There wasn’t just one standout event that taught me how difficult my life would be as a minority.
Looking back at my life, I know a series of moments shaped my perception of myself and the way I choose to interact with the world. Those moments usually entailed being confronted with labels throughout my entire childhood and adulthood. These often reductive classifications forced me to explain, reexamine, and doubt myself countless times.
I know many other minorities, especially women, who feel this struggle. And although grappling with my self-identification could put me in a pretty dark place sometimes, I’ve also experienced many life-changing epiphanies along the way.
1. You will be born in the shadow of fear and hate, both of which you will see in others and yourself.
2. Hold your hands up to shield your face, as you navigate a clear that is still not quite clear of the smoke and rubble left by the Twin Towers.
3. Avoid television at all costs. The news will lay out blueprints of your faith and mind to guide the construction of another angry woman of color, a victim of oppression, a religious fundamentalist.
4. Be wary of the looming threat of surveillance, both by the government and your own peers. Brown bodies in the tri-state area will vaporize, their own families uncertain of their fates. The shadows they leave behind will appear in your night visions as you lie awake.
5. With the media panic surrounding the Middle East, you will discover how easily activated your own panic switch has become.
6. You will grow to be articulate for your age, to show how assimilated you have become to the American way – despite being born in America yourself. Take it as a compliment when strangers tell you, “you sound white.”
7. The gaze of others will propel you forward. Close your eyes and forget how dense your eyebrows are. Look to the NSYNC videos for models of perfection, girls with belly-button rings and colored streaks in their hair who chase boys.
8. Despite the performances you put on to assert your national loyalty, to self-define your religious fundamentals as something perfect and beautiful, you will still be always be diminished to a veil and beard.
9. Pack up and head west, just before your eighteenth birthday. Forget who you are, who you used to be, and the person you thought you wanted to be.
10. Now that you’re far away from that person, imagine a new version of yourself that escapes all religious ethnic labels. In the mirror you will see urban brown stretching towards a California chic that can only decorate pale skin.
11. Go to college. Learn about rhythm and poetry and Mahmoud Darwish. Take up poetry writing. Think about a victim of systematic racism, marked by years of historic oppression, submerged in a art form invented by people who are also stained bottom-up by bloody water.
12. Relish in the anonymity you find in your new city. Slip in and out of shadows, grateful that no one here cares where you go or what you look like.
13. Muslims will be surprised to learn that you can memorize rhymes in the bleached language of the colonizers but the history and complexity of your Arabic has been wrung dry by the dread of a transcontinental banishment. You are only completely fluent in apologetics.
14. Become a useless student activist. Hold a stack of quarter-sheet flyers on the campus plaza and stare vacantly into nothingness. You will get tired, not from lack of sleep, but from the fake smiles you force and the sideways glances that scan you. Go sit on a bench by yourself and watch the sea of slumped shoulders and book bags blur by.
15. Look around at the sea of student bodies you wish you had. You are years past middle school and still, wish you looked like one of the pretty girls. “Love yourself first,” the feminists will cry. Your attempts at identity transformation are never complete or whole.
16. Cry in the shower about your shitty grades. Smash a dish in your apartment kitchen because your roommates’ friends are over and you can’t breathe.
17. Take a train across the Bay because you are so sick of this goddamn city where no one cares about you or where you go.
18. Call your mother and tell her that she is the reason why you moved across the country.
19. Get off the train and realize you still have nowhere to go. Try not to cry.
20. You are a hastily assembled structure that constantly needs the approval of others to stay composed and intact. You, who cannot breathe when you speak in front of strangers. You, who cuts herself to see the blood of the Intifada from which her parents fled. You, who reads and reads and inhales and soaks up every word, movement, and face but still cannot project half of what you take in.
21. You’ll wonder if your parents ever felt as displaced in America as you have in your own body.
22. Emerge from the shadows. Remember this is a story about how you swerved off the common path so you can change the world. Remember that by the end of this story, you are supposed to grow the hell up.
23. A quarter of a century passes and you still haven’t changed the world, but you’ve escaped the notion that our identities are bounded by barbed wire.
24. A quarter of a century passes and you still are dreaming of Glocks in Gaza, airstrikes over Ferguson.
25. A quarter of a century passes and you are still looking centuries ahead for change to come.