My name is Zara Ahmed, I am a small business owner (co-owner of the food truck Raclette Machine), and I identify as a person of color, Pakistani-American, queer, and non-binary.
It’s been two weeks since the first protest took place, in a response to demand justice over the killing of George Floyd. Since that day, I have been spending hours everyday talking to friends, business partners, customers, and our community in general—one person at a time —about race and injustice. I’ve been speaking out on my platforms, and doing everything within my capacity to fight for change. The thing that I continue to notice: white silence.
The word that best describes what it feels like to be a QPOC (queer people of color) in Utah is ignored. Nobody in my community looks like me (except for one person – Tan France. Love you Tan). I am both feminine and masculine. I have brown skin. I am proud of both my queer & Pakistani identities. How do you think that makes a person feel when they don’t see themselves reflected in their everyday life? Not in the government, not as employers, not in my everyday life. Author Junot Díaz offers one of my favorite quotes, “if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.” And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all. I was like, “Yo, is something wrong with me? That the whole society seems to think that people like me don’t exist?”
Prior to moving to Salt Lake City, I lived in San Francisco where my community reflected many cultures. I worked with people who are black, brown, white, queer, trans, disabled, and a variety of identities. I worked as a Program Manager for a nonprofit, fighting for racial justice and my everyday conversations would revolve around equity and empowerment for all marginalized communities.
When the cost of living priced us out of California, and my wife and I chose to come to Salt Lake City just before the 2016 election, I tried to keep these conversations going, and what I felt was pain. I felt silenced. I felt invalidated. I felt people questioning if my experience was real and if we still really need to talk about racism.
So what did I do? I became more complacent as a survival strategy. I was tired of feeling so much hurt from the people I chose to be in community with. I felt so put down by my employers not validating my existence, that I put my energy into building my own business. And while I didn’t use my platform to talk about racial justice, I did choose to hire folks belonging to marginalized communities. I tried to steep myself in food justice—supporting local, rejecting corporations that contribute to systematic oppression and continue to abuse people for their labor.
I used the power I gained by owning a business to talk to my staff and customers when the opportunities arose. I chose to speak out on our company values when competing in the 2019 Women’s Entrepreneurial Grant Competition (which I believe the judges did not like hearing, ultimately hurting my earnings in the competition). I used my platform to advocate a lot for the queer community, but I never said the words “black lives matter” on my platforms, because I am aware that many people in Utah don’t believe that black lives matter as much as white lives and I was afraid of losing income and facing violence, both in person and through online harassment. My food truck is an easy target for a white supremacist attack, you just need to look at my website to find me. I was scared.
For the first time since starting my business, I feel a shift in our culture. I feel more safe and supported to speak out and say that I believe black lives matter, that they are worth the same as white lives and that all people deserve the inherent right to freedom and to not feel a fear of being killed at any given moment. People are dying and I’m not willing to keep silent, let this moment pass, and return to business as usual. I’m not interested. This is what oppression looks like.
I’m going to keep doing what’s within my capacity, donating my time to non-black communities, and helping them understand the importance of this work. This is not the job of people of color, many of your questions can be answered with Google, but I am also aware of the power that direct interaction and what my experience as QPOC can offer to the people who I care about. And I am going to try to engage in these conversations with compassion and empathy. I’m tired of staying silent and I have the energy to give. The only thing I ask in return—please continue the conversation. Your work is not done after talking to me. Talk to your parents, kids, neighbors, employers, and friends. Hold others accountable. Ask them where they stand on this human rights issue. White people, you have power and a reach that I will never have. You have influence. You have the ability to change systematic oppression. Please, speak up.
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