrlwonder.org
Originally published in the July/August 2020 issue of Vogue Arabia