Racism in America: An Unexpected Kind of Culture Shock

When people, especially women, from my country, Pakistan, come to the United States, their “culture shock” includes things like the freedom to be an individual, the ease of availability of alcohol, and the perceived meritocracy of the American system. My culture shock was America’s racism, made worse by the fact that I didn’t really understand what it meant to be discriminated against for simply having a different skin color or not speaking English “perfectly.”

Racial discrimination is both a fascinating and highly distressing concept for me. In my part of the world, people don’t have a clear answer if asked to identify their race. Most of them would respond with their ethnicity. So, my knowledge of active racial discrimination came from literature or film, such as Lincoln and Amazing Grace.

In November 2008, as I listened to Barack Obama give his victory speech, I was moved to tears. From another continent, it appeared to me as not just the victory of one man, but of a whole nation against its racist past. The American people, I thought, had finally moved past their history of systemic racism, segregation, and discriminatory policies that disconnected huge segments of the population from opportunity.

Six years later, I landed in Chicago, home to Obama and to one of the largest African American populations in the U.S. I was excited to be here, especially the South Side of Chicago which is largely populated by African Americans, and to see the interaction between Americans of all races in one of America’s largest and most liberal cities. To me, Obama’s election–and re-election–signaled that the era of institutional racism against African Americans was over, but I was curious to see if people’s individual attitudes and experiences had changed.

I learned that, on too many levels, they had not.

I was shocked when I started reading Michelle Alexander’s fascinating book The New Jim Crow. The book asserts that to this day, when even rich and powerful White men like LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling end up paying a price for being racist, the US Justice System continues to discriminate against African Americans. The book further explains how the practice of mass incarceration disproportionately impacts African Americans, effectively relegating them to “second-class” citizens by denying them the very rights that were supposedly won in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

I did not know how to process how the same country that could elect a black man to be its leader could at the same time brutally discriminate against a huge portion of black men through an unjust criminal justice system. Could it be that Obama, with his eloquence, intelligence, and impressive academic credentials was a less threatening figure for white Americans? Was it because everyone likes a rags-to-riches story but would rather ignore the realities of multi-generational poverty–a reality that is much more common? Indeed, moving from poverty to wealth is an almost impossible goal for most poor Americans, black or white, since the majority of the wealth in this country is inherited from one generation to the next.

Since reading Alexander’s book, I have become obsessed with learning about racial dynamics in large U.S. cities and how they are affecting American life. I couldn’t have found a better place than Living Cities to explore the intersection between race-based disadvantage and urban policymaking.

Recently during a staff brown bag meeting, my colleagues and I watched a haunting film titled Cracking the Code: The Systems of Racial Inequity.

The part of the film that spoke to me most was a segment about internalized racism, something I have myself witnessed among my own community of South Asians who moved to the United States as young adults–mostly as highly qualified doctors or engineers–and have now become naturalized U.S. citizens. They speak like white Americans, live in suburbs largely populated by white people, and their children are friends with either children of South Asian descent or from white families. Although they were born in a culture that didn’t recognize race, once they came to America, they realized at some point that they needed to be like the White-Folk in order to “make it” in America. Many now exhibit racist attitudes and behaviors towards all non-white people, particularly black people, who they view as members of society they must not mingle with if they want to be accepted.

It is the prevalence of this sort of attitude–the subconscious racism that still persists in American society–that makes Living Cities’ Racial Equity and Inclusion (REI) initiative so important to a new framework for analyzing urban policy and using it for the benefit of all those who populate these urban areas.

Cities should not just be places for better economic opportunities, but also for economic inclusion where all residents can equally benefit from all that their city has to offer. To that end, policymakers, the movers and shakers in cities, must incorporate the racial lens into how they think about their cities and the opportunities that they provide for lower-income families of color.

The author is a Knowledge and Impact summer intern at Living Cities, and a Masters in Public Policy student at The University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy. She tweets at @zainabimam and blogs at gulaabjamun.wordpress.com.

