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
. 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.)
And decide to write this blog instead.