She was being a good friend when she told me that I was “basically white.” It’s what I needed to hear that day in ninth grade: that I was just like everybody else, that I bore no resemblance to the dead faces lined in rows across the screen, as if sifted from the rubble of the towers they destroyed. Terms like “white supremacy” and “patriarchy” wouldn’t enter my consciousness until nearly 10 years later, and right then I considered it a definitive blessing that I could register as normal. Maybe Italian, definitely Greek, I thought. That was believable, right? Already the sort of kid who lied, I began telling classmates I went to a church like the one in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. I said “dad” (with a Midwestern twang: day-yud) instead of “baba.” I insisted my friends order pepperoni on their pizza when they came over. It broke my mother’s heart.
Pining for whiteness was nothing new—September 11th, more than anything, accelerated my momentum in a direction I already had been heading, and it felt impossible to turn around. I can’t remember a time I wasn’t aware of my status as “other.” It was something I learned alongside timetables, typing, playground politics. Everyone in my airtight Midwestern bubble knew my parents were the ones with the accents you couldn’t quite place—big, perfumed accents that always drove teachers and coaches to helplessly ask, “But where are you from originally?”
My father, with pride, would make sure they understood we were from Alexandria, not Cairo. You see, Alexandria was trés cosmopolitan, and we clung to that distinction. There, by the sea, people spoke French, lived in boisterous harmony next to Christians, and hung degrees from prestigious American universities on their cracked apartment walls. We called ourselves Mediterranean, a word that always sounded so much more elegant to me than Egyptian or Muslim or Arab. At dinner parties, relatives spun tales of teenage nights on the beach before assuming hushed, serious tones, discussing the militancy that had sucked the golden hue from their city.
So, in a way, my behavior made a lot of sense: I come from a people who’ve always revered the West. This is not to say my parents tempered themselves in front of Amreekans, not really. They were a chunky, inconsistent blend of two worlds. It seems like what guided them was a sort of a built-in cultural elasticity: they curved to the angles of assimilation if and when they actually noticed they were there. My mother had named her firstborn, my older brother, Sherief; it means “honest” in Arabic. After eight years of repeating the syllables for school officials and fielding inquires, she opted for something practical for me: Sarah, a name mercifully common in both Egypt and America.
This worked to my advantage, of course, in my youthful quest to become white. Nothing to see here, just a regular old girl named Sarah; ignore the hairy forearms and the giant, upturned eyes. I spent so much time looking in the mirror, debating the exoticness of my features. If I ever succeeded in soothing myself through delusion, I can’t really remember—what I mostly recall are the instances in which I was so damningly exposed. Everyone in my white suburb knew my family and our history, so it’s especially ridiculous I went about lying after September 11th. All it did was tip people off that this was a wound they could press on if they wanted to.
I suppose part of me still possessed a child’s belief in magic, the idea that you could will a wish into being. My fantasy world was at once elaborate and uninspired: I didn’t dream big, I just dreamed to be white. I didn’t think of it in terms of race back then, I just wanted so badly to appear normal. Thank God my mother doesn’t wear the hijab, I would think. Why couldn’t I have inherited my father’s blue-green eyes? Once someone told me I looked a little bit like this white actress from the TV show Popular, and I cherished it as evidence of my passing. I positioned the questions of girlish insecurity so that I’d get the answers I wanted, like from the well-meaning friend who told me I was “basically white.”
But then, maybe I really was white? Back then Middle Eastern and North African people were told to mark “Caucasian” on the Census. It was confusing: in some situations I was so nakedly O-T-H-E-R; in some I was absorbed into the beige masses. The two cultures I inhabited were portrayed as at odds with one another and it felt like I had to choose a side. I vehemently rejected my brownness. But who would recognize my choice as valid? The power to determine what I was always seemed to lie in the eye of the beholder.
This was the headspace I lugged around for a long time, more or less. There were flashes of indignation and moments when I clearly saw the rigged maze of the system, but mostly I just considered the world’s unwillingness to account for me as proof of some inherent badness. Undeveloped minds, my therapist tells me, don’t know how to properly process these things. And so I spent my childhood contorting into ill-fitting spaces, suffocated of oxygen.
Things are different for me now. In 2012, my friend suggested I follow Ayesha Siddiqi on Twitter, and it was a revelation; never before had I heard someone give voice to the oddities of growing up Muslim in America, or take down pop culture’s inherent biases and reveal inequities for the practiced, deliberate actions they were. I veered off from there, following other funny, feminist women on Twitter, reading books, reframing my past, armed with a vocabulary that validated the legitimacy of my experience. Slowly, all the events my brain had concluded were a result of my inadequacies had new names, and the isolation I was in was revealed to be a part of an archipelago—people calling out to one another, screaming “me too.”
