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Cathartic Reflections of a Diasporic Experience

Updated: Jan 28, 2022

by Nabeelah Razvi

Na-bill-ah, Nab-lah, Neeb-lah, Naeblah, Ribena. Growing up as a brown kid in predominantly white neighbourhoods, I have heard every possible iteration and reimagining of my name upon introduction. Nabeelah - three syllables and phonetically spelled, is an Arabic name meaning ‘noble’. Despite the beauty in the meaning and my parents’ unwavering attempts to persuade me of how nice my name was, for the most part of my childhood up until my late teens, I grew up resenting my name. I still vividly remember my parents picking up on how left out my sister and I felt about our names never being on keyrings or souvenirs at the gift shop, and taking us to a place that specialised in customised clothing. When it was my turn to have a personalised hat, I insisted my name was ‘Sara’. Though it was my middle name, the idea that my five-year-old brain had somehow cognised that ‘Nabeelah’ felt too ‘Other’ to be proudly adorned on the side of my Winnie the Pooh bucket hat, is a memory that still haunts me to this day. The violent disavowal of my name at such a young age in a pitiful attempt to fit in is a testimony to how early we are taught to omit the indigestible and ethnic parts of our identity to be more palatable for others. Like many children from diasporic backgrounds, my ethnic name came to represent my abnormality, my innate and unnerving alienness and most pertinently my failure to assimilate into Britishness.

The prospect of introducing myself induced great anxiety in me and symbolised the way I constantly re-negotiated my place and belonging in British society. For many years my patience sustained, and I’d minimise the significance of pronouncing my name correctly and had even praised mispronounced attempts. However, as I got older and a little more introspective, I began to realise that while some had sincere difficulties pronouncing my name, such people were far and few between. For the most part, those who mispronounced my name were those who simply didn’t care to even try to say it correctly. This realisation inspired an anger in me that catalysed my interrogation into my own identity. What parts of myself had I strategically obliterated in my concerted efforts to be accepted by my peers? To what extent did I negatively view my personhood through my failure to embody what I felt it meant to be British? How long have I subconsciously partaken in this? Can I unlearn it? These questions have been critical in helping myself understand the extent to which I have constantly made and unmade my subjecthood through the colonial violence of assimilation throughout my life.

Assimilation is the iron sweater that endures through the seasons, that resists temporal and spatial constraints, and is worn by all immigrants, migrants, asylum seekers and ‘Othered’ bodies who navigate new lands, cultures and ultimately a new way of life. Assimilation has a myriad of guises; it is the teacher who picks on you every lunchtime when your food looks different to those of the other kids. It is the voice in the back of your mind that convinces you to take up less space. It is the Sisyphean task of retrieving the Southeast Asian parts of myself from the bedrock of my identity and locking them tightly away, just to try to blend in. From an early age, many of us learned through experiences characterised by discrimination, racism and microaggressions, that our British identities cannot coexist alongside our ethnic ones. Tragically along the way, we learned that we must forfeit our rich cultures, histories, and our ties to our homelands to make space and give precedence to more acceptable versions of ourselves, forged through Eurocentric notions of what it means to belong. For many diasporic peoples, belonging has come at too high of a price – from the effacing of their ethnic names in favour of English ones, to the insurmountable feeling of being misunderstood and unacknowledged. For long these feelings and experiences by diasporic populations have lived in the shadows, as they are symbolic of the shameful, irredeemable differences and our struggles to belong. It is salient that we make visible these uncomfortable truths, as doing this is the first cathartic step in being able to relinquish our complicated relationships with what it means to belong. Allowing all facets of our humanity to remain whole without destruction, erasure, or omission, is to give permission to the silenced parts of ourselves deemed too Oriental or Other to exist. It is the first step to validating the grieving parts of ourselves who desperately yearned for home. It is getting the name ‘Nabeelah’ stitched in bright pink across the side of a Winne the Pooh bucket hat.

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