I was walking back with some classmates one day after a study session, using the time to express my annoyance at how people treat all Middle Eastern people like terrorists. My other classmates agreed with me, but then one of them, a white male conservative, said something that shocked me. He told me he understood why people were so scared of Middle Eastern people because he was a little scared himself.
There was only one catch. I’m Middle Eastern.
I’ll admit, I don’t look stereotypically Middle Eastern. I have light hair, blue eyes, and an itty bitty nose, like the whitest of white American socialites. I have a very white American name, Camilla, courtesy of my WASPy father. However, I am still proudly and genuinely Middle Eastern.
My mother’s side of the family is Armenian, primarily from Turkey and Iran. Our family also hails from Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, and Azerbaijan. We come from Istanbul, Isfahan, Jerusalem, and Beirut. We’ve lived in the Middle East for thousands of years, so we consider ourselves indigenous to the region. Our ancestral tongue is Armenian, as well as Turkish, Arabic, and Farsi. Many of my family members still speak these languages. We eat shish kebab, pilaf, hummus, baklava, tabbouleh, and other delicious Middle Eastern foods that aren’t as well known. My family members have names like Krikor, Arousiak, Satenik, and Armen, that other people think are difficult to pronounce. My grandmother’s house is full of doilies, embroidery, and soorj (coffee) pots from the old country. And trust me, you don’t want to get caught between my family members when they fight over who pays the check.
I still look white, and I consider myself white. My name, religion, and appearance are all familiar to other white Americans. But being Middle Eastern and not looking it can be a strange and painful experience – sometimes I feel like an imposter.
Family gatherings are the worst. My family always comments on my appearance, telling me that I’m pretty because I don’t look Armenian. I always hear how much I look like my father, how lucky I am to have a small nose, and how nobody would ever know I was Middle Eastern. I know they mean to compliment me, but it makes me feel as if I don’t belong – like I’m invisible.
My non-Middle Eastern peers are also not particularly understanding. When I tell people where I’m from, several people have asked if I’ve had a nose job. Oftentimes, I talk about my culture, only to hear some snarky remark like “well, you don’t look like it,” or “you’re only part Middle-Eastern.” I get it, I have never and will never experience the profiling and racism that so many other Middle Eastern people experience. However, my appearance will never erase my cultural and familial roots. It is not up to non-Middle Eastern people to determine how I identify and how I express my culture.
The worst part is that when I’m in white spaces, I hear a lot of racism against Middle Eastern people. Because other white people assume I’m not Middle Eastern, they seem to think they can say terrible things about my culture with no consequences. I’ve heard white boys say they wanted to bomb Iran, without realizing that my family lived in Iran for hundreds of years. I’ve heard white people say that Middle Easterners have sex with goats (we don’t), are all terrorists (also not true), and are all oil tycoons (I do have a relative who was an oil tycoon, but still, that’s not the point).
All of these comments have hurt me deeply. It especially hurts to know that if these people knew that I was Middle Eastern, they wouldn’t have said a thing. These kinds of cowardly racists like to test the waters around other white people, to see how far they can push it. It’s a covert and secret form of racism that I would have never known existed if I didn’t look the way I do.
It’s difficult at times. I almost feel like two people. In one word, I’m a spy in white America who’s there to ruin the fun when someone makes a racist comment. In the other, I’m an assimilated family member who doesn’t understand the traditions and doesn’t look like anyone else. So many times, I feel stuck, torn. I know I could blend into white American culture seamlessly. Still, I don’t want to give up my Middle Eastern heritage.
In the end, as hard as it is, I am grateful for my complexity. It allows me to see the world through multiple lenses, to experience different cultures, and to look past my assumptions of other people. Regardless of how others perceive me, I am immeasurably proud to be Middle Eastern, and I will carry that pride with me all my life.