– This blog first appeared on the Living Cities blog here: http://www.livingcities.org/blog/?id=345#sthash.Zk14SHIU.dpuf


I finally got culture shock

Yes, finally. After living in the great and mighty United States of America for eight months, I am shocked by a cultural phenomenon in this country. I now have an answer for everyone back home who refuses to believe that the US is more similar to Pakistan than we think.

In November 2008, the monumental victory of Barack Obama as President of the United States moved me to tears because I believed it to be the triumph of justice and the human spirit. I heard his victory speech on YouTube, and thought, “wow, these people [Americans] have finally moved past the racism that plagued them until just 40 years ago!”.

Six years later, I land in Chicago, home to Obama and one of the largest African-American populations in the US. I am excited to be here, especially the South Side of Chicago that is largely populated by Black Americans, and see the interaction between the two races. Color-based racism isn’t really a part of political or intellectual debate in Pakistan. Borrowing from the Americans, most of us are generally “brown” and believe we descended from the same race, the Aryans. However, Pakistanis are not completely color-blind and there is definitely an obsession with white skin, for instance calling the West Indian cricket team kaali andhi (“Black Thunder”). But as far as active racial discrimination against dark-skinned people is concerned, that’s not really a problem in Pakistan the way it was/is in the United States.

As a student at one of the most elite universities in the US where racism really is a thing of the past, I continued to feel about America’s racist history the same way I did back home. In the land of opportunity, what color you are has stopped mattering, to the extent that even soaring income inequality impacts poor White families and Black families the same way. I was of the view that this kind of backward thinking about race now existed only in the minds of desis who seemed to believe that every Black man was out to rob them and every Black woman was having a child out of wedlock.

Then I came across this astonishing article in The Atlantic, which claimed that racial segregation seems to have returned to high schools in the US. According to the article, Black students across southern US – states that were made to end black slavery through the American Civil War – now attend majority-black schools at levels not seen in four decades. This was a very uncomfortable thought for me. 

But what truly shocked me was when I started reading a fascinating book called “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander. The book asserts that to this day, when even the rich and the powerful have to pay the price for being racist, the US Justice System continues to discriminate against Black Americans. It shows how the practice mass incarceration disproportionately impacts Black Americans, effectively relegating them to “second-class” citizens by denying them the very rights that were supposedly won in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

It was only then that I realized how complicated and pervasive the issue of race continues to be in the US. Although Barack Obama’s victory has been a sign of change and hope for Black Americans in the US, it appears to have done little for them in terms of acceptance. Obama, with all his “White privileges”, is easy for the White elite to consider as one of their own. For them, it is easy to forget that Barack Obama is a Black man because he is extremely intelligent, delightfully articulate, and a lawyer educated at Harvard University.

My view on race in the United States has completely changed. There is still racial friction, and it’s not just in the hearts and minds of people from states that were historically brutal to Black Americans but also in the American systems, particularly justice system. It’s hidden and covert, but very effective nonetheless. The “triumph over race” isn’t yet complete.

The myth of female representation in Pakistani politics

Benazir Bhutto

Benazir Bhutto

Last week, I got the opportunity to hear a short lunch-time talk by former US Congresswoman Sue Kelly. A member of the Republican Party, which I am not generally a fan of, she was remarkably impressive in her scathing criticism of her own party and of the other lot, the Democrats. Her knowledge of the subject matter was very impressive and the anecdotes she shared from both her campaign as well as tenure in the House of Representatives made for a highly inspirational talk. A friend described her, very aptly, as a firecracker.

The session was organized by Women in Public Policy, a student group at The University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy, so naturally when the floor was opened for questions from the audience, the conversation turned to women in the legislature.

It was a frank, candid conversation where everyone agreed – including the male participants, one of whom was Kelly’s co-speaker for the talk – that although a lot more women were now in the US legislature, Washington was a long way from being considerate and accepting of women legislators. Kelly shared an anecdote of when, during her first term in office in the ‘90s, she asked to be assigned to the commerce committee of the Congress, the then chairman said “Like hell will I ever allow a woman to be on my committee.”

In her concluding remarks on the discussion, Kelly said something that particularly stuck with me. She said: “The glass ceiling has been broken [with Nancy Pelosi becoming the minority leader in the house]. The challenge now is how to keep your head above it.”

