Norming and Reforming My Identity
Writer's Note: I’m writing this story in the hopes that I can learn more about myself: how my identity as a Pakistani Muslim woman informs my interest in tech, storytelling, and higher education. With this story, I started by with asking myself: in what ways have I grown - maybe even blossomed - in the past year? With these questions in mind, I crafted this story about owning my identity as a Pakistani Muslim woman, and how this informs my work in the tech industry.
A BRIEF INTRODUCTION
This is a somewhat recent picture of me (well, recent as of October 2017). I took this after attending a career fair where I had an amazing conversation with a Google recruiter in the hopes that I can intern there next year.
But what do you see in me?
What would you assume about me based on this photo alone?
Do I seem fun? Extroverted? Does the pink hair help?
Would you sit with me at the lunch table?
If you asked me where I'm from, what answer do you expect?
I'll give you a little bit of context – My name is Aleenah Ansari, I am a 20-year-old Seattle-ite who's grown up along the I-5, which is why I get a little nervous if I don't see the familiar view of Mount Rainier in the distance. I'm in my fourth year at the University of Washington, studying Human Centered Design & Engineering as well as Comparative History of Ideas – but there’s way more to the story.
As far as origin stories go, you might think mine would begin at the University of Washington Medical Center when I was born on November 18, 1996. In reality, my story starts much further back. In order to understand me, you have to know my roots:
I'm a daughter of warriors & doctors & teachers.
No matter what context you find me, I’m a Pakistani Muslim woman who is living my 20s in Trump’s America. I’m trying to make it as an engineer, and I will become a college graduate one way or another. I love talking with people for hours in the hopes that I can make them just a bit happier or relieved or excited about what’s to come.
Still, I often struggle with my own identity as a Pakistani woman. You’d think that picking a word to associate with who I am would be easy because it’s all about the way I see myself, hence the term “self-identification” – there’s no way to get that wrong, right? I guess I’ve gotten pretty good at checking a box, thanks to all those demographic forms I’ve filled out when applying to receive scholarships or jobs or internships.
The 2010 Census Race & Ethnicity Survey
I am Asian (in case you were wondering), but there’s a little bit more to my story. Both of my parents are Pakistani born and raised so those are definitely my roots, but I haven’t spoken Urdu regularly in years and can’t even say Assalamualaikum, the word for hello in Urdu, without a hint of an American accent. I identify as 100% Pakistani but I haven't been to my supposed home country in years, which leaves me wondering: what box is the right fit for my identity?
And when there isn't a box that feels right, what do I do with the rest of my identity?
STORIES ARE WHAT STICK
This is where storytelling comes into the picture – I believe that as a person of color, stories are an essential means of survival when faced with questions like this.
After all, stories are the things that we keep when they take everything else away.
When our bindhis and mehndi and thick eyebrows and thicker hair are being selectively appropriated as standards of beauty – but are only beautiful when they’re removed from brown bodies, all we can do is tell them about the origin of these things in our colorful culture.
That mehndi is part of an elaborate celebration of marriage and union. Our bangles are a marker of our culture so whenever we fold up our sleeves or you hear jingles from around the corner, you know that we're here to be seen and stay a while.
It took a while to realize this, but owning my identity as a Pakistani Muslim woman was my first step to reclaiming it. I don't have to apologize for who I am because the pieces of my identity form an honest and authentic story, and it’s made me a more empathetic journalist, educator, and peer.
So, allow me to re-introduce myself:
My name is Aleenah, and I’m a
See, writing is my best form of expression, which is why it always comes first in this list. It’s the greatest gift I can give to others because it’s always honest, never filtered, and makes people feel something – that’s why I’m writing this story right now.
As a journalist, I'm always telling stories about others. I write with the goal of empowering others and celebrating their triumph and growth and service to the community. Similarly, I teach with the goal of empowering people to tell their stories a little more vividly. As an engineer, all of this is underpinned by the goal to make something of myself and support others in this process. All of this has inextricably informed my identity as a person of color, and owning this has been the best thing I’ve done in the past year.
I celebrate my story by owning my skin and the thick hair that grows on my head and my face, but also recognize that the demographic box for "Asian" doesn’t capture the nuance of my identity. I am learning to actively share my story, call people out on their assumptions, and surround myself with people who appreciate and respect my culture in its purest form, not a token that fulfills a diversity quota.
In some ways, I still interact with the world as somewhat an outsider, but one who is more aware of privilege and the struggle faced by people of color and underrepresented minorities. My culture’s and religion’s values of resilience, empathy and service govern the way I interact with the world.
So, what is my identity?
It’s all of these things that made me colorful. It’s the curries and kebabs with 5 star spices that would make any cook at Thaiger Room cry and the inflection in my voice when saying words like “Pakistan” and “Dubai,” but it’s also the powerful stories of struggle and survival that I share and the things I build. Now, I approach conversations with the mindset that I have something valuable to contribute.
ENTERING TECH AS A PERSON OF COLOR
So, now that I feel more confident in who I am, particularly my identity as a Pakistani woman, what happens next? How do I embrace this culture fully, especially as someone who wants to work in the tech industry? This wasn’t easy to do at first. Honestly, I’m brown and female and Muslim and because of that, the word "engineer" doesn’t sound right when it's used to describe me. The narrative I frequently tell myself isn’t one where I don’t honor everything I’ve accomplished. It’s the one where I call myself words like “inadequate” or “lucky” rather than “hardworking” and “empowered.”
Luckily, I get to study in the most supportive department on Earth, and my teachers and peers empower me to be great and own my identity every day. My department allows me to tell stories, work collaboratively, and make products and devices more intuitive every day. I’m lucky that I see demonstrate values of diversity and inclusion: for the 2016- 2017 academic year, 61% of students in the degree were women, and the student body in the major is 17% international students and 10% underrepresented minorities.
So, because I have a department full of people who support me, I feel like I can bring all of myself to the table, even in tech.
Now, whenever I'm working on a project, I remember that my identity informs the way that I solve problems and work with others. I look for supervisors who walk the walk about supporting people of color. I search for mentors who lead with empathy, resilience, and humility because I want to do the same. By seeing my identity as a strength of perspective (rather than something that I need to hide to "fit in”) I'm becoming the most authentic version of myself.
I decided to tell these stories while interning at Microsoft, starting with a LinkedIn article titled "Working at a tech company as a person of color." I wrote about who I was and how it informed the work I did. I found that when I told stories about who I really am, people listened:
I was overwhelmed by the amount of support I received from my community. It was a reminder that telling my story unapologetically is what can help me create meaningful connections. I strive to always bring my identity as a Pakistani Muslim woman in every context with the goal empowering underrepresented voices in higher education and STEM fields.
I’m learning to own my skills and strengths, but I also know that so many people with similar skills could not make it because they lacked the necessary resources/support/mentorship they needed to thrive.
So, yes, I’m a Pakistani Muslim woman in the tech industry, and I deserve to be at the table with the best of them - all the software developers, UX designers, and content strategists at the table.
I think that all people of color and underrepresented minorities need to be in tech: the other day, my design teacher said to our class, “I’m excited to be in a world where you are future leaders in design.”
I hope that we create a world with more inclusive, accessible, and intuitive projects. I hope we recognize how most products are created for an able-bodied, upper class, Eurocentric population just so we can break down those norms and build products and devices that empower everyone – and I hope my stories do the same.