You Shall Pass! About Being Neither Here Nor There In Modern Identity Politics

Photography by Greg Sand

The Safe Space. A concept. In theory, a safe space is supposed to be a space, whether physical or virtual, in which oppressed groups can regroup and express themselves freely without fear of being oppressed, silenced or attacked. Sometimes these spaces include a variety of people, and sometimes they are specific to an ethnicity, a gender identity or a sexual orientation. They allow for people who spend their lives in a context of systemic oppression to breathe and truly be free to be themselves.

Safe Spaces are a fundamental for people of colour, but hold a particular place for children of immigrants. This is because second generation immigrants who often found they didn’t belong to neither the community their parents emigrated from, or the the community they immigrated to were the ones they were created for.

I have defended this concept viciously, I am dedicated to protecting these spaces if it is in my power to do so, and I’ve tried my best to find one I could be part of without invading someone else’s. Easy, one might say, just find whichever group you are part of and join! Unfortunately, this was an endeavour that would turn out to be trickier than I thought, as I painfully realised that, to know which group you belong to, it does come in handy to know “what” you are.

The fact of the matter is that I am neither here, nor there. Growing up in Germany, the question that I was probably asked most over the years was “But you’re not German, are you?” often followed by a constipated expression and a distressed look at my face, as if the secrets of my genetic code would appear written on my forehead if they looked hard enough. My answer to this question has varied so much that at one point I found myself giving myself the same pained expression in the mirror and asking “But you’re not German, are you?”

Technically, I’m not. I am part European, part Tunisian. My Passport — which bears a Spanish first name followed by an Arabic middle and last name — is French, because my mother was born in France and passed the nationality down to me. Because of generations of moving and mixing, I don’t look typically North African (Tunisians being the most light skinned people of the area), and I don’t look typically German either. Though I am a slight shade darker than most of my white friends, people generally see me as white. Dark haired, big nosed, and a bit too tanned for green eyes white, but white. This, along with my inoffensively European first name, my being middle class and my identifying with my assigned gender has given me enormous privilege in life. Whilst I experience misogyny and the occasional anti-Semitic comment from people convinced my looks are a sure tell sign of my Judaism, I lived most of my life without experiencing racism first hand.

Admittedly, being well aware of the implications of being perceived as Arabic in a largely white society, I often omitted the “compromising” part of my heritage, because I could. Or at least I thought I did. Many of my mannerisms, superstitions, and my family culture are distinctly Tunisian but could be passed off as “weird” when I didn’t feel like telling my family story and exposing myself to racism. To this day, I have had the chance to virtually have an ethnicity “off” switch to shelter myself. When in doubt, hide behind your skin tone and pretend. This tactic has proven successful many times, but no matter how often I shield myself with it, the bitter taste of betrayal of self and of my family never fades.

To be perfectly clear, I am well aware that my light skin has given me quite a bit of privileges, and I won’t pretend that being white-passing can in any way be compared to the experiences of people of colour who aren’t, neither do I want to argue that they should surrender their safe spaces to me or the likes of me. The struggle I have faced, being a white looking person of mixed race, is that I have not managed to find a space (safe or not), in which I had the opportunity to let down my guard and just be my culturally ambiguous self.

I discovered identity politics and feminism in my late teens, and with this new knowledge, I decided to stop hiding behind my white-passing, and show pride for my heritage. It is around the same time that I started encountering people changing their tone to talk to me, trying their hand at a terrible impression of a Moroccan accent after finding out about my origin, or asking me round-eyed questions about the number of terrorists in my family. Through my embracing of my heritage, I opened Pandora’s box of racism onto myself, and I felt it to be no-one’s fault but my own. Around this time, I sought comfort with my North African and Middle Eastern friends, who either told me they envied me for my light skin tone and light eye colour because of deeply ingrained internalised racism, or flat out told me I wasn’t a “real” Arab, since I was part European.