Sometimes I feel silly; why didn’t I know this stuff all along? How ridiculous for me to have swallowed the pill of white supremacy and metabolized it into self-hatred rather than white-hot anger. I know part of unlearning is accepting, but sometimes acceptance feels like a real bummer; erasing my issues has always seemed more appealing than managing them. I’m still unable to grasp why my brother and sister were able to weave between our two cultures with so much more grace than I ever did—seemingly unfazed by the cognitive agility demanded of them.
Unlearning is the most profoundly difficult task I’ve ever attempted, and I hate it. My brain often gets lost as I feel my way around in the dark; there are a million trapdoors and almost no certainties. Ticks, like saying “sorry” too much, have been easier to parse out, but what about the personality traits I’ve come to like? The ones borne from shame, but now so embedded into who I am that they’ve contributed to a lot of the good that’s happened in my life? What about “strengths,” like a willingness to adapt—that classic immigrant kid shtick—which might make me a better job candidate? My sense of humor, an elaborate apparatus designed to keep people from uncovering my issues, and also the glow that’s drawn in friends I love? People have come to expect these things from me, and I from myself. Who would I be if I decided to wash away the colors painted on in childish necessity? Is that even possible?
Forgiving myself for the ways in which I’ve hurt my family and benefited from my readiness to shun my religion is the hardest thing to wrap my head around. It’s strange to feel ashamed about your previous shame. I think about this tweet a lot—and it’s not the commentary on Mindy Kaling in particular that I’m interested in; it’s the reckoning with the fact that I am that girl. Was that girl? Despite some mental rewiring, my whole life has been built around my misconceptions. Most of my friends are still white, I work in a white industry, and I’m often unwittingly offered the spoils of white privilege. This is what silencing a part of myself has afforded (or cost) me.
Just as I began the work of sifting through my psyche, it’s as if my long-held wish had been granted. When I left my Stepford-like suburb for Chicago, the questions shifted from “What are you?” to “oh, you’re not white?” Not long ago I was in a BuzzFeed video poking fun at the myopia of white feminism; the joke hinged on a woman of color overhearing a conversation between four dimly aware white girls. I offered myself up as the woman of color, but the director insisted someone who looked more obviously a “woman of color” stand in. My former self would have been thrilled.
After a year of being obsessed with identity, I still foolishly want someone to tell me, definitively, if I get to decide what I am. If I get to change my mind, as I believe I have. On the personal, self-versus-self level, I’ve gathered that I do get to decide, but in practice it often seems like I don’t. A declaration of my Muslim and Arab heritage is not something that accompanies a handshake, and people often seem to dismiss it once I assert it—as if my mannerisms aren’t what they associate with Islam, and so I musn’t be. At other times, my brown friends refer to me as brown and I’m secretly elated. It’s as if I exist on a sliding scale, desperate to know what each person will choose to value in me.
This is partly why I was struck hard by Donald Trump’s call to “ban all Muslims from entering the U.S.” until we “figure this thing out.” The first part so arrogantly absolute, the second part so purposefully vague. It would be laughable if it wasn’t so terrifying—this idea that Muslim identity is intrinsically fixed; as if there aren’t people out there who hesitate to call themselves Muslim despite being born into Islam; as if there aren’t Muslims who don’t question where they come from. I wonder if my cousin Nadir, a coke-loving beach bum living in Sharm El-Sheikh, would be barred from entering the country in which he’s spent nearly half his life, cultivating his taste for American vice. Or what about my cousin Gigi, who wears a hijab but devours episodes of Homeland? Or what about me? Where is the line drawn?
These are dangerous questions, to be sure, but Trump’s galvanized group of supporters and their insistence on a false one-dimensional Islam stand in stark contrast to the reality of people who struggle to find their own texture of spirituality and identity. Growing up in a thickly conservative atmosphere, I am friends with more than a few Trump supporters on Facebook and was cool with a lot of these people in high school. I wonder if they have the sort of ruthlessness it takes to pick me and my sister and my brother and my parents—immigrants who managed to endear in our small white community—out of a crowd, and tell us to get the hell out. I don’t want to believe they do. But therein lies another danger: the desire to be accounted for as “normal” persists.
The day after September 11th, I begged my mom to let me stay home from school. She was honestly perplexed by my concern; to her it was so obvious that we were nothing like the killers on TV. “People will look at you and be able to tell you’re a good person,” she said. Maybe. Or maybe they just couldn’t see who I really was at all.