Whenever someone says "the new generation", I think of my generation. Because I'm nineteen and perhaps because I'm the youngest in my family, I tend to think of myself and my peers as the "young" and "new" generation.
But as I watched videos of my one year old niece on my phone, I realized that she is one of the youngest members of a new generation of Muslim-Americans and Pakistani-Americans. I thought of this as I watched her laugh and play with her toys and put the TV remote up to her ear, pretending it was a phone. She's adorable and beautiful and so smart.
I thought then of this little girl growing up in an environment like the one surrounding Muslim-Americans today and I worried. I'm only her aunt and I cannot imagine how much parents or grandparents worry for their children or grandchildren. But even as an aunt, I'm worried.
Will my niece be called a bomb threat, a terrorist, a hidden enemy, a non-American? Will my niece also read headlines about politicians proposing to ban her and her family from this country? Will my niece grow up feeling isolated and alone in her classrooms at school or college because she is the only person of color in the room? Will my niece feel the burden of carrying brown skin and an Arabic name and the word Pakistani in her ethnic identity?
I worry for her, because she is a year old and already there are so many odds stacked against her. She is privileged in many aspects, certainly, coming from a family with two college-educated parents who are already doing everything they can to make her future bright. She is loved, already, by so many people, myself included.
But no matter what we, the people who love her, do, and no matter what her parents do, she will be a person of color growing up. She will be a brown girl in her classroom and she will be a brown woman as an adult.
Whether she chooses to call herself Pakistani-American or not, her grandparents on both sides of her family will remain Pakistani immigrants. Whether she closely identifies with being Muslim or not, her name and her skin color and her ethnicity will connect her to that faith and will bring her both the benefit of a worldwide community and the dangers of Islamophobia.
Whichever label she does or does not choose for herself, society will place the burden and the beauty of some labels on her: woman, Muslim, Pakistani, immigrant family, person of color, nonwhite.
I feel like I need to act, very fast, to make things better for her. I have very little time before she is in preschool and elementary school and high school. I have six years, tops, to change the world so that my niece does not have to look at her skin and want to change it, ever, like I did. I have a few years to make sure that my niece does not want to change her name because correcting people on its pronunciation is too hard and sometimes it's nice to be called something simple and easy and Anglo. My niece, my daughter, my granddaughter. I do not want you to feel that pain.
But I know it is not possible for me to change the world. Not in the dramatic way we usually envision changing the world, at least. Sky cracking, windows shattering, ground shaking. It is done. Racism and prejudice and misogyny and racism are all gone. You can grow up, niece, in a world that will place you on an even playing field with all of your peers. You can grow up in a world where you are not at the slightest disadvantage and no one will make you feel isolated because of the color of your skin and the foreignness of your name. I cannot do this for her.
But change is a strong word, not necessarily a loud word. Change is quiet, often. I cannot break down that door that is closed to me and to my niece. But I can push at it and push at it and push at it and maybe it won't move at all but maybe it will move just the slightest bit and that will not feel like enough but it's something. It's something I'm willing to work towards for. For my niece, my daughter, my granddaughter.
And my niece will come and push at it too because she is, after all, the granddaughter of immigrants and who is better at pushing closed doors than immigrants? She is, after all, a person of color, and who is better at trying despite unbeatable odds than people of color?
My niece will have many things working against her when she grows up, because no matter what I or anyone else does, we cannot protect her from the hatred and injustice that is the birthright of people with brown skin and foreign names.
But I know that along with the burdens she will carry, she will also carry the determination of her immigrant grandparents and the strength woven into her brown skin. I know that the door will be cracked open only slightly for her but her mother and her aunts and her grandmothers will all be behind her, pushing, together, and God knows we won't give up until one day that door is wide open for all.
So today I will keep pushing at that door, and if it cracks open just a little bit, I will lean forward and congratulate the generations in front of me and turn around and thank the generations behind me who've been working on this tirelessly so that we could even touch the door without being shot down.
My niece, my daughter, my granddaughter: we are in this together. Keep pushing.