Zain Shamoon is a therapist and founder of Narratives of Pain. He is pursuing a Ph.D. at Michigan State University in human development and family studies, currently focused on domestic violence in South Asian communities and how storytelling helps address services.
I had a lot of internalized messages about myself in a space where there were a lot of white people. How can you not, growing up? How do you know anything else at fourteen? At the time, you don't know that you are shaming yourself.
You don't know that you are keeping things inside. You just know that it feels better not to get in any conflict with your peers. You know it feels better not to get yelled at or picked on. You might even start to make fun of your own race just to navigate the social situation.
We start to do it to each other later, right? If I managed to keep myself emotionally alive by the end of high school, then maybe I maintain that comfort by making fun of some other desi folks when I get into college.
We were afraid of white people. I don't think it’s a malicious, unintelligible fear. It’s because it’s vulnerable to leave that space.
The problem is that it’s not wholesome. It doesn't work. It ruins your relationships, and it ruins your family for you to posture and put on a show to be safe.
It’s not even true. People who don't like you because of the way you look—you can pacify them as much as you want. They’ll let you into their country club but when it comes to being let in, it's not the same thing.
So, if I'm a brown person in school where we have mostly wealthy Republican-voting white students, you know it's all about grades and upkeep.
Their parents and our parents are reinforcing it. There is this sort of “model minority” complex. That's how you survive.
In that climate, the place that I would find reconciliation and respite was writing. Writing was my first therapy.
It was around that time that I started forming a relationship with my father that was different than before. My dad was sick throughout my teens. Around 1998, he had triple bypass heart surgery and later had lymphoma. He recovered from both, but his heart and immune system were weaker.
My dad was resilient. You never saw him back down.
Growing up in that environment gives you immense compassion. It starts to be a language, a caring about people. You’re in people's care. You think about your dad in his sickbed, and you think about your mom taking care of him. You don't want to disrupt that. It's a peculiar thing, finding your voice at the same time as not wanting to disrupt while somebody is healing physically. It was all a blessing, but there were definitely some tests in that.
Writing was my catharsis at that time. Embracing my personhood, and including my father and mother in that was a part of my healing as well.
Later, through that keen awareness of people struggling, I felt inspired to become a therapist. I like being there with people who are trying to feel better. I like figuring it out with them.
Therapist aren’t advice givers. They’re healers. Just like a physical therapist is finding the pressure points on your back and finding ways to release that so you can have a better experience with your back, we’re doing the same thing for your heart, your relationships, your social life, your emotions, and everything else.
I get my unapologetic nature from my father. I get my compassion from my mother.
I will always defend our right as Americans and Michiganders to build a place of worship. I'll show up to the town hall meetings to defend that. If you ask me a different question, “Is that our first, second, third priority?” I would say hell no, it's not.
My dad being that way has given me permission to now, as a therapist, say things such as, “If you’re estranged from your parents, how in the hell is building a mosque going to do anything?”
My dad saw black Muslims disenfranchised by other mosques. They look at you funny when you come to a desi mosque, but if you’re a convert, they might embrace you the week you convert. After that, everything goes back to the people who think like you, look like you, sound like you, make money the way you do.
Money is important. It helps you have agency, to make moves as an organization, community, family. I don’t want to undermine that. But sometimes we donate to maintain distance. That’s not a heart’s healing. How many desi Muslims in the suburbs never show up in Detroit? We maintain racism and distance.
It’s not good and bad. That’s a terrible dichotomy. Because bad people can do good things and great people can ignore things that need to be happening for our community.
There are great, great people who are not great fathers. There are great, great people who are not great husbands. There are great, great people who, when they’re talking about a different racial community, are using slurs. Or when they’re talking about women in their own family, they’re calling them names.
And you can’t divorce that. You can’t divorce that.