As I gathered my belongings, I was reminded of a conversation about Pakistani politics I had had with an American female classmate just when we were starting our term. After a brief conversation about our long-term goals of running for office, she told me that she was fascinated by the fact that Pakistan has had a female head of state and that too not once but twice. She almost keeled over when I told her that we have also had a female speaker of the lower house of parliament (Fehmida Mirza) and a female foreign minister (Hina Rabbani Khar), leaving out former central bank governor Shamshad Akhtar and ambassadors Sherry Rehman and Maliha Lodhi who did not serve in elected office. My classmate assumed that somehow this recognition for women politicians in Pakistan encouraged me to harbor the dream of being a member of parliament someday, and wistfully commented how the US was yet to elect a female head of state and how much of a pipedream that seemed to be sometimes.

I wanted to tell her then as I wanted to tell her after Kelly’s talk: don’t be wistful, because what you have is sustainable. What we have, on the other hand, is something of a charade.

The female head of state we talk of, Benazir Bhutto, was only able to become the prime minister because she was her father’s daughter. The reason she was nominated for prime ministership was because she was the chairperson of a national party that swept the elections, a party also inherited from her father.

To give credit where it’s due, what makes Benazir an iconic Pakistani female politician is the admirable fact that she campaigned, not only for herself but for her party. Although her ascent was in part because of the man her name and thus identity was associated with (her father), she is the only woman politician in post-1980s’ theocratic Pakistan to have addressed massive rallies where men and women listened with rapt attention.

That is more than can be said of Mirza and Khar, who both have influential men in the family who practically campaigned on their behalf. In fact, Khar rose to prominence in 2002 when she was a proxy candidate for her father’s seat which he was unable to contest for failure of possessing a bachelor’s degree which had become a requirement for running for office that year.

The one big difference between the US and Pakistan when it comes to women’s role in politics is not that women have had a more successful run in Pakistan than in the US, rather it is that the trend of increased female representation in US politics is of a much more sustainable nature than that in Pakistan.

Pakistani women parliamentarians have almost always run second-fiddle to men. In the most recent election (May 2013), an overwhelming majority of election rallies were addressed strictly by men. In none of the mainstream political parties is a woman in charge of anything remotely important, and a large majority of the women who are now members of Pakistan’s National Assembly have made it there on the reserved seats for women, not the competitive ones that are open for contest among genders. Unfortunately, that is also true for some of the most promising women leaders and former parliamentarians like Sherry Rehman and Bushra Gohar whose election rallies would be something to attend.

In the US, unlike in Pakistan, women politicians are no longer thinking about winning a seat in the parliament on equal terms. Their energies are now focused on working to build on the gains made by women politicians who beat the competition to make it in. In Pakistan, we have a long way to go until a woman can be elected on to a non-reserved seat or without a family lineage of politically influential men. And having a quota of reserved seats isn’t doing us any favors.

Photo credit: Reuters

Dear Pakistanis, don’t go on the defensive!

In the Pakistani tradition of giving unsolicited advice in abundance, when I was moving to the US everyone made it a point to tell me that wherever I go, I will find myself an ambassador for my home country. Strange questions will be thrown at me and I would be expected to respond to them with expert ability. Dodging them will not be an option, instead it will be some kind of an affront to my Pakistani identity.

This advice wasn’t wrong. I have often been asked rather hilarious questions, sometimes bordering on the offensive, but nothing that some clever wit cannot handle.

Before I even got here, I had made up my mind that I will not defend Pakistan. Not because most of the stuff is so indefensible and certainly not because it is easy for me to resist the temptation to tell people off.

The reason I made that decision and have stuck to it is because I deem it a waste of time to provide answers to questions that those who genuinely want an answer to can easily find if only they would sift through the internet. There is great reportage from and on Pakistan which can give you a flavor of how diverse the country is and, if one’s intention is to truly gain knowledge of the country, s/he will be able to find it without much work. So instead of going on the defensive, I have started to direct people to sources where they will be able to genuinely learn and understand what is happening in Pakistan and what the country is like.

I can say with some certainty that it is because of this attitude that I have now become good friends with an American classmate who made a rather upsetting comment to me barely two weeks into class. A Mexican friend told me recently that she enjoys discussing and learning about Pakistan from me because I give her a different response than the other Pakistanis she’s met.

After six months of being on the pedestal, I have come to the conclusion that what Pakistanis in foreign lands really need to do is … chill out. What a bunch of foreigners think about your country doesn’t make it any less of the awesome place that it is to you. You have learnt to live with it (and in it), they haven’t and don’t need to either. Be honest to yourself, take pride in the good, acknowledge and condemn the bad and laugh at the absurd. There is no country in the world that is perfect, and none will ever be. Be comfortable in your unique identity (and if you’re an expat, visit often so that your understanding is not frozen in time!).

Maybe my approach is too naïve for other people. Maybe it’s juvenile or plain wrong to others. Maybe I’m too optimistic. But as Baba Michael Jackson says in his historic song ‘Beat It’: “Show them how funky and strong is your fight; It doesn’t matter who’s wrong or right.”

Pakistan Flag

Movie Review: Dhoom 3 from the eyes of a Chicagoan

Should you choose to watch Dhoom 3, you will find yourself asking “How is that even possible?” at least once every three scenes. But the biggest, most mystifying question is this: How is it even possible to create a worse film every time???

You know the film has almost nothing by way of a script when you can write out its entire plot in 50 words. Aamir Khan plays a circus artist/thief who wants to destroy the bank that caused his father to commit suicide after defaulting on a loan taken out to run their circus. When Chicago Police fails to crack the case, Inspector Jai and sidekick Ali are called in to do the job.

The saving grace of the film is unsurprisingly Aamir Khan, and of course the absolutely beautiful city of Chicago (yay, my city!). Shot rather nicely, the makers make full use of the city’s unique attractions – a lake in the middle of a city, a bridge that moves and the fact that a circus is something you can expect Chicagoans to actually care about. Khan is brilliant in everything he does in the film, although the dancing seems a little contrived. The Khans are not superstars for their dance moves, and perhaps Bollywood would be better off not trying to reinvent them into something they aren’t particularly known for. The rope work is also absolutely stunning, done seamlessly, and a treat to watch.

Uday Chopra’s character Ali is as superfluous as it was in the two previous Dhoom films. Katrina Kaif’s character Aliya serves the same purpose as that of Aishwarya Rai Bachchan’s in Dhoom 2, except that Kaif’s dances are marvelous, which may have been made possible by the fact that since she didn’t have many lines to deliver, she could spend all her energy on perfecting the dancing. Sadly, even Abhishek Bachchan has little to do in the film, though I was hoping this would serve as something of a comeback for him.

If one is to go by the film, it is easy to see why Chicago is as crime-infested as it is: its cops are incredibly stupid who don’t seem to know the city whose protection is their life’s work. By that same logic, Mumbai should be the safest city in the world! It would serve Dhoom makers well to put in a little more thought into making the criminals smarter rather than showing the cops as dumber.

All in all, the film isn’t particularly worse than the other two. If anything, Khan’s presence makes it more watchable than the earlier films. The film isn’t so long that it will feel like an absolute waste of time. I say GO.

Related reading: http://www.fakingnews.firstpost.com/2013/12/yrf-justifies-rs-900-ticket-for-dhoom-3-says-its-service-fee-for-making-uday-chopra-retire/


Career women don’t always starve to death

I was never the fool who believed that our society isn’t incredibly judgmental, but I didn’t realize how irritatingly overbearing it can be if one is moving out of her parents’ home and is known for having barely any interest in the kitchen.

I am currently in the process of preparing my move to the US for a Masters at – forgive me for bragging a little – one of the top universities in the world for my field of study. Yet, every time my mother announces my imminent departure to one of her friends or someone from the family, the comment that immediately follows the mandatory congratulatory comment is “Akeli rahogi, khana pakana parega“. After much deliberation, the best response I have been able to muster to this remark is an awkward smile. It doesn’t help that most of the times I’ve had this conversation is a little before Iftar, which means I am not at my patient best!

