Nazim Murji has an interesting story to tell. His skin, in particular. Born with light brown skin, he lived the reality of a person of colour until middle age, when he was struck with a skin condition that slowly destroyed his pigment cells. As his skin lightened over several years, Nazim noticed he was being treated differently. “My skin condition has given me insights and perspectives into how we view each other,” says Nazim. “I am treated differently depending on the colour I’m assumed to be. It’s often subtle but it’s there, and the advantages and disadvantages shift depending on the situation.”
In 2004, Nazim went to see his doctor about a discolouration around his mouth and hands. His skin was mottled in different shades of brown and appeared “blotchy.” It tuned out to be vitiligo or leucoderma, a skin condition that depletes the pigment cells. “It’s the same condition that Michael Jackson had,” Nazim notes with a gentle laugh.
An incurable but non-life-threatening condition, Nazim remembers going through a tough time and feeling extremely self-conscious. “It was terrible, people would try not to look but they would end up staring, look away, and then stare again. I didn’t blame them for staring, but it was very uncomfortable.”
Gradually, over the course of about ten years, Nazim lost all pigmentation in his skin. He must avoid all sunlight, but has otherwise learned to live with the condition, including being frequently mistaken by strangers for being white. “That has complicated my sense of identity and belonging,” says Nazim.
Living different realities
A first-generation Canadian, Nazim was born in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania to Ismaili parents. The family has deep roots in East Africa. When he first moved as a young man to North Vancouver in 1975, Nazim recalls it was rare to see other people who looked like him. He encountered racism from micro-aggressions to discriminatory tenancy selection.
“When I used to tell people I was born in East Africa, they would sometimes blurt out ‘But you’re not black’. Things are better today,” he says. “There is definitely more diversity and acceptance in our community, but we still tend to group people by skin colour.”
When Nazim is mistaken for white, he describes feeling unsettled, uncomfortable and surprised. He has experienced both privilege and prejudice associated with his new skin colour.
For example, Nazim says at restaurants that are predominantly English-speaking, he notices servers will converse with him rather than his family or companions who have darker complexions. He finds this an interesting reversal from when his skin was still pigmented. He recounts a time he took two German friends to a bistro downtown, “My friends were blonde and barely spoke English, but the server kept addressing them even though I was the one responding in English.”
Nazim has encountered more serious systemic racism as well. At border crossings, before his skin condition, he used to be questioned at length about his purpose, duration and other details for international travel. After developing vitiligo, he says he now breezes through customs and immigration. Sometimes the officials don’t even check his passport. “So, it’s definitely easier to cross borders now,” Nazim laughs before turning thoughtful again, “but how I’m treated shifts, depending on where I am.”
A retired nurse, Nazim became his father’s primary caregiver when his father took ill. When his father wished to attend the Ismaili Mosque, Nazim accompanied him. Instead of being regarded as a relative, Nazim was assumed to be his father’s hired help – and white. He remembers having to re-establish his identity with the Ismaili community and people who didn’t know him.
“They assumed I didn’t understand what they were saying.” He overheard them say the cake tasted disgusting. Shortly afterwards, he was offered the same cake with a smile that assumed he was ignorant of their comments.
It takes practice to see the whole person
“That cake incident made me realize how tribal we are,” Nazim says. Even though he recognized there was no malice intended, it gave him the insight that we make assumptions based on skin colour and that it is not limited to any cultural group.
“I do the same,” admits Nazim. “I make judgements about strangers. I guess it’s human to do so. But I try to catch myself over and over. And I do it a lot less.”
Feeling safe is key. Nazim believes being able to respectfully discuss our different lived realities is necessary to understanding our own biases and misassumptions.
“Colour blindness or polite silence is not the answer,” says Nazim. “We can’t advance the conversation or our own understanding if we can’t discuss our negative feelings. It’s better to have civil dialogue. Humour helps. We all carry a lot of assumptions about each other. But we need to lay them down as much as possible when we first meet someone, so we can get to know them.”
In sharing his fascinating journey, Nazim hopes to serve as a reminder of the importance of staying open-minded. “I wish to be seen as a whole person. I am East African. I am Ismaili. I am Canadian. I speak five languages and I love people. I am all of that complexity, not just how I look.”
When asked his greatest wish for his community, Nazim pauses before replying, “Curiosity and welcome. How can we contribute to community if we aren’t curious about each other, mix with other cultures, and stay open? And, if we wish to feel welcome, let’s also make the effort to welcome others, to see them as individuals.”
A long-time North Vancouver resident, Wiley works as a technical writer and is the current newsletter editor for the North Shore Writers’ Association. She spends her free time reading, hiking and discovering new things to try at North Vancouver Recreation & Culture!