I then turned to my white friends, thinking that perhaps my Arab friends were right, and I wasn’t a “real” Arab, after all I had white skin and lost all my knowledge of the Arabic language after the age of five, growing up speaking French and German instead. For them, however, the damage was done, and many of them regularly referred to my heritage, either mockingly or curiously, and some of my white classmates didn’t hesitate to throw in a racist comment or two. With even more insistence, my white surroundings made sure I was well aware that I wasn’t a “real” European either. Since, I have been insulted and raged at pretty much equally by racist white people seeing me as “too Arabic” and by legitimately angered people of colour, assuming I was white in ethnicity as well as skin colour.

I have been fetishised and had my culture insulted at the same time by the same person, I have been tokenised in the laziest attempts at “diversification” ever, mainly because at least, I didn’t look “too ethnic” and could be forced to hold my tongue in critical situations. Worst of all: I have been erased.

One of the most absurd experiences of being white-passing is the sheer amount of times that white people, not knowing your heritage, attempt to bond with you over their hatred of the very ethnicity you belong to. If I dared to interrupt yet another white boy ranting about the “islamisation of Europe” by pointing to my own Islamicness, they quickly dismissed me, saying that “I wasn’t like them”, sometimes angrily asking why I hadn’t said so before, and that I had made them uncomfortable. Those who were perhaps a little less racist resorted to easing their discomfort by trying to make sure that I did feel more European than Arabic, after all I didn’t look the part, so I couldn’t be that bad, could I.

When I moved to France, a country significantly more racist than any I had ever lived in, I decided to finally listen to all these people, and pick a side. I set out to weigh out all the aspects of my identity, and whenever two were opposed, I would rule out one in favour of the other. If I would decide to be Tunisian, I would move there after my studies, re-learn Arabic, and be a fully fledged Tunisian. If I would decide to be a French person, I’d dress like a French person and apply even lighter foundation and never mention my roots and discreetly go to visit my family without ever saying a word. A tactic that family members of mine who happened to be white-passing too, have resorted to and still live, often having to give up contact with the Tunisian part of our family as a result. Given that I had a burgeoning career in France, I left behind my treacherous penchant for feminine and opulent dress, I dyed my hair a bit lighter and had it chemically straightened (in Tunisia, ironically), and filled my closet with androgynous black clothing. I tried to conceal my way too mediterranean body shape, as long as I hadn’t managed to starve it away all together. I hid my hamsa charm under shirts, being too superstitious to take it off, and only ever cooked traditional food in private for myself or my closest friends. I edited my behaviour and decided that “Berlin” was the only answer anyone asking me where I was from would get. And voilà, I was French. I was miserable, uncomfortable, and lacked the discipline or acting talent to fully cover up my otherness, but I was French.

Armed with my new manufactured and straightforward identity, I marched into the world with high hopes of finally belonging, now that I had edited my otherness away. 
Needless to say, I failed epically at whitening my act up. My facial features still being too distinct, the French loved to assume I was Ashkenazi Jewish, and I began to be targeted with anti-Semitic comments. Having the big mouth that I do, and feeling too strongly loyal towards my culture and heritage, I kept blurting out the origin of my offensive nose, and started beating myself up for that too, yet feeling incapable of being silent.

I came out of that experience more deeply scarred and in a deeper identity crisis than I care to admit, mainly because for having been told I wasn’t “real” for so long, I had fulfilled the prophecy and made myself fake.

Today, I am back to square one. I have learned to embrace being neither this nor that. I left the toxic French environment I was in, and I’m slowly building myself up. Whilst I haven’t found a safe space that I felt like I wasn’t intruding or unwelcome at yet, I am relying on a magically positive and supportive group of friends, who, whilst not geographically close to me, are my safe space.

What saddens me is that it seems like, with all the advancements in identity politics, and all the amazingly supportive groups in the midst of it, we still haven’t found a way to deal with the uncomfortable half-breeds, the You-don’t-look-like-you’re-from-theres, the what-do-you-mean-you’re-boths, and the Are-you-italians of this world, and instead of accepting the additional layer of complexity they annoyingly bring to these issues, we prefer to decide their identities for them, or just to pretend like they don’t exist.