I tend to be a lightning bolt for controversy. I don’t mean to do it really I just have always been very assertive in my opinions and beliefs, regardless of the status quo. Nothing deters me more than a group of people and the expectations that I should follow suit. Reverse psychology would work well on me.
My mother is a white American, she is also legally blind and deaf. Her disabilities affected her outward personality, for obvious reasons. Its hard to stay on top of the conversation when part of it is muffled. Her mother was reserved and poised. My mother’s family often talked of pleasantries like vacations and the weather. Nothing too personal, nothing too uncomfortable. We were just acquaintances.
My father was born in Palestine. My assertive influences come from the Arab women in my life. Two of my aunts whom I was close with especially. My mother and these two women were some of the in-law’s to the many brothers my father had. My one aunt is very religious and always outspoken at what is the right thing to do. She was convicted and confident in her faith and her views. She was like a second mother to me when I was young. My parents were close to them. I always felt safe around her, like she would protect me. This was in contrast to my mother, who portrayed herself as helpless many times. My other aunt was full of sass. She walked into a room and demanded everyone’s attention without even trying. It was just her way. She was flirty, funny, quick witted, and light-hearted. Both of these women did everything themselves, they never waited on their husbands for anything. My favorite memory is vacationing in Aqaba, 3 moms, 11 kids, and no husbands. I was 12 and even I could recognize how much easier it was without them.
I don’t have a clear Muslim marker on my head. I am secular. I wear shorts, I eat pork, I drink beer. I have realized many people don’t like being caught off guard to have their assumptions thrown in their face. Most people make excuses, well you’re not one of them because you’re this, you don’t do that so you must be on our side. I’m not on your side. I have created my own space to exist in. Oh and I hate you now.
I tend to move easily through this world as a white woman, or white passing, most days I get mixed messages. There is the debate of Arabs being white. Some have light skin, they are white on paper as far as the census goes, oh and Persians are the original Caucasians, the usual story. Existing in America it doesn’t always feel that way. Some days people ask me if I was born here. Other days people speak to me in Spanish. Most days people just remark on my ‘exotic’ features like a curious thing to be marveled at. “What big eyes you have! What big hair you have! What big lips you have!” Just call me the big bad wolf. When white people consistently comment on your appearance, you don’t feel very white. Then you go home and stare in the mirror trying to figure out what it is they saw.
There is very little representation for secular Arabs that appreciate their culture and heritage and are not Islamophobic or racist. You are presumed with “us” or against “us” (America). You can’t be both. I thought I was both. I thought I was creating this magical rainbow bridge of understanding. I was wrong. Many white girlfriends I had quickly turned on me during the rise of the T word. I was becoming too proud. Too unapologetic and comfortable with myself. Too political. I was challenging their prejudice merely by existing in their world. I was not allowed to be American and Arab, Muslim and Secular. Being vocal of my ethnicity created discomfort. Spreading awareness and disputing the many dehumanizing comments about Syrian refugees made people annoyed. I was not part of their algorithm. I was a mole. Don’t even get me started with the P word… Palestine. No one wants to hear that shit.
“What are you Muslim now?” was said in response to me asking why my friend of 15+ years was suddenly ignorant to my culture.
When people make assumptions of who you are, they tend to feel more comfortable expressing their prejudice.
“I just cant believe the Vegas shooter it doesn’t make sense, he just doesn’t fit the stereotype!” another mom at the school
“What are you talking about hes a white male… that is the stereotype.”
“No I mean Muslim.”
“I was raised Muslim, I’m Arab” I said. Crickets…..
There is never an apology just an uncomfortable silence until I make the other person who clearly feels tricked, comfortable with their mistake.
People will also decide for you how to identify
“But you look white, who cares?”
“No one knows your Arab/Muslim”
“You’re putting labels on everything”
Its very disheartening to see people you thought you could trust, run like cowards at the sight of you affirming your heritage. I have every right to identify as all of these things. I AM all of these things. American. Palestinian. Muslim. Secular. I also believe it is more important now than ever to challenge the narratives and stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims in America and all over the world. There are many secular people in the Middle East and other regions whose voices are being silenced. Social media has its faults but it has created a safe space for people like me, isolated in their variables. Too much of everything can sometimes leave you with little support to claim.
I have run into a similar situation in the past. After my parents got divorced my sheltered suburban Muslim life got turned upside down. As a teenager I was a heroin addict. I overdosed, lived in motels with my pill-addicted mother, was basically destined for death. But those 2 years of my life went by quickly and I pulled out of it and went on to finish high-school, then college. I married my longtime love and created a sweet little family.
Many people from my past were irritated by my ability to change my story. To persevere and push through and come out looking “innocent”. No one could tell my dark past from looking at me. This bothered some as if I wasn’t being truthful. I was an impostor, supposed to fail. Their obsession with my resilience bred their own insecurities about themselves. I have no qualms about my past. I don’t bring it up because it was such a short period of my life that doesn’t really fit into who I am. Just an anomaly within my adventures. I don’t necessarily like to talk about it because I honestly feel I don’t have enough street cred to support it.
I have learned many people prefer to categorize you rather than let you identify yourself. You are also only allowed one category. For people of mixed heritage, mixed race, LGBT and for those who come from very religious communities and then reject that way of life, it is hard to consistently satisfy, respect, and appreciate all the qualities and experiences that make you who you are. The minute you start to challenge and resist your assigned category, there is a definite push back. To say I am surprised would be a gross statement of ignorance and denial. Mostly my feelings are of disappointment and defeat. Like I have somehow failed both sides of my identity by not being able to seamlessly connect them.
I move forward in understanding that I am not a person who fits into many categories, I am my own category. It is my duty to display my vulnerabilities to help others. I have made the journey from blending in and trying to satisfy everyone to standing on my own. It is time now to create a safe space of inspiration and encouragement to inspire others. Writing is a source of therapeutic release and also a beacon for courage.
Here are 2 articles that have recently inspired me: