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The Struggle of Wanting to be White

I left the hijab behind, but I still use my old scarves as fashion accessories--wraps, turbans, belts, shawls--in attempt to preserve my ethnic belonging in the face of white erosion.

I left the hijab behind, but I still use my old scarves as fashion accessories–wraps, turbans, belts, shawls–in attempt to preserve my ethnic belonging in the face of white erosion.

CN: Racism

I struggle with whiteness as a person of color. I struggle to resist allowing it to define my movements, my identities. I struggle the same reason many other non-white people do: because whiteness is a pervasive force shaping this world. This means I’m constantly battling my own internalized racism, my whitewashing. It means that while I don’t hate myself because I’m not white anymore, I hate myself for still wishing I was white so that I can be ‘normal’, accepted, safe.

Some days and weeks this struggle is harder than others. It’s been particularly tough this week as I’ve delved into arguments, articles, discourse regarding blackness in America. I’ve learned much, but also found a lot that resonates with my experiences as an Arab woman growing up in a strangely white world while still in the Middle East.

I think of how I grew up surrounded by anglophone culture gob-smack in the middle of Saudi Arabia because I was an expat who went to an American school. How everything I read, saw, and watched was about the lives and concerns of white people. How my Muslim (read:Arab) presentation as one of the few hijabis in the entire school was a source of shame and pain and sadness to me because of how thoroughly I was ostracized, ridiculed for it. How, when I first discovered that I wanted to be a writer, the first stories I wrote had exclusively white characters in Western nations because those were the main actors in every bit of history and literature I was being taught as important.

For the longest time, it didn’t even occur to me that stories about brown people could be relevant, useful, or necessary.

I still carry shame around because it wasn’t until my late teens that I began to conceive of Arab characters, that I started viewing them (us) as real people with lives worth telling. And it wasn’t until my early twenties that I viewed them as absolutely integral to what I wrote. I struggle because of how almost every brown person I encountered in literature was notable only insofar as they were an exotic curiosity, which was totally unlike anything I could feel about my own skin.

How I grew up associating liberal values, progressiveness, and modernity with being white and likewise associated backwardness, bigotry, and dirtiness with being brown, because that was the history in my schoolbooks.

How much prejudice I’ve had towards my own race because I believed at one point that Arab men couldn’t transcend the misogyny and violence of the culture we were socialized into. I believed not only because of my own violent experiences, but because of everything in the white canon that had formed my education. How it took forever for me to feel affinity and belonging rather than shame and hatred for myself for being Arab. How it wasn’t until I got to know brown people and found them to be some of the best people I’ve ever met on this earth that I got over the notion that my culture was an inextricable disease that infected everyone inside it.

I struggle because of how long it took me to realize what that would entail about myself. 

How troubled and complex the relationship is, too, between growing out of shame for your own skin and race while challenging the bigotries of your parent culture. I wrote about this before, but when I was 13, in my last year in Saudi, I took my hijab off at school. This is what I wrote about it at the time (forgive the oddity of the primary 3rd/secondary 2nd person PoV). This is a true account, but there’s so much more:

When she was thirteen, she was tired of being an ugly, awkward, desexualized, bullied girl with raging hormones and a forged parental signature on the permission slip for sex ed in health class. She was a teenager, and had she been the girl with a leg brace or stutter she would have been tired of that too, but it happened that she was the girl who wore a rag on her head (and was told she wore a rag on her head) in this American school full of bare limbs, bare heads in the middle of the Arabian desert. She was tired of being thirteen, hardly with the nubs of breasts, and having her sleeves checked by her mother before she went to school, to see if they covered her wrists all the way. She was tired of her mother measuring all her shirts to make sure they went down over her knees, making sure her jeans were baggy enough, tired of hair plastered back by pins and more pins under her hijab in the desert heat, her notebooks and bag and pockets routinely searched and checked, her phone calls listened to, her roller blades and bike incrementally torn away from her, an absolute ban on makeup or nail polish of any kind – and understanding finally that it was about sex, even though she did not know yet what sex was.

I promise you she was confused and said NO in her head, and once dared to take the hijab off when she was at school, and did not understand the choice she made in taking it off because she only took it off due to being harassed and tired, and she might have torn off a leg brace or her glasses in the same way.

That is only part of the story. Yes, my nascent sexual identity was a powerful motivator, but it was very specifically manifested: I wanted to look like the white girls, who were polished, perfect, popular, favored, who ostracized me for my Arab presentation and the cultural trappings surrounding my voice, style, frame. I thought by taking my scarf off at school I would not only appease the bullying–I thought that I would actually endear myself to white people, become closer to them.

