It is easier to be brown in Burque. One of the unexpected advantages to moving to Albuquerque (and to Barelas in particular) was the realization that having olive skin, dark hair and eyes that hinted at something other than European ancestry didn't matter so much here.

After a lifetime of "what are you?" questions, blending in with the Burque peoplescape was a relief.

An unexpected realization followed my relief as I quickly learned that, contrary to my experience of a lifetime in another place, being brown could be an advantage.

The presumptions of passing made this possible.

Someone who looks like me, who lives in Barelas, and who can follow the general gist of a conversation in Spanish and certainly in Spanglish is presumed to be Hispanic. Add to this mix a parcel of land in NM that has been in my family for a few generations, and it is easy to mistake that I have a different ancestry than the one I claim.

As far as I've been able to determine from poring over family genealogy, I have no Spanish heritage, despite having two trilingual grandfathers who spoke Spanish and generations of relatives living in Mexico and Chile. Yet, these factoids are part of the reason I felt at home in Barelas - being in a bilingual Spanish-English environment and seeing plenty of people around who looked like family made it easy to adjust.

Whenever I realize that people have mistakenly assumed that I am Hispanic, I always try to set them straight.

I do this not to make any stupid claims about ethnic inferiority or superiority, but because I think it is important to be clear about who I am. Deception by omission carries a cost that I’m not willing to pay.

Disclosure also carries a cost, especially when you are Arab-American.

Sometimes it is tempting to go the easier route, to forego the cost of prejudice. It is easy to be an Arab-American in a mostly brown city where being brown has its perks. On most days the issue of my ethnic heritage doesn’t even come up.

Sure, there were moments after 9/11, such as my experience on 9/12/2001, when a man walking past me on Martin Luther King Avenue told me to “go home!” I realized later that his outcry may have been prompted by a piece of Middle Eastern jewelry that I was wearing. Ironically, this was a gift from my closest friend in graduate school, an Israeli sabra. I stopped wearing that piece of jewelry years ago – life became easier when I took it off.

And there was the time a year or so ago, when my Arab-American-but-could-pass-for-Hispanic mother recounted a conversation that took place after her yoga class here in Albuquerque. Right after shavasana and closing meditation, a man taking the class declared that all Arabs and Arab-Americans should be bombed, both here and abroad. I don’t know that I will ever forget the pain on my mother’s face as she told this story to me. I just remember seeing the juxtaposition of my mother’s face and behind her on the wall, a photograph of her Arab-American father in his U.S. Army uniform.

And I’m not going to even start on the number of times I have been pulled aside for additional screening at the airport, though I'm sure I exceed the average… I think this is partly because of my deaf/hard of hearing mannerism of always scanning the airport to be sure I am not missing anything (such as a gate change announcement). Unfortunately, this behavior pattern gets translated as suspicious – coupled with a brown and possibly Middle Eastern appearance, it is likely to result in a slightly longer passage through security or some extra TSA company hanging out close by.

But I am okay with that.

What I’m not okay with is this.

That last week, in 2008, a candidate running for President of the United States of America, when faced with a comment from an audience member accusing another candidate running for President of being an Arab (or of having Arab heritage?), did not directly dispel her implication that to be Arab or Arab-American is a bad thing.

Sure, the candidate made a blanket statement about the decency of the other candidate, stressing that the election was about philosophical differences.

But from where I watch, the conflation of the terms Arab, Muslim, and terrorist makes me awfully uneasy.

And I think about doing something as a mother that I vowed I’d never do – after a childhood of anti-Arab prejudice and being cautioned not to disclose our family heritage.

For a brief moment, I consider telling my children that this is not a time to talk about their Arab-American ancestry. After all, we’re in Albuquerque and they could pass for something else.

Perhaps this is not the time to take pride in the contributions our direct ancestors have made to this country, fighting as non-hyphenated Americans in wars from the Spanish-American war to the present day and serving the country in other ways as lawyers and teachers and librarians and writers.

Perhaps it is just not the time to speak against the 'three B stereotype' (billionaires, bombers, and bellydancers) attributed to Arabs and Arab-Americans.

I consider it.

Think about it for a few days.

(Lose some sleep.)

Reject it.

And decide to write this blog instead.

