Why I Passed For White
When I was 16, I started letting people believe that I was white.
In 1996, my family relocated upward from the Bible Belt. We moved from the southwest corner of Arkansas to the Midwest. At sixteen, I experienced a new definition of self — which, for me, meant shedding my ethnic heritage and the abuse that came with it. My coming of age was more than an exit from youthful innocence. It was an escape.
Innocence, in this case, is a misleading term. The naivete that defines the wishful, carefree young was lost to me much earlier than 16. It began at the age of 9, the fourth year in a row I was assigned the part of Native American in the school Thanksgiving play because I “looked the part.” That year, I stood onstage dressed in a paper-bag-cum-leather-vest with an Indian-American boy. Both of us sported handmade headbands with oversized feathers. Our single spoken line was accompanied by the arcing of one folded arm upward. “How!” I shouted, having practiced the line with aplomb. “How,” my cohort whispered, barely gumming the word and ducking his head as though ashamed. Our white peers were grouped together at the Pilgrim’s table, waiting to take the giant ears of paper mache corn we handed them.
It was weeks later, during International Day, when we were both paraded once more onstage, when I began to understand my fellow actor resistance to the role of food-bearing native. After all, even though Native Americans had saved the Pilgrims with offerings of corn and hunting instruction, the Pilgrims were the true saviors; they came bearing God and civility to the dark-skinned heathen.
That International Day, we were exhorted to wear our ethnic best, and so we came to school in costume. Indian-American boy, Arab-American girl, dressed in pantaloons and tunic and ornate housedress. I came with jeans and a t-shirt in my bag because those were the items most comfortable. But the boy, whose name I cannot recall, had only his waist-tie pants. After we were questioned onstage about our weird, foreign at-home customs, we exited stage right. Just off the stage in the cafeteria’s corner, the tie must have let go. My peer lost his pants. They slipped soundlessly down around his ankles. He turned, his brown eyes meeting mine. He was not panicked. He said nothing. He simply looked resigned.
I had shifted to block him from view, but a redhead named Ashley caught sight of the spectacle. He ran toward the dispersing classes to notify everyone he knew. “Shawna was there!” he squealed. “Shawna saw it.”
Here it was: the moment that could elevate me beyond the nickname Gorilla — a nod to my hairy, Arab legs. The boy was not my friend, but neither were the children who clamored around me. I looked back into the boy’s brown eyes. He waited.
“Did you see his underwear?” someone asked. “Are they as weird as his clothes?”
In that moment I found a kinship in the brownness the boy and I shared. I squared my feet. “It didn’t happen,” I said. And then, “Ashley is lying.”
Aside from my body hair, the thing I was most known for was honesty. The story was deflated. Ashley narrowed his eyes at me. I had made an enemy. I looked around. The brown boy was gone.
I wish I could remember his name. I have thought about assigning one to him, but it feels disingenuous. Of the peers that litter my history, he is one who deserves a label other than ethnicity. Especially as he ushered me out of my innocence into an awareness of my physical self and its perception. Still, he remains nameless, like so many of our other dark-skinned brothers.
That story happened in Texas, one notch of the Bible Belt. That school year ended and we slid another notch over to Arkansas. Had I not already learned my outsider status, Arkansas would have taught it to me. My first day of school (fifth grade, 1991), my homeroom teacher took the good, Godfearing little girls aside and told them these facts:
1. My father was black. (He is Lebanese.)
2. My mother was a traitor who married outside her race and faith. (She married an Arab and converted to Islam, not in that order.)
3. I was part of a cult and therefore dangerous. (I was raised as Muslim and had no desire to lure others into my faith. I honestly didn’t know that much about it.)