That didn’t happen. I was mocked even more for daring to have the pretension of stepping outside of the bounds circumscribed by my hijab, my proper racial identifier. Slowly, slowly I was beginning to learn that this is what it would always be like: a pressure to conform, a lack of acceptance when you tried.

And something I didn’t at all expect happened, so focused was I on white perceptions and white energies: I became an object of resentment and anger among the brown kids in the school. They felt I had betrayed them–it didn’t matter that the hijab was never my choice, that it was a source of pain and confusion and violation to me. It didn’t matter that challenging the normativity of cultural practices should be part-and-parcel of destigmatizing racial belonging. To them, by discarding my hijab I was effectively giving my heritage the finger. Looking back upon it today, while I don’t believe that anger is justified, I understand it better. It was the beginnings, for me, of understanding that I need to navigate this awful space for the rest of my life, this space of not getting to be white but at the same time only being able to create my own identity while navigating white spaces everywhere. It was a hard lesson to learn, that no matter how you dress, speak, walk, act, if you are not white you will never have white acceptance.

Which is okay, except for things like this. Except for the reality of white privilege even in the Middle East. I came of age under a quite tyrannical sort of institutionalized repression, and at the same time watched white bodies around me bypass all of it. While Arab women are subject to the horrible dehumanization of a patriarchal misogynistic culture, white expat women in our countries are exempt from acting according to marriage, mobility, financial, and modesty norms–all norms that strip Arab women from agency and autonomy. Obviously this is an issue of confounded politics and economics, but I grew up seeing only the end result: white expats are given more rights and privileges than the citizens of the countries themselves. I grew up watching Saudi women in full abaya and niqab, dressed in black from head to toe being yelled at up and down by the religious police in malls for wearing mascara while white women strolled by with their abayas open and their hair streaming.

No wonder I wanted to be white.

I struggle because I don’t feel that way anymore, but instead feel I must deliberately style myself so as to seem not-white in order to quell every remnant desire I have to pass. Even though I understand why my socialization instilled this desire in me: white always meant access to things, meant being treated with kindness and respect, meant being physically beautiful, meant being worthy–or so it seemed because all the people who were presented as having these things were white. I struggle with how I feel like a piece of shit if I straighten my curls and know that I actually like my hair better straight. How I feel like I’m acting at something I’m not if I wear jeans and a t-shirt instead of my own more elaborate, ornate clothing. Never mind that more elaborate dress is less convenient, takes more time and energy and emotional investment. Never mind that I know that Western connotations surrounding my personal style translate what I view as bold, colorful, and invigorating into gaudy, garish, and cheap, because racism surrounds not only brown bodies, but brown cultural trappings.

Always I’m navigating the space between feeling like myself and being judged for my bodily presentation.

I struggle because I try to eat, live, dress, speak, learn in ways that transcend the white normativity that tells me that being not-white means not being good, decent, worthy, attractive, all the while knowing that I’d not be anywhere near as informed or well-off as I am if it wasn’t for my Western education, knowing that I take as much if not more issue with my parent culture as I do with the faults and troubles of Western liberal democracy.

I struggle because after moving to Lebanon and later starting college I still clamored to find common ground, affinity, friendship with the few white people around campus. I had a desire to talk to white people and to have them like me and think well of me in a way I never had with my own countrypeople. I struggle knowing that I have automatically privileged Westerners over people far closer to me and my understanding, and that I have been more willing, forgiving, and understanding, that I have almost gone out of my way to endear myself to Westerners in Lebanon because I viewed them as better, safer, more in tune.

I struggle because of how grateful I was as a child that my skin was so pale, how hard I tried to convince myself that I could be white. I rationalized it based on circumstances such as the US census bureau classifying Middle Easterners as white, as if that alone would make us anything like the people on TV and in books, as if that classification itself didn’t stem from a troubled history of bigotry. I struggle because I have counted myself supremely lucky a million times because I was born in a Western country, even if I never actually grew up there, because I had a passport out. This is while knowing that most of my family and friends will spend ridiculous amounts of time, effort, money, and emotional investments trying to get visas to build better lives, and likely fail. I struggle because I still somehow feel like I don’t deserve my PoC card because of my pale skin and all of these struggles, like even if I claim to be not-white I am a fraud. I struggle because I have felt pleasure, felt flattered when people back home would compliment me on the lightness of my skin when instead I should have been angry that this beauty standard has somehow ingrained itself seemingly irrevocably in brown cultures. I’ve seen enough Fair and Lovely ads to last a lifetime, but I have been exposed to them since before I could understand that these ads geared towards skin lightening products dehumanized brown people. I was too proud of being fair, because it meant I could potentially be lovely.

