On Grief, Rage, & the Performance & Need for Palatability when it comes to [Our] Pain
Updated June 10th, 2021
therapy, from Nayyirah Waheed’s salt. (2013)
My heart is heavy, so heavy, at the news of a 9 year old boy, the soul survivor of an Islamophobic attack that killed his sister, his parents, and his grandmother. 3 generations of the same family, gone in an act of hatred.
It feels like every single day, people of colour are mourning. Another day, another devastation, and we are still not numb to it. Our hearts break over and over again every single day. We tape them together every night, and take on the world – a world set to stifle us, destroy us, to disappear us – every single day.
It’s been like this for a long time, but it’s been especially salient over the last year. A year where we’ve grappled with a pandemic that disproportionately affects Black and Brown people, a pandemic which has led to violence and hatred against East Asian people. On top of this, we’ve dealt with racial reckoning after racial reckoning, after racial reckoning.
I just feel so full to the brim with grief all the time.
And it’s not just me. Racialized people: Black people, Brown People, Indigenous People, other people of colour – it’s like we’re all mourning all the time, Confronted with ugly truth, after ugly truth – trauma after trauma.
White supremacy is literally killing us. It has been chipping away at us for years, largely unchecked, and it still shows no signs of slowing down.
As we process and cope with unimaginable grief, again and again, despite [our] pain, we still are held to impossible standards in the ways we “perform” our grief. Despite our rage, and heartache, and bone-deep exhaustion, we need to be eloquent, palatable, polite.
It’s exhausting. I’m exhausted. I’m so full of rage and grief and heartache that i am overflowing.
I don’t have the energy or the empathy to write something thoughtful and poignant so my pain, & grief, & trauma, & anger is relatable enough, and palatable enough so white people will think I’m human enough to sympathize with me.
Maybe they will react with a clapping emoji, to show me they “get it”. Or, perhaps they will tell me how eloquent I am, how articulate. How well I express myself, and leave it at that, patting themselves on their back because they have done their service.
A compliment on how neatly I can fold and contort myself and my pain into a shape you can understand, you can share, you can “like”.
A commendation of the ways I have tucked away the raw, open wound that is my heart, covered it with flowers, and presented it to you, hidden under sentences and sentences of prose and metaphor.
A welcome mat placed on top of the bodies, and the blood, enter here for a smart and nuanced take you can share on social media, before tucking your purse closer to your chest, and crossing the street when you see us walking towards you.
You want me to lay myself bare, vulnerable, raw, but still composed, still articulate, still thoughtful, still polite, still palatable – always palatable.
You want me to perform pain in the key of A Minor, a single tear tracing its way down my cheek, as i belt a moving and meaningful ode to melting pots and mosaics, and multiculturalism… But I just want to scream as loud and hard, and long as I can, until I have no voice left.
You want me to type a ‘think piece’ trying to justify my own humanity, but my hands are drenched and dripping in blood – I don’t know where it’s coming from, but I know it’s my own. My people’s.
My people are all people kissed by the sun, a shade or 3 shades, or 5 shades too dark. The boogeyman in our stories, passed down from generation to generation, is white supremacy. My people know that “none of us is free until all of us are free.”
My people wear intergenerational trauma like an accessory.
My people are bleeding on the streets, a whole family run down for what they believe, what they look like, what they wear.
My people go to the masjid for prayers and never return – rows and rows of empty shoes, just waiting there, for feet that will never kiss them again.
My people are all those who are occupied, fighting for their freedom, their land, their olive trees, their lives, while our newspapers won’t even name them as a people.
My people braved the seas in flimsy boats, sat in violence and danger for years, finally let into a new country, for a fresh start – begging for change at the train station while the headlines celebrate the prime minister’s humanity, his curls. He loves us so much he painted his skin for us. What an ally. What a guy.
My people are shot and killed, or “fall off their balconies” when their families just want to help them… My people are afraid of cops.
My people are dying every day, victims of drones, and imperialism, and violence, colonialism, and greed. Every time i see a “support our troops” bumper sticker, i want to peel it off, clawing at every bit of it until my fingernails bleed.
215 children’s bodies are discovered in an unmarked grave, and the pope gives us “closeness”. He says he wishes we hadn’t been traumatized by this discovery – I wish children hadn’t been taken from their homes, whole generations abused and murdered. Languages, cultures, and lives lost forever.
But somehow [we] are the dangerous ones.
A state of emergency, a boil water advisory, a suicide epidemic – how many ways we have failed Indigenous communities over and over again. Sharing book lists by Indigenous authors, over and over again – “so sad” you’ll caption. “we need to do better”.
I am so tired of a different headline every day. I’m tired of “saving” things for later on Instagram, so I can stagger the traumas of racialized people, just so white people don’t burn out on their ✨acTiViSM✨, or on me.
I’m tired of trying to clicking through Instagram stories of picnics in the park, and cottages, interspersed with people raging, & begging for some humanity, for some empathy, for support.
This cute Instagram infographic industrial complex started so white people could find the ugly truths swept under rugs a little more palatable, a little more cute, a little more ✨aesthetic✨, so you might post it on your grid, collect a gold star, then crash a vaccine clinic in a poor and racialized community, to try to get their second dose early.