The result was that the good girls kept their distance. For years. I never penetrated the core clique made up of almost every girl in the school. While my ethnic food was welcome at the lunch table (stuffed grape leaves, hummus, baklava), my ethnic body was not. It was a small town. I was on a short list. And my skin, while not really brown and definitely not black, tanned darker than theirs and was obviously suspect. Imagine the disappointment when it turned out I wasn’t very good at basketball. I bore racial slurs and overt aggression daily. When the Ku Klux Klan burned crosses on lawns just miles from our town and promised lynchings, many a pair of blue and hazel eyes were cast sideways at me. Whispers littered the playground like leaves in a Midwestern autumn. “I heard the Ayoub family is next.”
Nigger, half ‘n half, Oreo, camel-jockey, towel-head. The terms became syllabic folderol bumping through my subconscious. I learned about myself that I had fat black lips and a fat black ass. I had kinky black hair. I was nasty. I was the devil’s child. I was either a prude or loose and born with that inclination. My eyes were exotic. My skin was dark. I was black but I was not black. I was worse because I the product of the most grotesque of couplings: the seduction of a good, Godfearing white woman by an evil, devil-worshipping black man. Up to that point, I had only seen my features as beautiful.
My resolve to ignore and carry on broke the day my crush, Mark, a red-headed, blue-eyed boy with a birthmark shaped like the tree on the Lebanese flag, proved that Arkansans were indiscriminate in their discrimination. He stood in the hall with the same group of boys who greeted me with racial epithets between classes. As I passed, they sing-songed, “Ch-ch-ch-ch-ching-ching, ching-ching-chong,” bowing with their palms pressed together.
I teared up, hurrying down the corridor.
Mark called after me, “Where are you going, China Hoppin’ Mouse?”
I found the counselor’s office. It was a door I had never tried before and would never try again. I sobbed in her square office on a square chair. She handed me a box of tissues, listened to me recite the full list of designations I was assigned in the school each weekday and asked with quiet confusion, “So, they’re calling you names?”
I left her office with an slip excusing me for being late to class and the certainty that nothing would be done.
Mark did apologize to me. “I didn’t mean anything by it,” he said. “You just jump a lot and squeak when you’re surprised.”
“What about the China part?” I asked.
He shrugged. He could not explain himself. I honestly believe he made the remark without malice. His racist behavior was embedded in his upbringing. The town as a collective was radically hateful. The worst of it came from conservative, white Christian adults — the teachers and administrators who trotted out the same talking points every year approaching History Day; Arkansas schools were desegregated since 1957. It was proof that racism was abolished. How many instructors singled me out with their eyes, arms spread wide in welcome? “You get to be here,” they were saying. “Aren’t you grateful?”
I was not grateful. When John called me a sand nigger and tried to strangle me on the basketball court after lunch, my mother should not have had to request a police officer take down the incident, drag me back into the school, have me bare my bruised neck to my principal while loudly threatening legal action if he did not take disciplinary measures against the offender.
Our move to Indiana in 1996 relocated my family to a moderately diverse city, but my awareness of my differences had been heightened through years of oppressive scrutiny. I assumed that I remained an unwanted visual oddity. In order to protect myself from certain rejection and aggressive labeling based on my otherness, I embarked on a journey that was nothing short of an homage to the high school makeover movie genre. I lopped off my hair, traded outdated glasses for contacts, and prepared myself to blend. First though, there was the matter of my speech.
My new school had the population of my old town. I discovered another Bible Belt transplant right away. His name was Art, and he was also eager to leave the South in the South. On the day I met Art, I actively began to shed what Arkansas had told me I was. Art helped me, believing he was aiding me in dropping my accent and learning the correct linguistic mannerisms of the Midwest. We were linguistic anthropologists testing a theory: assimilate and be trusted.