I struggle because I have chosen a white man to be my primary partner, the closest person on this earth to me, who I love and trust more than anybody I have met. I struggle because I know that how American (read: white) and Western (read: white) he is instinctively appeals to these very biases, that I have not quelled them. I struggle because the first time I developed any real feelings for a woman, it was a thin, white girl with straight hair and blue eyes. I  struggle because I haven’t fallen for any of the amazingly strong brown women I’ve come to know who are not-what-a-love-interest-is-supposed-to-look-like, according to everything I grew up watching and reading. I struggle because I constantly feel like my own boyfriend cannot possibly be attracted to me because I’m not white, and because I’m a sort of anti-thesis to whiteness despite my very pale skin: I am an almost obscenely disproportionately large-hipped, big breasted, strikingly dark-curly-haired, dramatic-styled, colorful, loud, hypersexual Arab woman. I struggle because despite the strange sex appeal the Arab woman has to a lot of people, it’s a dehumanizing sort of appeal that I can’t convince myself speaks anything to my self-worth. I struggle because I know full well that my boyfriend never once imagined being with someone like me before meeting me… while I, I on the other hand, spent my whole childhood thinking of people like him as ideal, and this undermines my ability to feel secure and wanted in our relationship.

It makes me feel ashamed because I am the exact opposite of the slim, simple, pretty, quiet white girls that were the heroines in all the books I grew up reading, in all the TV shows that I watched behind my parents’ back as an adolescent, and I don’t want to feel ashamed that I am not like that. I struggle because I am so full of regret that black men who message me on OKCupid feel the need to ask if I’m into black people but no white person ever assumes that they might even need to ask that, and I feel like I am committing a sin against the dehumanization of PoC by choosing white partners so often, even though {insert non-excuse about statistical demographic reasons}.

There is really nary an aspect of everyday living not touched by the power of white normativity.

I struggle because it is true that I have largely broken away from many of the most dominant values in my culture, but at the same time I was ridiculed throughout middle school in an American institution post-9/11 for having Arab blood, then took off to Lebanon where not 2 years later I hid under American-funded bombs, trapped in a war with diminishing supplies and no mobility under the Western war machine.

I struggled with decolonizing my own skin while living in my home country whose infrastructure has been bombed to hell so many times that we have a crisis of basic resources like electricity and proper telecom. I struggle because I’ve longed for the modernity and progressiveness of the West while doing my homework by candles dozens and dozens and dozens of nights because of the modernity of the West.

I struggle because I am the child of a legacy of refugees, and this history is important to who I am. When my paternal family was expelled from our home village in ’48, we suddenly became stateless second-class residents, stripped of all rights to life and livelihood. We regained citizenship status by a random stroke of luck, really. But not before the only access to housing, food, education, and healthcare my father had growing up was of horrible quality and at the generosity of UNRWA. Not before my grandparents and father grew up without the right to work and risked being shot point-blank during the Lebanon war because they were Palestinians on Lebanese land. Not before my family’s home was destroyed by bombs and rebuilt by hand three separate times in living history, when the occupation destroyed whole villages and massacred members from every family, forcing my people to either give in, die, or fight. In ’82 every man and boy in my father’s village was rounded up in the hippodrome ruins during the first Israeli occupation and divided into groups of who would go to prison camp randomly and my father and his family members had to  walk around faking Lebanese dialects whenever they took buses because at random checkpoints Palestinians were taken off buses and shot…

This is my family’s history. I struggle because I know that my father would likely not have turned into the monster he has been to me without that history.

I struggle trying to form any sense of belonging knowing that due to nothing but our ethnicities we have been denied safety, service, housing, education, privacy, freedom, the right to work even among our own people, because of intra-Arab classism, racism, and sectarianism. I struggle to realize how shockingly inter-linked all of that is to colonialist narrative. I struggle because after fleeing the Middle East we have faced similar plights as new immigrants in the West. I grew up speaking English partly because of how my grandparents and parents were admonished to integrate, to learn English, to eradicate all identifying markers of our culture and ethnicity and whitewash ourselves if we were to deserve the rights and freedoms of the West. My mother carried an entire legacy of discrimination against Arabs in the States back with her to the Middle East, including a visit from the FBI in the 80s, shortly after my birth, because my mother dared to be making long-distance phonecalls to her family. I grew up hearing of all this at home by night, listening to the painful history of my family and country, and by day going to a school where I delved into narratives structured around whiteness.