I think about how the last time i went to the mosque, I prayed in the car the whole drive there: “Allah protect us, protect us, please protect us”.
I think about the year of nightmares I had after the mosque shooting in Quebec. I think about how I have never taken a picture in a hijab until this year, and even then, I never shared it with anyone.
I think about crying at my desk every day, the week I heard about the massacre at Christchurch. This year, on the anniversary, I locked myself in the room, recited all the names of the victims, and prayed for every single one of them, sobbing the whole time. It took me nearly an hour.
I think about a high school friend asking why all Muslims didn’t denounce all terrorists if we actually disagreed with them? I think about leaving an hours long window whenever we’re crossing the border into the US “just in case”. I think about me, an 8 year old, crossing the border to the US, being separated from my parents, and interrogated by border security. I think about the man who yelled at me to “go back where you came from, you motherfucjing Muslim” in downtown Toronto, in front of a Starbucks. I was surrounded by people, and somehow so embarrassed?? to be harassed by an Islamophobe?? “Sorry to interrupt your morning!” “Enjoy your oat milk latte!”
I think about an uncle lecturing my brother that he was never going to get a job until he changed his name from Muhammad. I remember friends and their parents begging me not to go to Pakistan because it was full of suicide bombs and terrorists, and other monsters. What about the bombs dropped from sky? The drone strikes making craters on our land? Killing our children? Why is the monster in your ugly fairy tale never them?
I remember posting about the school shooting in Peshawar, and my still salient grief, and a coworker messaged to say she was scared because she had to go to a wedding there. “Why are you scared?” I wanted to say. You’ll be safe. If anyone is safe, it’s you. Not just safe, but celebrated, protected. White women, we know, are protected to a fault – usually at the expense of people of colour.
I remember my parents suggesting my 12 year old sister stop wearing her hijab… Just to be safe. I remember being proud to have a Keffiyeh, and the first day I wore it, I was told it was a scarf for terrorists. I remember the “war on terror”, and the countless innocent Black and Brown lives lost to imperialism and hatred. I remember family friends escaping from the US to Canada, as refugees after 9/11… Because that’s how bad it was there. I wish we had known it was just as bad here.
So I bend, and twist, and shape myself to be just Muslim enough, but not too Muslim. Just Brown enough, but not too Brown. Just outspoken enough, but not too loud. Just sad enough, but not too sad. Just angry enough, but not too angry. Still polite. Always polite.
I am tired of people of colour needing to water down [our] feelings into sound bites that are just compelling, & smart, & thoughtful enough to share and quote and celebrate. But not crossing any line. Not offending delicate sensibilities.
What if i just want to cry, and cry, and cry, until salt stains my skin, and I need to change my pillow covers? What if I’m angry? What if I swear? What if I’m spitting with rage at the systems and the people who let things get this far? Is my grief still valid? What if I’m not innocent enough to be your perfect victim? Will you still mourn me?
In the heat of the moment of our deepest trauma, we have to say the right thing, be the right kind of sympathetic victim, perform our pain just so – and maybe, just maybe, someone will listen.
Then, you have to constantly be compelling and engaging enough so people don’t forget you. So the ‘news cycle’ doesn’t leave you behind.
It is exhausting having to constantly exist in this delicate balance between honouring the humanity of you and your people, and squeezing yourself into a mould so you are still acceptable to others.
What I’m saying isn’t new. It’s the echo of what activists, and theorists have been saying for years. Tone policing, and respectability politics are so often used to derail conversations and discussions away from the issues brought up, and turn them into ‘straw man arguments’, or distractions.
Our rightful – no righteous anger is viewed as hostile, or threatening, or hurtful, or too sensitive, or too emotional, or too offensive. If we are not gracious, and magnanimous, and welcoming, and kind, we are villains… God forbid we hurt your feelings while trying to advocate for our humanity, while trying to cope with unimaginable grief, while trying to fight for our lives.
“Boys will be boys.” “People make mistakes.” “Shit happens.” “Don’t make everything about race.” “Stop getting offended by everything.” “Not to be racist, but…”
White men and their bad days lead to murderous rampages… But God forbid you call a white person racist… God forbid you call it ethnic cleansing. Genocide. Oppression.
Everyone and everything gets excused but us.
So we mince our words, we bite our tongues, we protect fragile egos… All the while, holding a hand to our stomach to keep our guts from falling out. Better not get any blood on the carpet. Better not ruffle and feathers, or hurt any feelings.
But no more.
My rage is a wound, is grief; and my grief is a chasm, a void, a hungry maw, and it needs to be fed… With kindness and softness, and prayer, and community, and love – yes. But also, the tears, and the rage, and the snot, and the ache, and the screaming, and the nails digging into your arms, and the faces buried in hands, and the heartache, and the anger, and the pain, and the devastation. All of it.
How can we grieve if we can’t be unshackled from the weight of expectation, racism, judgment, oppression, violence?
How can we move forward when we can’t even grieve?
How can we heal?
Because I want us to heal. But I want us to feel our rage and our grief first.