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Thursday, April 17, 2014

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Michigan in Color: Don't put me in a box

Courtesy of Mekarem Eljamal

By Mekarem Eljamal, Michigan in Color Writer
Published February 6, 2014

Those damn little boxes. You know, the ones on almost every standardized test, the ones on the Common App: “Please indicate how you identify yourself.” They give me two choices: check “white” or “other.” But regardless of which I box I mark, none of them are my preference. I don’t identify as white, but when “white” is qualified with “including people from the Middle East,” that’s how I’m forced to identify, right? And who willingly chooses to be categorized as an ‘other?’ By including the ‘other’ box — with all of its negative connotations — as the only remaining option, my personal identification is even less of a choice.

But as it pains me to darken the box next to “other,” what pains me even more is that I will eventually be added to the white category, the category I intentionally avoided.

From the beginning of my college career, let alone my time in the public school system, my identity has constantly been stripped from me. I don’t count as anything but white, even though I don’t feel white. And now, as everyone goes on to choose their major, my decision to major in Near Eastern Studies is just another opportunity for someone to voice their opinions on my Palestinian-American identity.

While many incoming students struggle to figure out which department best fits them, I’ve known that the Near Eastern Studies department would be my home for the next four years. Yet, when people find out that I have already decided on my concentration, when they find out that I want to work within the realm of Palestinian rights, I’m not met with congratulations. I’m met with the dreaded question: Why?

“Why do you care so much about Palestine? I mean, you’re only half.”

It stung the first time I heard this. Call me naïve, but it never crossed my mind that because my bloodline is not solely from Ramallah, Nablus or Bethlehem, my desire to see Palestinians exercise their basic human rights is suddenly grounds for debate. Now, this new semester comes with a new set of introductions: name, year, major. Major, inevitably followed by that dreaded “why?” It’s a question to which I never really know how to respond. I can say that my passion for Palestinian rights is partially due to my Palestinian identity, but that response always leaves me feeling as though I am implicitly denying my mother’s lineage. Any time I come up with an answer, I end up feeling differently about my original line of reasoning. To me, their inquiry is no longer a simple “why?” but, rather a “Don’t you think you are overcompensating for the fact that you are not fully Palestinian?

When someone calls into question my reasons for choosing this field of study and career path, they are basically telling me that I don’t fit into those “neat” little boxes. Questioning my academic and political interests is just another way for someone to tell me that my decision to go into this field is not dependent on my own self-identification, but instead on the identity that others choose for me. The question is followed by many more. Do I really want to go into international studies or am I doing it to prove to everyone that I am worthy of this Palestinian heritage? What, who, and where would I be without this Palestinian identity that I value so much?

Usually, the question of who I would be without my Palestinian blood stops there. But one night, as I was laying in bed asking myself the same old question, many unfamiliar and unnerving thoughts crossed my mind. The more I contemplated them, the more fearful I grew of what I would discover about myself. I felt completely lost. Immediately, my conviction about my concentration choice diminished. My confidence in my career choice, gone. Lyd, the place I call home, became nothing more than a little dot on a map. I looked up at my wall and at the pictures that covered it — ones from Nablus, Jerusalem, Haifa, and Lyd — and they vanished, leaving behind big, white, empty swaths of wall to glare back at me.

The simple thought of losing part of my identity has the ability to instill so much fear into me, so much uncertainty. But it was just that: a thought, a self-imposed contemplation. The fear and confusion that gripped me that night made me think back on all the times I had to pick between two boxes that will never represent me.

The stripping of my identity starts with those little boxes, so institutionalized and systemic; I shrug them off because they are expected, I know who I am without them. But the process of robbing me of an integral element of my personal identity is different. Still, I find myself shrugging it off when people question me.