freelance writer & illustrator

What I've Learned From My Experience with Ethnic Ambiguity

January 2, 2019

Early on in my attempt to start my writing career, I wasn’t sure what my niche was. I’d begun several months after Trump had taken office, and the act of claiming one’s identity (or identities) was freshly in vogue.

 

At the time, I earnestly believed that writing about nonwhite identity as though it was something I’d long understood was the way to go. Part of the reason for this belief was that I’d observed many other up-and-coming writers with similar sociopolitical leanings boldly claiming their nonwhite identities.

 

One particular trend that struck me was that many of them, who, like me, had both a white and nonwhite parent would only claim their nonwhite identities on their social media and in their author bios. At first, I couldn’t put my finger on what I found strange about this practice, since it seemed fair that people proclaim marginalized/minoritized identities which, sans said proclamations, might go otherwise undetected.

 

As I became more familiar with writing communities wherein this practice was common, I was able to better identify the line between embodying an identity and performing it.

 

 

For a long time, my best friend was a brown Asian person who, throughout our ten years of friendship, maintained that she was not attracted to Asian men, instead stating that she preferred white ones. Like the neighborhood I lived in with my parents and brother, the student body of the school my friend and I went to was overwhelmingly white.

 

Through her, I heard bands like Green Day and Weezer for the first time. As young teenagers, we resented our white classmates for their pointedly racialized (or, in my case, anti-Middle Eastern) bullying of us while simultaneously unironically watching movies like A Cinderella Story, wherein Hilary Duff, in all her flaxen-haired glory, was meant to portray the odd kid out.

 

In my early adolescence, I, like many others who grew up in the U.S., immersed myself in an entertainment media landscape that positioned (and continues to position) American-born whiteness as the primary arbiter of complexity as far as ethno-racial identities go. Though I noted that it wasn’t exactly replete with mainstream characters or musicians that spoke to my particular experience with not-quite-whiteness, I mostly took no issue with it, because what else was there?

 

In other words, as a young person on my way to adulthood, in some respects, I’d become so desensitized to the whiteness I was surrounded by that I didn’t challenge its pervasiveness or seek alternatives to it — even those that didn’t fit me — the ways I did when I was younger.

 

When I was a kid, I sought, perhaps instinctively, reflections of myself in the world around me. As a small child, I felt a kinship with my light-brown-skinned Barbie doll, Teresa. In contrast, I once took one of my many blond Barbies, drew all over its face with black Sharpie, cut off its hair, and threw its head in a juniper bush in our front yard.

 

 

In the U.S., Middle Eastern and North African people are legally considered white. Of course, the collective existences of both groups are continually politicized to the extent that they are subject to abuse and scrutiny, both systemic and non, often on racial and religious bases.

 

When I was young, I didn’t consider how my ethnic and racial identities fit into the broader sociopolitical context of the U.S. Rather, I, like many teenagers, did my best to stave off the vague feelings of discomfort I experienced within my groups of mostly white friends. Significantly, I think it was my white-adjacency that enabled me to do so.

 

Throughout high school most, if not all, of my white friends had more friends and love interests than my best friend and I did. The thought seems ridiculous now, but back then, I was plagued by the nagging anxiety that the kids I went to high school with thought I was dirty, often because they couldn’t “place” me, and because of my body hair, which some students often made fun of.

 

Looking back, however, I see that other than providing them with material for “Indian” and “terrorist” jokes, being part-ME didn’t often separate me from my white friends. I never lied about my non-European ethnic background, but when I wasn’t surrounded by my friends, I made an effort keep to myself, because the attention I was paid by my other classmates felt unique. I saw this practice, on my part, as an ongoing act of self-preservation.

 

Now, I am able to understand a bit better the complexity that characterizes being placed in an environment in which you are not part of the majority (in one or more ways). Under such circumstances, you may be forced to adapt and blend in to maintain emotional and mental health.

 

This phenomenon is not new, and participating in it within the context of “performing whiteness” in the U.S., often to the extent that one is labeled “too white,” does not confer upon the person being labeled any tangible benefit insofar as their nonwhiteness goes. In other words, if you are Black or brown, then you are going to stay Black or brown, no matter how “whitely” others claim you behave.

 

Then, there’s me. When I was a young adult, and nonwhite friends referred to my tastes as “white,” I recalled the things I liked when my adolescence was in bloom — when I was developing my first real love for music.

 

I considered the music and television my friends liked, because, in some cases, they were made by or featured nonwhite people and characters they identified with, and how I’d attached myself to the same music and TV variously throughout the years, though, as was the case with white media, doing so rarely proved to be as filling for me as I hoped it would be. In hindsight, I know the case was likely often the same for my nonwhite friends, and that a sitcom or cartoon or couple of singles does not “representation” make.

 

As it turns out, even several blockbusters don’t — and likely can’t, at least not on their own — translate into meaningful representation. Just consider the continued state of affairs in the U.S., e.g., the expansion of the prison system, the expansion of detainment camps, increasing wealth inequality, etc., all of which affect —either disproportionately or exclusively — Black and brown people.

 

For me to possess a rabid hunger for Middle Eastern “representation” in film and music would be woefully misguided; January 2019 marked the seventeen-year anniversary of Guantánamo Bay’s operation.

 

 

As I was growing up, my family listened to Arabic, Assyrian, and Greek music, but I only understood a little of each language. Even if I had been fluent in the former two, I don’t know that I would have flaunted the fact as a young person.

 

Like I said, I never lied about my ethnicity. But I don’t know if I would have taken pride in music sung in languages spoken by people not largely beloved in the U.S., particularly since at that point, I was far more self-conscious, and we were much closer to 9/11 (two facts which are not unrelated).

 

Looking back on my child- and young adulthoods, I think I am able to better appreciate how fortunate I am for many aspects of my upbringing: that my parents were well-to-do, so that I wanted for nothing when it came to food, clothes, a home that was more-than-comfortable, and an education that was tailor-made for upward mobility.

 

While I felt nonexistent to most of my teachers in high school, I also felt seen by a few who taught English, and that made all the difference in my self-esteem: these teachers helped cultivate my love for writing, though it took me a decade to pursue it professionally.

 

My parents provided for me financially, and the stress I felt about my future was largely relegated to my father’s stringent expectations of me, rather than to any financial or health restrictions, which I never experienced. My mother did unbelievable emotional labor in raising my brother and me, in many ways, single-handedly.

 

I was sad and self-conscious throughout my adolescence and burgeoning adulthood, but I was, for all intents and purposes, safe and secure, and I felt protected by my mother, and on many occasions, by my brother.

 

Then, there’s the fact that I am part-Middle Eastern. I’ve almost always spoken exclusively in English, and my name is not Arabized. I was raised Christian, and like a good deal of my father’s family, I am light-skinned and “white-passing.” Because they are some of the first practitioners of Christianity, people from my ethnoreligious group receive preferential treatment when it comes to the U.S. government allowing people from the Middle East into the country.

 

None of this is to say that my experience as a half-ME person has not been filtered, at least partly, through the xenophobic U.S. culture I came of age in. Rather, in my opinion, it acts as evidence that the assertion of identity does not serve as an adequate stand-in for experience or its representation— neither of the individual nor of the group as a whole.

 

I also do not mean to imply that nonwhite identity proclamation must be founded exclusively upon persecution. However, given the bulk of my experiences, if I were to claim on social media that I am a Middle Eastern woman (omitting the fact that I am white), what would the implications be?

 

I identify as white, because I am, in part. But I also recognize that a significant chunk of my lived experience exists outside of the typical white American one, though the ways in which it does are quiet (when I say significant, I am referring to length of time, not magnitude of experience). Whiteness as something outside of me, then — as something I have been subjected to — has manifested mostly as microaggression.

 

While I lament the ways microaggressions have caused me emotional and mental distress, I also acknowledge that functionally, when it comes to race, religion, ethnicity, and country of origin, I have all the rights and abilities to move freely through the U.S. as a white person does. As a result, it doesn’t make sense for me to predicate my feelings of being a person of color solely on my self-identification as a nonwhite person.

 

I am neither ashamed nor proud of my whiteness. I don’t acknowledge it as part of some personal accountability campaign, but simply because it is. To deny it would be to deny the immense ease it has conferred upon my life. I likewise acknowledge the ways my Middle Eastern-ness has shaped the way I move through the world.

 

To me, then, identifying myself with specificity makes sense, because in doing so, I know that I can counter white supremacy just as effectively as if I’d co-opted terms that were understood to be for Black and brown people countering white supremacy — only this way, I’m not co-opting (and possibly fetishizing) a struggle that isn’t mine.

 

Sometimes, I feel embarrassed about how I clung to certain bits of cultural phenomena to catch reflections of myself when I was younger, though they may not have been created with me in mind. But I also understand that that was just me “figuring out” my identity — and it was embarrassing. For better of worse, that’s part of my experience

 

 

Notes: This essay has been heavily revised for clarity.

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