“White Passing”: Between Identities

By Noor Mirza-Rashid

“White-passing”. The term, although only recently named as such, has been something I’ve felt my whole life. Although I’m Pakistani through and through, even according to 23andMe, the label has nearly defined me. Even my own family, since I was four years old, has referred to me as white. One of my only memories of my great-grandmother was sitting with her in the sunroom when she came back from Pakistan for the summer, her praising my pale skin and “Canadian” looks. My brother has made fun of me for being a Starbucks drinking white girl, made jokes about how I don’t even look brown, about how I’m not “a real p*ki”. At school, I’ve been laughed at (by white people) for calling myself brown, and in TikTok comments, I’ve been referred to, of course, as “white-passing”. 

I’ve discovered that accepting your identity as a woman of colour is a long and difficult journey, and personally, being “white-passing” has made it a lot harder. A twisted part of me, though, when I was young, took pride in almost looking white. I felt validated. I’d spent my elementary school years blowing out birthday candles and wishing I could be blonde, envying my white peers, and feeling ashamed being picked up from dance class by my accented grandmother. I told strangers that my name was “Nora”. To be pale, and pretty, and “white-passing” was exactly what I’d always wanted. It meant I was as close as I’d ever get to fitting in. This faded, of course, and I’m now sitting here, typing, wincing at the label. 

Being “white-passing”, though, is at its origin, a real thing. I’ve been afforded privileges because of it. I never got punched in the face by a man on the street and been told to go back to my own country like my dad was. I’ve never been told to take a shower and scrub the dirt off my skin like my mom was. 

People who “look white” are spared a lot of the blatant, violent racism that rampages through our community. They’re more likely to get hired for a job post-interview and more likely to get famous based on their looks, just to name a few. 

The problem, however, is that the term has become pejorative. It’s often used as an insult or as a way to take away from someone’s identity. As an example, I’ve seen people of colour on TikTok (teenage girls in particular) get berated in their comment sections after talking about racism because they’re “too white-looking to feel that way”. And I can tell you firsthand that it stings. The pride I took in fitting in faded, and I was left feeling empty. I was already disconnected from my community. I was born here in Canada, I don’t speak Urdu, I don’t have enough brown friends and I don’t know much about my culture. But I still feel brown.

In sixth grade, I was at Starbucks with a group of white friends. We were obsessed with “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” at the time, and we assigned each other characters that aligned with our perceived personalities. I was Bridget, played by blonde Blake Lively in the movie. As the giggling eleven-year-olds we were, we gave our fake names to the barista. “Lena,” one said. 

It came to my turn eventually, muttering “Bridget.” 

The barista smirked at me. “Is that your Canadian name?” she said. 

“What?” I asked.

“Bridget, really?” She laughed some more. “Is that the name your parents told you to use when you came to Canada?”

I got my hot chocolate in silence. There was no name written on the cup. I cried when I got home. When I told my dad the story, he laughed at me. “You’re just a bad liar,” he said. “You don’t even look brown.” 

I mean I hope that’s what it was, me simply being a bad liar. I’ve had worse experiences with racism since then, unfortunately, but that’s the one that stuck with me. It was a manifestation of everything I’d been feeling my whole life. The feeling of otherness, of being an outsider, of being different from everyone around me. 

Every time we were at the airport, my father and I, Asim and Noor Rashid, got stopped for extra screenings (my siblings, Zayn and Leila, have white-enough names to get through just fine). Apparently, our names are on a “no-fly list” of potential terrorists – this is just code for being Muslim. Another recurring event that emphasized my otherness.

From 7th to 9th grade, I straightened my hair every day. It’s still dead from the heat damage, and my curls haven’t come back properly since. 

I’ve made a lot of “progress”, I guess, in accepting my identity as a 3rd generation Canadian since. A lot of this, though, doesn’t come from positive things, but rather the adoption of “ethnic” features in the media, in particular by white women. For example, Kim Kardashian has worn cornrows, Kendall Jenner has been envied for her “fox-eyes”, and Kylie Jenner and Ariana Grande have been frequently mistaken for being some sort of non-white. Features generally found in people-of-colour have almost become trendy. When big lips and lip filler became more trendy, I was suddenly okay with mine. When people didn’t want to be “pasty” anymore, I became okay with my skin. Even benign things like thicker, denser eyebrows became trendy at a point, and that made me okay with my thick hair. As my features were co-opted by white Instagram models, I slowly became more okay with being Pakistani. 

This, of course, although having had some positive effects on the self-esteem of girls of colour, is not really a good thing. Besides the fact that it leaves out men of colour whose features haven’t been appropriated as “attractive”, it ensures that women of colour will never really be the face of beauty. Instead, white women with vaguely ethnic features will – but this is a conversation for another day. 

To this day, I still sometimes feel stuck in my identity. No amount of nose-contour can hide my Pakistani side profile, and no matter how “white” I look, I’m still stopped at the airport. At times, I still think that maybe I do want a nose job and then I get mad at myself for wanting to conform to yet another eurocentric beauty standard. No matter how accepted and normal and “white-passing” I might look today, I still sometimes feel like an outsider.

I know that there are millions of girls out there that feel the same way as me. Stuck between identities of being a person of colour and wanting to fit in in the country they were born. Feelings of discrimination and otherness invalidated by looking white enough to not face blatant racism.

I’m still on the road to fully accepting my identity as Pakistani-Canadian, but I’m sure I’ll get there soon. I don’t want to “look white” anymore, and I’m happy being Noor instead of Nora. I just hope that every kid out there gets to feel the same.