I struggle because I try to over-compensate by rooting myself in my culture perhaps more than I would otherwise if I didn’t have an internal whitewasher to fight. Would I have gotten a tattoo spelling my hometown’s name in Arabic calligraphy in plain sight on my wrist if I didn’t struggle with dissociating myself from white influences that don’t speak to my identity? I don’t know. I wonder about it. In attempting to find my own style and sense of bodily rightness much too late, as an adult, after leaving the hijab behind, would I have potentially developed an affinity to ‘white girl clothes’ if I have not been so eaten up by self-loathing for all the energies of my youth wasted on wanting to be white?  If it is not consistently reinforced to me that the way I am is not the way I ought to be?

I struggle because of the constant conflation I have to fight between Islam and Arab culture. I struggle to make it understand that being ex-Muslim does not should not cannot entail I am now a Westerner or a wannabe-Westerner, that I still have stake and belonging in my culture and home.

I struggle because I am only now fully beginning to realize how much I do not belong in white America, how I feel more afraid–not white, not straight- not male, as I am–on the streets in the States than I ever felt on the streets of Beirut.

I struggle writing this, too, because I still agonize over white people misunderstanding me when I talk about race.

I struggle because the fact that I’m always talking about racism (an ever-present reality in my life, after all) makes a lot of people think I hate white people, when the truth is that I’m fighting this hard because I have loved whiteness too much for entirely bad reasons, because whiteness has taken over so much so soon, before I was old enough or intellectually developed enough to grapple with it, that I am still struggling with wishing I was white. This is what it is to be non-white: there is always a tension towards whiteness, always an erosion of the other in favor of it. And THAT is the most crucial difference.

 

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Comments

  1. Joanna says

    I am so glad you wrote about this because I’ve been thinking about race a lot lately too. I grew up reading only western books with white characters. And for the longest time, I only wrote about white characters. In the creative classes I took, most of the students chose to set their narratives in North America, and have white characters at their center, even when they had never set foot in the States. We grow up reading and watching the lives of white people and on some level, we all start believing those are the only stories that matter, the only people that matter. I’ve had to make a conscious choice to write about people like me.

    I also get very conflicted about the way I look. In Lebanon, people often commented on how pale I was and I even got remarks from people saying they envied me because I could “pass as white”. But here, in the States, I feel like it is so obvious that I am not American. I feel the need to mention I am Lebanese every time I meet someone new. And yet, it bothers me when people comment on my accent or skin color. I don’t want to want to be white. I make it a point not to check white every time I have to indicate my race on a questionnaire. But I don’t know if I can ever completely be rid of this bias that ‘white is better”.

  2. Noor says

    Hiba. Thank you for this. Never in all my life have I read a piece of writing that was about me. I am still Muslim, but your story is mine. It is terrifyingly familiar.

  3. says

    A beautiful piece! It made me think about my relationship to other women of color around the world. Since I haven’t had close relationships with Middle Eastern women, knowing a few only as co-workers, this piece gave me insights and made me ponder issues that I had not thought about much in the past. Thank you for sharing!

  4. says

    Thank you so much for writing this. I know it must have been very difficult. It’s not often I read variations of my own story, but you have captured the experience of so many. I am a Louisiana Creole, mixed; African, European, First Peoples. Your story put into words, my vaporous feelings about the everyday struggle against whiteness. You also addressed the universal push-back from those of us who have family who wish we would just shut up. Thank you again.

  5. quixote says

    There’s a line in an old Bob Dylan song, “and all their daughters put me down cuz I don’t think about it.” I didn’t know why it irritated me until years later when I understood that is exactly what’s wrong. It’s a huge privilege not to have to think about it, whatever irritating thing “it” is. The least he could have done is been aware of the gift.

    The rest of us, it’s more like your post. You think about it, you think about thinking about it, you wish you weren’t thinking about it, you’re annoyed with yourself for tying up so much of your mind with all that worthless shit, then you think about it some more. Meanwhile those from the cloud cities ask you why you’re trapped inside the frame.

