Generally speaking, mainstream perceptions of comic book readers, country music fans, skateboarders, and other quintessentially American hobbyists have excluded people of color. Not because POCs haven’t contributed immensely to the creation and evolution of these activities, but because industries fail to represent them. For these very reasons, being an Arab woman at an indie music festival makes me feel like an infiltrator.
Things are slowly changing in that regard, for some minority groups. For instance, movie Dope (and pretty much everything about Pharrell, to be honest) helps remake the “geek” trope to reflect modernity as well as reality. While Hollywood still sucks at accurately representing diversity in film, we are slowly seeing more movies and television shows flip the script on ethnic and cultural stereotypes.
However, I find myself encountering a different problem when I embrace the things that make me American. It’s the “whitewashed” accusation, the one that generally comes when you are the child of immigrants and are not linguistically or culturally competent enough to have an accepted claim to my heritage. I know this experience well – it practically defined my teenage years. Among family members and family friends, the pursuit of interests that are not totally characteristic of Middle Easterners is generally equated to masking my culture.
It doesn’t help that I’m not a very visible as a Muslim or as an Arab. I don’t cover my hair, and I’ve been mistaken for just about every ethnicity. I benefit from this in a lot of ways, because I encounter less racism and stereotyping than a lot of other minorities.
That is, until I mention that I’m a Palestinian.
The fact is, despite the perceived betrayal of my white conformity, strangers have never been able to see beyond my ethnicity. Unlike most white Americans, I have never been a blank slate who could identify him or herself by a professional title or a personality trait.
Case in point: I’ll be hanging out with a group of white friends when a newcomer comes along. Said stranger introduces himself to my friend group and asks them all what state they are from or what they do for a living. It will be my turn to exchange pleasantries and suddenly the question becomes, “So, what are you?”
I’m fine saying that I have yet to figure out the answer, because I know I’m not the only one. Many POCs and second-generation Americans have a double-burden to bear. We summon the courage to participate in white-majority spaces on the daily, while also fulfilling our parents’ wishes to keep us migrants of the East. This state of dispossession is constant reminder that we are never enough, but in the end, it’s also just one part of an ongoing journey.