O, my greatest enemy and benefactor in the whole world is this dumb-hearted mother, this America, in whose iron loins I have been spiritually conceived… But alas, our spiritual Mother devours, like a cat, her own children.
—Ameen Rihani, 1911
For as long as I could remember, I wanted to be white. I wanted to be white because Luke Skywalker was white, because the quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys was white, because the president of the United States was white.
But I was not white. My skin was brown, my hair was dark, and my name was Ahmed. I was the American child of Muslim Arab immigrants, coming of age in deep South Texas at the dawn of a new millennium, in a border town where last year children hoping to cross into the “land of the free” were separated from their parents and detained in cages.
A television bereft of heroes who looked like me or shared my name taught me the score: Your men are villains; your women, victims.
I regarded my Arab heritage much like a scar on the body — a regrettable and undeniable part of who I was, but one I could hide with the right layers. When I was 13, my family moved north to a mostly white evangelical suburb of San Antonio. I assumed a white name (Matt) and wore white clothes (ripped cargo shorts and T-shirts from Abercrombie & Fitch). I stopped fasting for Ramadan and looked down on the few Arabs and Muslims at my school who banded together and sat with one another at lunch. I took it as a compliment when I was told I didn’t “look like an Ahmed” on the occasions my heritage came up in conversation. I relished in the privilege that came with passing.
It was a Pyrrhic victory, and a temporary one. On the day the towers fell, during my eighth-grade year, my mother sat me down and told me that from now on, everything would be different.
She was right.
“Matt” no longer carried currency among my classmates, but other names — like “towelhead,” “terrorist,” and “sand nigger” — did. Parents forbade their children from hanging out with me. I was told to go back to where I came from and held responsible for violent acts I did not commit. This bigotry, coming as it did at that awkward time of life when fitting in is the paramount priority, only redoubled my efforts to fight for a seat at the cool kids’ lunch table of white America. Whether or not I would be given one often depended on my willingness to disavow my origins and countenance the racism of my peers — not just toward Arabs but also Latinos, African Americans, and Jews.
My experiences of prejudice in post-9/11 America as an Arab American were neither unique nor exceptional, but they nevertheless solidified the notion I had internalized since early childhood that I was, at best, other than — and, at worst, less than — my white peers.
And so it was with not a small amount of resentment and surprise that I learned, as I filled out the basic information sections of standardized tests and, later, college applications, that according to the U.S. government, I was white all along.