  6. says

    I am in awe of this piece. This is one of the most incredibly honest, raw, vulnerable, beautiful pieces of writing I’ve ever seen. I could relate to so many thing as they relate to my own identity and I teared up several times. I am thinking a lot about the ways POC experience trauma and how this informs our relationships and concepts of beauty. I have a lump in my throat and feeling of newness at the same time. I learned so much from this. Shared on my FB page. Thank you thank you thank you <3

  7. says

    I really relate to this as an tri-racial but predominantly Indigenous person who was raised by white family. I am pale skinned and that allowed me to pass as a child, with some small exotifying done around my cheekbones and thick dark hair that marked me as “something else”. I was a storyteller by age two and a writer shortly thereafter, who also read everything I could get my hands on. Thank goodness my parents took me to the library where I discovered Richard Wright, Malcolm X, Ntozake Shange, Gwendolyn Brooks, and others at a relatively young age. In school we did not study anyone non-white except the February nod to Langston Hughes (and completely missing how radical he was at the time). It wasn’t until I was a late teenager that I found evidence that there existed Indigenous writers, Latina writers, Vietnamese writers, Arab writers, etc, and that they wrote of their own people and told their own stories in their own ways. All around me were all the signs that being white was “normal” and what would be taken serious, and that acknowledging who I really am, where I really stand, who I am in solidarity with, and what cultures resonate with my heart meant giving up the comforts of whiteness. It wasn’t until I converted to Islam and began to wear hijab that I realized how profound these things were. I still had to struggle with the fact that I was considered a “prize” wife because of the assumption that I was a white convert, and that once I acknowledged I was not white I was no longer a prize or of any interest to anyone, and yet I cannot say that my pale skin did not also protect me from far worse Islamophobia than I would have dealt with otherwise. Even now I walk that careful bridge between acknowledging the privileges I have access to because my skin is pale, my hair is not “too kinky”, and I could pass if only I would stop wearing a head wrap, and the reality of knowing I am not white and I do love where I come from and my people and wouldn’t want to be anywhere else even if it does mean I am not taken so seriously.

  8. Uncle Ebeneezer says

    This was also a fantastic read for white, male, Westerners like me who have never experienced anything like this. It helps to give at least a small secondhand glimpse of what it would be like to walk a mile in other’s shoes. Thanks for sharing your story and perspective.

    • Peter Butler says

      Yours is a moving story of struggle. You had no small helping of luck. But luck by itself would have accomplished little or nothing without education and some serious perseverance. You have demonstrated serious strength. And don’t let anyone – especially yourself – tell you otherwise.

      .

      Others may judge you based on your skin tone. Everything from “Oh, I love her tan” to “#### fair skinned Arab #### thinks she’s better than her family.” You can’t stop what others think.

      .

      White is not better. White is easier because it confers privilege in many places.

  9. kmk says

    I struggle because I know full well that my boyfriend never once imagined being with someone like me before meeting me… while I, I on the other hand, spent my whole childhood thinking of people like him as ideal, and this undermines my ability to feel secure and wanted in our relationship.

    You speak a truth that is so difficult to hear, and it makes me so ashamed too. I am light-skinned and blue-eyed and always in jeans and a t-shirt. The only concession I make to being Lebanese is my love of makeup, and even that’s usually hidden under my glasses. I have trained myself not to speak Arabic with my sister or brother, speaking French or English instead.

    But I also don’t drink, and I always realise that my experience is so far removed from someone who’s lived in Britain since their childhood. I’ve been here 9 years and I’ve never dated, because I have trust issues and I don’t believe I could ever be attractive to the kind of man I think is attractive (blond and tall and NOT Lebanese, because I went to a French school and we were taught the French curriculum exclusively).

    I feel like I don’t belong in Beirut anymore, but, even as much as I try to look like I belong in Europe and reject everything that makes me Lebanese and Arab, I don’t belong here either.

  10. =8)-DX says

    Amazing piece. Yes – part of privilege is not having to think and struggle, the luxury of being able to ignore one’s own race or ethnicity or language or whatever.

    The only way I can relate to this is through my parentage – our family was half English, half Czech, and we immigrated to the Czech Republic when I was a kid. Although being “half-British” (or “that American boy” to some) I remember very well how much time I spent thinking about these things – about returning “home” to the UK, about preserving my own identity, about not knowing the local films and literature and feeling disconnected from the culture I lived in.

    Thankfully I had the luxury of “getting over” most of that during my transition to adulthood. There doesn’t seem to me to be anything worth struggling for any more – I can choose whatever culture I like, I don’t care if someone considers me not Czech, or not British/English/whatever.

    Anyhow, great piece, very well written and I hope you are well!

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