As a feeler, I would always sense some forlorn in their comment and I wondered why that would be the case. What makes them so sure that I will cry my eyes out while staring blankly at a recipe? Have they known a great number of career women who died of starvation because they weren’t much in the cooking department?

And then it hit me. Most women who have made that comment to me are women who cook, have had to cook or will have to cook, as some kind of a compulsion. Because they themselves dread the thought of it, they feel that other women would do that too if they were put in the same situation, especially single women who’d much rather focus on a grueling education or career.

What they don’t realize is that cooking isn’t rocket science, and what makes it so dreadful for them is the fact that it threatens to become the end-all and be-all of their existence. I ask you, how hard can it possibly be to chop off a bunch of vegetables, add condiments and spices and let it cook – on its own – for 15 minutes? Daal and chawal are even easier to prepare, and there’s always the trusty omelet and Shan Masala packets! Who needs to eat difficult-to-cook foods such as biryani and qorma every day anyway? In fact, a craving for such food is a great opportunity to meet desi relatives you would otherwise avoid like the plague!

But what they don’t seem to understand, let alone appreciate, is that a woman who prizes her career understands that she is responsible for the consequences of her decisions. She knows that she’s signing up for a tough life, and that cooking her way through it may help but becoming a gourmet chef wouldn’t make things much easier because that wouldn’t be one of the biggest causes of stress in her life. I respect a woman’s decision to be a homemaker, even if it comes at the cost of her giving up a high-profile career in medicine. But the least I can expect in return is respect for my decision as opposed to the contempt and superiority complex that makes some women make insensitive and inane comments like “Ab pata chale ga bachoo jab roz khana banana parega”. Believe me, I have gone through stress levels in my life that are just as bad, if not worse, than any saas-bahu-nand-susar-devrani-jethani issues a woman may have had to suffer from. And they have made me strong enough to realize that the biggest issue in life is not whether or not I will be able to cook for myself in grad school. And does it occur to you that I may be enjoying myself so much and relishing in my achievements that eating two-day-old rice wouldn’t be such a punishment?

So, to every girl and woman who has, and will, make that comment to me: Trust me, as a career-oriented woman, I am more likely to die of a nervous breakdown caused by unimaginable levels of stress than of starvation because of a purported lack of cooking skill. And as someone with an elite, world-class education to go with it, I will probably be able to pick up that skill faster than one can say “cook”.


Obama’s Pakistani Connection

US President Obama’s electoral victory in 2012 marks the first time that a political campaign has made extensive use of data mining and analysis techniques that are used in only the most sophisticated corners of Corporate America.

Team Obama revolutionised political interaction on social media by creating tools enabling supporters to take twitter and Facebook by storm. There were hashtags, updates on Tumblr, photos on Instagram, videos on YouTube, pinboards on Pintrest and even playlists on Spotify.

Few people know that, Rayid Ghani, a Pakistani formerly working at Chicago’s Accenture Technology Labs, was the brains behind this operation. In the ‘tech cave’ at the Chicago headquarters of the Obama Campaign, Ghani designed an entire programme based on data mining, analytics and reporting. The goal: Obama’s Presidential Re-election.


As Obama begins his second term, we speak to Ghani about his work for the campaign, the strategy he followed and what we in Pakistan, a nascent democracy, can learn from it.

“I had just decided to leave my previous job and was looking to get more involved with non-profits. The campaign approached me before I even had time to look for something else. I knew I could have more of an impact by working with the campaign for 18 months than on anything else during the time,” says Ghani, who graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in 2001 and has since worked extensively in analytics and data mining.

Ghani joined the Obama campaign in July 2011, when the US economy was tanking and most political analysts believed that the White House was the Republicans’ for the taking.

The pressure was on from day one. The campaign was already making phone calls and sending emails to people who had signed up as volunteers and donors. They were pulling up data from Obama’s first election campaign back in 2008, including several kinds of data sources which were to form the backbone of Ghani and his team’s work.

obama 1

“We had a number of lists — donors, volunteers, registered voters, email addresses, Facebook likes, Twitter followers etc. The idea was to connect all this [data about people] so that we could do more effective campaigning,” he explains.