We began with word replacement—”soda” for “Coke” and “couch” for “sofa.” We dropped the “y’alls.” Secretly, I moved beyond replacing colloquialisms. I trained myself to replace Arabic phrases in my vocabulary, as well as my “not American” hand gestures. I encouraged Art to instruct me to sit on my hands when they flailed in ethnic sign-language. We developed a system where he could tip me off from across a room if I was behaving outside what we established as “the norm.” In front of my bedroom mirror, I practiced holding my face in the same expressions used by the popular female peers I identified as intelligent. All of them were white. It took me half of my sophomore year, but by my return from Winter Break, I felt I had successfully bleached my heritage from my physical appearance. It was also gone from my inner life. Without meaning to, I had erased my ancestry. .
The tragedy is, I didn’t need to. Carmel was a big enough city that no one knew who my father was. It did not occur to me I could safely travel the halls, cloaked in the anonymity offered by a high school with a population of the town I left behind. In Carmel, no one would have cared who my dad was, and if they knew, they would assume he, like all other Arab or brown fathers in our town, was a doctor. Touting my father’s race might have been to my advantage. The -ism most commonly practiced in Carmel was not racism; it was elitism. Not knowing this, I hid my heritage and established a pattern I follow to this day: when the racial going gets tough, retreat into my most acceptable racial half.
This is not to say I never tried to own my birthright. In college, I was driven back to my roots. My fascination, as prophesied by my fanciful hypothesizing with Art, was anthropology. I studied the peoples, cultures and language of the Middle East. I dove headlong into Islam, finally discovering the faith of my childhood. I became a fixture in my local Muslim community, serving on committees and frequenting women’s parties. I envisioned myself an Arab-American chameleon, able to claim either heritage fully and be welcome in both. The Islamic community welcomed me, but in an unexpected reversal, treated me as Other—in part because, by this time, I had married a white man. Perhaps I had lived as white for too long.
I found no firm footing and was able to place no roots. Then September 11th happened. I was already on my way out the door of my mosque. With anti-Muslim terror tactics at play in my city (someone attempted to burn my mosque down), I stepped out of my Lebanese body once more. I resigned my cultural clothing, took down the Lebanese flag hanging in my home, and dropped the Arabic greetings and wishes for health from my speech. I passed to feel safe.
In a recent interview, journalist Raquel Cepeda discusses her cultural hyphenation. She refers to it as a bridge where she can pause or cross to one side or the other, inhabiting any part of her cultural, colorful self. I wish I had viewed my dual culture as a pathway instead of a double-trouble dead end. The truth is that I have and do use my hyphen as a bridge, but I use it most often to hide on the white side of Lebanese-American.
Even though I have cultivated the ability to laugh as though I have the right, I am more often visible as Other than not. I am often approached in retail stores while shopping under the assumption I am an employee. On occasion, I am spoken to slowly, as though I do not understand English. I was recently joined by a government employee in line at Panera. He had traversed the restaurant to offer me a job because he assumed I was “one hundred percent Lebanese” and spoke Arabic. He retracted the offer when he learned I am not bilingual. “I’m sorry you don’t speak the language,” he said. I am, too, but that’s another story.
What I am more sorry about is that, like my father neglecting to teach me Arabic, I have not taught my children the richness of their heritage. I have feared burdening them with the complications that attend identification as a person of color. However, since the ongoing events in Ferguson, Missouri and the lack of indictment in Eric Garner’s death, I have discovered a greater fear. If I avoid color as though it is a problem, I am teaching my children it is a problem.
My children will grow up benefiting from white privilege even if they do know their heritage. It is unlikely they will ever face personal racism regardless of how they identify culturally. Their genetics do not mark them in the manner mine have marked me. They will not pass anyone on the street who will spit hateful epithets at them, or who will cajole them as I have been many times told, “Go back where you came from.” My daughter is the only child who is likely to negatively experience a true -ism.
The conclusion I have come to is there is more at stake than protecting my children from surviving at the receiving end of hate. Anyway, because their skin is fair, they will survive. But knowing their heritage makes it more likely they will walk their hyphenations to racial justice, expanding the place of acceptance for all people of color by calling from that high place, “I see what is happening. It is not okay.”