“Still Don’t See the Arab”

When you meet new people in New York, it’s not uncommon for them to ask something along the lines of “What’s you mix?” Crude as the phrase may be, it’s a valid question for residents of an ethnically mixed city like New York. If you stand on a street corner in this city, it’s almost 100 percent guaranteed that you will hear five different languages spoken in the space of one minute. Everyone here is from somewhere, and lots of New Yorkers throw political correctness to the wind when making acquaintances and just delve right into ethnic/cultural/racial backgrounds.

Of course, you also have your cautious, extremely PC people, who either play the “color-blind” card and act like they aren’t interested, or are just too nervous to ask. The ethnicity game is always kind of funny for me because to most people, I look either straight-up white, or ethnically ambiguous. (I am half Arabic and a quarter Italian.) Today I had a few pointed experiences related to my ethnicity. First, my professor stared at me and said, “I still don’t see the Arab.” (There was some context, but not much, so the comment was pretty much as out-of-the-blue as it sounds.) Later, some of the sixth-graders at the school where I work asked where I’m from. When I told them, they literally went “WOAH” as a group. They were shocked because they too are Arab, and they couldn’t believe that this whole time I had been, as they saw it, basically hiding in plain sight.

These interactions sort of cracked me up because, even though they could arguably be perceived as offensive or at least awkward, I am happy to live in a place where 1) the population is not so ethnically homogenous that such conversations are unnecessary and 2) people are willing to engage in those conversations. Talking about race and ethnicity can be awkward because they are such personal concepts; they’re so wrapped up in our senses of self, so when someone questions our race or ethnicity, it can feel like he or she is questioning a very intimate, inextricable part of our identity. And yet, I feel like it’s far better to have transparent conversations and risk awkwardness than to ignore the conversations altogether.

When sixth grade first started this year, lots of the kids were meeting one another for the first time. It was a new school, new peers, new grade—a lot to adjust to. And there were some uncomfortable moments. On the first day, one of the few black kids (I’ll call him ‘J’) started calling one of the few blonde, white kids (I’ll call him ‘Z’) albino. Z is not albino, and obviously nobody should be called names, but J’s nickname wasn’t meant as a pejorative term. Rather, he was calling Z albino because he wanted to acknowledge their differences but didn’t really know how to navigate that. And even though Z was unhappy with the nickname—which quickly was extinguished, by the way—having to confront his whiteness really wasn’t the worst thing. Now I see all of these kids hanging out together, teaching each other words from the languages they speak at home and arguing about whether or not God is called “God” or “Allah,” and I feel excited by the fact that they’re being exposed to different cultures so young. When my professor told me he still doesn’t see the Arab in me, I told him he probably just doesn’t know enough of us. And these kids—despite some bumps along the way—will never have that problem.


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