The team then organised the lists so as to spot patterns that would help them better communicate with people and, if need be, win them over to their side. “The challenge was that if I know something about a person as a volunteer, I would want to use it when talking to him or her about voting,” Ghani explains.

For instance, if the compiled data showed that a person is both a volunteer and a donor, the team would communicate with them keeping both those facts in mind and give them information relevant to both volunteering and donating.

As fascinated as I was with the idea, given my love for organisation techniques that enhance efficiency, this sounded like really intense work. “It is,” he confirms. “Towards the end, he says, the team would often spend 18 to 20 hours per day at the campaign office, including weekends.”

The hiring was done with a lot of care. “Because it was such intense work, we hired people who would be able to handle the stress. We hired a mix of people — professionals who had been working in the industry for several years, PhDs who had just finished their degrees, graduate students who were still in PhD programs. Many of the people on the team had a graduate degree in some quantitative field,” says Ghani. “One of the challenges in this situation is that you’re not paying people as much as they would get in a company. On top of that, you’re asking them to drop their lives, and move to Chicago for a short time. That’s why a lot of people who applied for these positions and got hired were younger people.”

There was plenty of work for everyone. Data was coming in by the minute, sometimes even the second, as people signed up to volunteer or donate and an automated system would add the name to the existing list. This updated information would then be used by the team that was in-charge of sending out email messages and making phone calls on behalf of the campaign. The latter was the tricky part, because this is where the campaign actually went out to interact with the people. Campaign workers and volunteers were given a pre-written script to use as a guide to make a phone call.

While those outside the campaign were following every news item on the election, the ones inside tried to ignore it as much as they could. “Obviously inside the campaign, you have better information about the state of the elections, and if you’re doing your job, you’re actually changing those numbers,” he says. “The news was often more entertaining than anything else. Every time the media would report on something our team was supposedly working on, we would chuckle because none of us were talking to the media and these articles would often just be conjecture!”

Come Election Day, every single person in the campaign office felt a level of stress that could drive a cucumber crazy! “We were trying to predict things on an individual level ie which way a person will vote and then aggregate up to the electorate. And even though we had confidence in our results, we couldn’t be 100% sure. Our work was all based on probabilities which meant that there was uncertainty in our predictions. We were hopeful that we would win but you can’t be 100% sure until it’s over,” says Ghani.

Then came the morning after and it was surreal — not least because the president himself was overcome with emotion while thanking the campaign team and the volunteers. “I was there, yes. After his speech, he walked around the office thanking people, shaking hands, and hugging the staff,” says Ghani, fondly. He pauses and I ask him how he celebrated the victory. “We all just went home and slept because we hadn’t done that in days!” he says, laughing.

Whether or not Pakistanis like to admit this, Obama is a figure who has had a lasting impact on election campaigns both in his own country and abroad, including Pakistan. For example, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf often uses the slogan “Yes We Khan”, a slightly modified version of the “Yes We Can” slogan from Obama’s 2008 election campaign. Another innovative aspect of the ’08 campaign that caught on was intelligent usage of social media, which was followed first by the PTI and then by almost all other rival political parties. I ask Ghani if he thinks data mining will catch on too.

“Efficiency is even more important in countries where money is scarce and this model is certainly applicable in ways more than one,” he says. “Every campaign has resources [money and people] and figuring out how to most efficiently allocate these is critical to winning.”

When I point out to the lack of data-driven research in Pakistan, he agrees that that makes it a little more difficult for Pakistan. “Campaign workers might have to go out and get their own data. The data is better in the US than in other countries. But everything we did from fundraising to recruiting and mobilising volunteers, to assessing voter behaviour to what ads to buy, all of that is almost equally applicable in other countries.”

In the end, he says what matters is the candidate and no amount of effort or level of efficiency can help a bad candidate win. “A candidate who doesn’t appeal to the voters of a country can’t win using all the data and analytics in the world. This type of technology only helps at the margins. A lot of the work we did eventually was successful because we had large numbers of motivated and energised volunteers who were taking our message and talking to voters and they were there because they believed in the message and in the candidate himself.”

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, January 20th, 2013.