Love, Life Stories

I grew up thinking I was Japanese, but I’m actually Egyptian

Arab, Asian, Hispanic – it's all the same thing, right?

I was really confused about race as a child. How confused? I thought I was Asian. Which as an Egyptian, I’m really, really not.

Okay, that may be a bit hyperbolic. It’s not that I literally thought Japanese and Egyptian people were the same. It’s that I was growing up in a world where people were either black or white, and everyone else in the middle, so-to-speak, was kind of lumped together in my five-year-old mind. Arab, Asian, Hispanic – they weren’t the same, but they were close enough.

I remember watching these beautiful, graceful Japanese girls perform in ice skating competitions on television, and being so fascinated by them. I actually went around telling my first-grade classmates that I was a professional figure skater, a lie that was immediately exposed when one of my friends asked my mother about it.

[bctt tweet=”I just wish I didn’t have to learn what I am from September 11.”]

When I think about it now, I feel that it was a very disassociative experience for my child self, because I knew that on an individual, personalized level I was Arab and Egyptian and Muslim, but that identity had no place, no real meaning, in the context of the wider society I lived in. As a child I related to anyone who had dark hair and a fair-to-medium skin tone: Snow White, Sailor Saturn, Ramona Quimby. I looked for myself in each one of these girls, trying to figure out who and what I was supposed to be.

The truly upsetting part is that it was the events of September 11 that gave me an identity and anchored me to Muslims and Arabs in America as distinct, knowable groups. I was nine at the time, old enough to understand the idea of a wider Muslim or Egyptian or Arab community of which I was a part, but it was still just a vague theoretical concept that didn’t really have any applicability in my day-to-day life – until we were consumed in discussions of terrorism and hate crimes and racism and solidarity.

[bctt tweet=”I looked for myself in each one of these girls, trying to figure out who and what I was.”]

It would be many years after 9/11 before I would come to fully appreciate the validity of my identity and its many facets: Arab, African, Egyptian, American, Muslim. It would be a few more years after that before I reconciled the disadvantages I face as a women of color with the privileges my socioeconomic and educational background give me access to.

When we talk about the need for diversity in the media, this is what we’re talking about. A lot of work has been done to create characters that certainly look more diverse, but there has to be some kind of space for children’s programming to discuss that diversity in the language of race and identity in a positive, age-appropriate way. In her book “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria,” African-American scholar Beverly Tatum talks about how children absorb the silent societal message that it’s wrong to talk about identity or skin color or to ask questions about it. They’re observing racial issues every day, but they’re actively denied the language and tools to ask questions about those issues or discuss them.

[bctt tweet=”Children observe racial issues every day.”]

Children are not color-blind, just like adults aren’t color-blind. They see the spectrum of skin colors that surround us in this wonderfully diverse country and learn how that color connects to a fundamental understanding about who and what we are. They know that we are not all the same, but we as a society are so committed to the illusion of fairness that we don’t allow children to question those differences in a positive way.

I learned so much from television growing up. I learned that you should love your siblings (I’m working on it!). I learned that girls are made of sugar and spice and and chemical X. I learned that everyone is special in his or her own way. I learned what on oxymoron is.

I just wish I didn’t have to learn what I am from September 11.