Views: 133

Comment by ABQSkippy on October 12, 2008 at 9:53pm
Thanks for the heartfelt post, Theresa.
Why is it not okay to be of Arab descent in the US? Why did John McCain let that woman's comment slide? Why is the GOP ticket fomenting hatred and violence with their inferences about Obama's race and character and un-Americaness?
It is so disturbing. I am deeply offended and saddened by all of this.
Comment by mombat on October 13, 2008 at 9:25am
This is a timely,thought provoking post. I am appalled by the degree fear and ignorance that directs the tone of much of the current political debate.
You and your family are wonderful people.
Comment by Phunque1 on October 13, 2008 at 9:56am
Fear and ignorance drive the uneducated to huddle together to share their thoughts on "those people" it is not just people of middle eastern decent that live life dealing with the results of this type of behavior. True that currently with the media forcing the constant negative reports of war related violence may be fueling this now more than ever.However prejudice in general is real all you have to do is look and listen. Even in today’s information & technology age prejudice is still a huge problem. Fight prejudice with education of the unaware open their eyes one at a time, speak with young people when you get a chance. All peoples that call the US home are immigrants with the exception of the Native Americans…and look how they have been treated. Teach your children to understand the differences and celebrate them. Thank you for posting I would invite you & your family to my home anytime.
Comment by cathyray on October 13, 2008 at 10:28am
very thought provoking. Amen to all the comments above. It always amazes me that one person can think they are more American that someone else, therefore somehow better.
Last night I was talking to my neighbor in the alley who told me than I better hope McCain gets elected because if Obama gets into the white house "the first things he's going to do is go Muslim". It took almost all i had inside of me to tell her i'd better get back in the house. I sat for a long time coming to terms with the fact that there are people who really believe crap like that. It made me sad.
It's a shame that you have to worry what to tell the kids. From reading your posts & replies on DCF I have the feeling of knowing a part of you. This part of you will, of course, do what is right & true. I admire you.
Comment by Stephanie on October 13, 2008 at 10:28am
My best friend, whose family is Pakistani but was born and raised in America, LOVES coming to ABQ because he "blends." Put him in a black hat and boots and you'd never know he came from anywhere north of the border. It makes me a little sad that him just being himself isn't good enough to avoid the "glances."
Comment by Adelita on October 13, 2008 at 11:16am
BB, wow. I'm always amazed at people's attitudes that all Muslims must be terrorists. Do others in the world judge the United States by the extreme Christian religious right? Are we characterized as people who bomb abortion clinics and kill doctors who perform abortions? Are we characterized as money grubbing Jim Bakkers and others of his ilk? I hope not.

What kind of country are we that we are so ignorant and intolerant of any religion that is not Christianity? And what kind of country are we that being Arab, Pakistani, Mexican, Asian, etc. is a bad thing? Isn't that what makes this country so beautiful. Shoot, even here in NM we have idiot Hispanics that perpetuate the ignorance that because some of us have a trace of Spanish blood, that we must be superior in some way to others. Just plain crazy!

Discussions like this are so important. When someone says something completely ignorant, I challenge them. Maybe, just maybe, it might make someone actually think. We can't let the ignorance continue!
Comment by akoolstik on October 13, 2008 at 12:55pm
curtis speaks for me on this one:

Comment by Jen on October 13, 2008 at 4:57pm
Apparently (and believe me, I am no McCain apologist; far from it), the woman actually said "Arab terrorist," and McCain's response was to that--not just the statement that he was Arab. (Because yes, if his response to the statement that Obama was Arab was "no, he's a good family man"--that is despicable, and should be loudly condemned.)

BB, thanks so much for sharing your story. It makes me ill to see people perpetuating hateful stereotypes, and so heartened when people speak up.
Comment by Jen on October 13, 2008 at 5:34pm
Thanks, ayax. I stand corrected.
Comment by Dianne P. on October 13, 2008 at 6:29pm
It's really sad. But the racism and prejudice was around long before 9/11, and was just amplified by that event. I remember being in college in Boston and writing home to a friend about all the cool people I had met, including some great kids from Pakistan. I try to learn something about the culture of every person I meet, because I believe it brings us all together as humans instead of labels. My friend's response? That I was associating with heathens and that I would go to hell. ''

As someone who has gotten the "What are you?" question more times that I could count, I sympathize.


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