By Serene Akkawi ’19. Art by Maheen Syed ’19.
You are sitting on a train going from Providence to Boston. Your MacBook Air lies in front of you as you try to finish the last sentence of a paper for your human rights law class. You get bored and start taking pictures on your iPhone of the beautiful fall leaves outside your window. You are finally “adulting,” or pseudo-adulting if you acknowledge your parents financing the trip.
“Hi! Whaaaaaat! This is so weird!,” you yell into your sister’s ear as you hug her outside of the train station.
“I know! We are officially adults now. Flying to new cities to meet up with my sister… it is surreal,” your sister Tala responds.
You spend the day walking around Boston, up and down Newbury Street, tempted to buy everything in sight. You act like a professional photographer for your sister trying to get the best lighting for her first Instagram picture. Eventually you make it to the Boston Public Garden. You stand near the entrance trying to find the Make Way for Ducklings statues of Mrs. Mallard that you heard so much about from your friends. As you stand there looking slightly confused, you overhear two men talking. They are walking past you both speaking in Arabic:
|“Yo, look at the girl in black…”
“Dude, they are both wearing black…”
“No, no the one with red.”
“Oh! She’s hot.”
|….اتطلع على هاي إللابسه أسود
….يازلمه، الثننين لابسين أسود
.لأ لأ هاي بل أحمر
They were talking about you two. Your sister was the one with the red backpack though. Now let me paint a picture a little clearer: you and your sister have coffees from a local shop in one hand and shopping bags in the other, creating the image of the stereotypical white American girl. You are filled with this mixed feeling of emotions from having another assume your ethnicity, understanding from where the assumption came. You were so typical that you felt like you blended into the crowd.
But then there was this other feeling of frustration and a bit of anger. You are an Arab Christian woman. You are a Jordanian American. You are proud to be just that, and these random guys made you realize how much you wanted your Arab-ness to play a huge part of your identity. (Maybe just a bit of that anger stemmed from the fact that they thought your sister was the pretty one, but you would never admit that aloud.)
Creativity sparks, fueled by the jumble of emotions. You quickly turn to your sister and whisper your plan.
“Excuse me,” you say as you push yourself between the two men, dragging your sister behind you. For what seemed like the longest of moments, you doubt your idea, your plan, but you’re finally yourself again. It seemed almost meant to be, everything lined up; you didn’t even have to change the “script.” You turn to your sister…
|“Tala, did you hear what they said.”
“The guy wearing black.”
“But they are both wearing black…”
“No, no the one with the red backpack…”
تالا، سمعتي شو حكوا؟
…إلي كان لابس أسود
…بس الاثنين لابسين أسود
…لا لا، الزلمه مع الشنطة الحمرة
You move to the side and stand by the railing of the bridge watching the two men blush in astonishment. With their eyes still wide, as if they have never heard their own language spoken from the mouth of someone other than themselves, they walked away in astonishment and only slightly embarrassed.
You turn to your sister and burst into hysterical laughter.
Only after recounting what you thought was the funniest thing you had ever done to your closest friend did you begin to realize that you had never felt so comfortable in your own skin, your true identity, before that day.
You always considered yourself adaptable. Being confused as Hispanic from your looks and Spanish skills always gave you a pride boost. The fact that you could pass as a native speaker was an accomplishment. You did not see this as dishonesty to yourself at the time. You just felt that you belonged.
As a teenager in Jordan, you were no longer seen as a Mexican. Nor were you Jordanian. You were the American. This time, the hint of an American accent felt ever-more pronounced when surrounded by “true” Arabs. In contrast to your childhood, this time the slight separation you felt as an outlier delighted you. As an American, you were revered because it meant so much more than you had anticipated. It meant that you came from a family of doctors or engineers who could afford to leave the country. You were automatically part of the elite.
Either way, in Jordan or in Chicago, you enjoyed your ethnic ambiguity. You could adapt to many situations.
Now in college, all you want to be is a simple ordinary white American girl. You want to buy that Starbucks drink (even though you would rather have your mom’s cinnamon tea), shop at Urban Outfitters (even though it is too expensive and not your style), and take train rides over the weekend to meet up with your sister in Boston (this one you actually like). Being white meant being elite. Being white meant being privileged. Being white sounded great. You thought it would be easy to do, and it was. You did it. You finally did it, and to prove it, two men walked past you judging your appearance seeing you as a typical white girl who couldn’t possibly know Arabic.
You hated it.
You are beyond embarrassed.
You are not white.
You are Arab.
You are unique.
You love you.
But you are part of the elite. You are what a white girl embodies, and you realize the privilege that you have. Every day you acquire new forms of capital. The forms of cultural capital that you are privy to are embodied in your appearance and accent and are institutionalized by the Brown logo on your sweater. Face it and embrace it. There is no need to pretend to be someone that you already are.