I was always visible as a young child. I was a big girl. I was 4-6 inches taller than my peers throughout elementary school and even into middle school. I was recruited to play elementary school basketball a full year ahead of the minimum age restriction. My hairy legs and armpits scared the members of the opposing team, and my hips would knock them to the floor years before their petite white frames would ever start to grow hair or develop child-bearing qualities.
I had an imposing presence and an even more imposing mouth, getting myself into awkward situations when expressing my opinions at the most inopportune times or in the most awkward places. Sheryl Sandberg’s description of “bossy” girls in her book Lean In described me perfectly.
I was a bossy, tall and chubby girl who reached physical and emotional maturity much earlier than most of my peers. So I never could really be invisible when I was young, and the truth was I didn’t want to be.
When my parents decided to move from my birth place, Millbrae, California to an affluent white town in Scottsdale, Arizona, my visibility changed. Having attended a diverse middle school full of Samoans, Chinese, Mexicans and other immigrant populations in California, moving to Scottsdale was a bit of a shock to my system.
I had never really thought of myself as different in California (despite my physical stature). In Arizona, I suddenly saw my skin in a different light (quite literally). In the Arizona sun, my skin tanned and darkened easily, taking on an olive complexion I only had during my late California summers at the pool. I became a brown person in more ways than one.
I entered my new 7th grade classroom and immediately felt (and saw) my difference. I was one of two brown girls in the class and we became the best of friends ― forming a clique with the handful of other students of color.
Our clique was far from cool. We wore overalls (before they were fashionable), nerdy glasses (before they were fashionable) and we excelled in school (before it was fashionable). We were the smart kids surrounded by students who actually cared about how they looked, partied on the weekends with drugs and alcohol and were allowed to date (gasp!). We were naive and innocent and wore our difference with a badge of honor while keeping up a certain amount of social invisibility.
During my family’s four-year stint living in Arizona, a life-changing event happened.
September 11, 2001 was one of the worst days of my life. A part of me died on what started as a normal high school weekday. I arrived at marching band practice at dawn (I told you I was a nerd!) and found my fellow clarinetists with their eyes glued to the television where a huge skyscraper burned and fell to the ground. I was horrified and shocked.
We went out to practice that day, despite the calamity, and the morning progressed as any other until we started attending classes. Some teachers stuck to their syllabi trying to hold onto some semblance of normalcy, while others decided to forego the schedule and have a discussion about the day’s events.
Not everyone knew that I was an Arab. Sure, I had a strange sounding last name and my skin was a bit darker than most, but I was a passing minority that no one could really place or identify. I was often confused for being Hispanic or Latina. I was an invisible Arab trying to get good grades to impress my immigrant parents. And throughout my time in Arizona, I was actively trying to stay invisible.
I tried to use my passing racial identity to my advantage, but during the last class period of the school day on September 11th, I couldn’t stay invisible any longer.
The substitute teacher in my Spanish class started an unstructured discussion about the day’s events with CNN playing on the corner television. Students began generalizing the behavior of the criminals of the September 11 terrorist attacks to the entire race of peoples originating from the Middle East.
I was being called a terrorist, a savage and a criminal to my own face by students who I had been having lunch with not three hours prior. I was being accused of wanting to hurt the country I was born in and where I had lived in my entire life. I was visible again, this time in a way that I didn’t consent to. I was visible not because I was a chubby brown girl who went through puberty early, or because I was a nerd with lots of friends of color, but because I was an Arab American.
I had never really been an Arab in school up until that day. I never spoke Arabic when around my friends; I never mentioned my large extended family that enveloped me in love at every major life event, or the pressure to succeed in the United States as a child of refugees that drove me to do well in school.
So, while I wanted to remain invisible on that day, I spoke up against the generalizations that my classmates were making. I spoke up and told them that yes, I’m an Arab, and no, I’m not a terrorist.
I spoke up, with tears in my eyes, defending an entire region of Arabic-speaking people. I went home that day (sent home, rather, with a handful of other brown kids by the administration after a Pakistani kid was attacked in the hallway) tired, exhausted and enraged that this invisibility that made up a large part of my identity was ruined. My Arab-ness was now visible and in the spotlight.
The following year, my father lost his business due to the discrimination he faced as an accent-wielding Arab man. We had to leave Arizona and sell our house to survive financially. We moved back to California where I was to finish my last two years of high school before applying to college. I had a chance to develop a new identity in a new high school with people who didn’t know who I was and where I came from ― I had the opportunity to be invisible again.
I fell back on my smarts and my skills. I became the smart girl who was taking all AP classes. It didn’t matter that I was brown, it just mattered that I was smart. I tried to excel at everything I put my hands on to distinguish myself in non-racial and ethnic ways.
But when it was time to apply to college, institutions were asking me to select my race and ethnicity from a finite list of options. None of these options were “Arab.” The form instructions and my guidance counselor told me I was supposed to select “White/Caucasian” because I had origins from the Middle East. I certainly didn’t feel “White.” I certainly did not have the same life experiences as the “White” kids I grew up with in California and Arizona. I certainly did not pass as “White.”
I ended up selecting “Other” on all of my college applications as a form of personal protest. There were multiple instances in my life that I was an “Other,” where I was different and separated from the rest of my peers. Some institutions asked me to clarify my “Other”-ness and then reclassified me as “White/Caucasian” when they found out I had origins from the Middle East.
I didn’t qualify for minority scholarships as “White,” my personal essays described life events that didn’t come from a place of “White” privilege.
I’m not the only one that goes through this identity crisis every time I fill out a form that asks me for my race or ethnicity. I am one of approximately 3.7 million Arab Americans living in the United States without an ethnic and racial identifier on the numerous forms that ask us to identify with a particular race or ethnicity. I recently found out that the Office of Management and Budget (part of the federal government) has been doing work with Arab American advocacy groups and scholars to test a Middle East and North African (MENA) identifier on the United States Census in 2020. They called for public comments about the inclusion of this identifier on future Census surveys and as such I am putting myself out there as an advocate for this new identifier. We, as Arabs, need to be seen, we need to be heard, we need to feel like we belong and we’re not just another “Other.”
There were times in my life where I was forced to be visible, when all I wanted was to remain invisible. But this is a time in my life where I want to be seen. I want to be known. I want my own checkbox. I want to check MENA. It will help Arab Americans be visible in a way that we can consent to, in a way that empowers others to say: “Yes, we are Arabs!” It will help assess and advocate for the needs in our diverse communities. The MENA identifier may only be a checkbox on a form, but to Arab Americans like me, it is recognition that I am not invisible.