For as long as I can remember, I’ve felt like a rope in a game of tug of war, being pulled on either side by both of my communities. My father is a second-generation Egyptian who grew up in a traditional Arab, Muslim household. My mother’s background is the polar opposite; she’s a White woman that grew up in a Catholic household.
These two respective experiences are starkly different and their one connection didn’t make them any easier for me to untangle. Both my parents, as well as myself, were born and raised in the American Deep South. Navigating the hyphenated identities that shape me turned my childhood, and now adolescence, into a journey to find a space where both of my labels and communities are welcome and celebrated.
“As a White, American woman that benefits from resulting privilege, I am navigating my role and responsibility in breaking down the structural racism and xenophobia that I witness and benefit from in every aspect of my life.”
While freeing yourself of labels can be liberating for some, I’ve always seemed to find solace in them. Stumbling through my childhood, I learned how to hone in on one identity or the other to become what my environment expected of me. If I was at a gathering with my mother’s side of the family, I made sure to draw out my speech and amplify my “southern girl” credentials. When my Teta would bring me along to her weekly halaqas, which were attended by a majority of older Arab women, I would pull out my one-piece hijab and was careful to slip in a few words from the little Arabic I spoke in between cheek kisses from her friends. I never dared to expose the opposite facets of my identity in either situation. I couldn’t bear the chance of invalidating my Arab-ness in the eyes of one community or being looked at hesitantly by the other.
As I near adulthood, I often find myself feeling like my backgrounds contradict each other and this leaves me in a perpetual state of exhaustive uncertainty about how I should present myself to the world. As a White, American woman that benefits from resulting privilege, I am navigating my role and responsibility in breaking down the structural racism and xenophobia that I witness and benefit from in every aspect of my life. As an Arab, Muslim woman, I live every moment of my life defending myself and my people from the xenophobia and islamophobia engrained in the roots of my country. These two experiences often meet at unexpected crossroads that I have yet to understand.
One particular experience that has remained memorable to me was when I first began wearing the hijab at age 13. We were visiting an aunt on my mother’s side of the family and it was the first time she had seen me in hijab. Her first remark was, “did your dad make you wear that?”
While I wasn’t surprised to hear something like that from her, I was shocked by the rhetoric because it clearly symbolized my place in their eyes. I was “one of them” enough to be welcomed into her home, but not enough to be treated with respect. Situations like these posed a sharp contrast to experiences with the family members on my father’s side of the family that were subjected to gross scrutiny in every moment of their lives.
Learning to come to peace with the intersections of my experiences has become a daily effort for me and I know I am not alone in this. I am always looking for literature and content that allows me to relate to other individuals with similar experiences hoping that maybe one day soon I can find a balance that will help me walk the tightrope of my identity with unwavering confidence in who I am.