I knew the Pledge of Allegiance before I knew my own parents’ names. In fact, I have a distinct memory of a smug kindergartener testing me, asking what their names were. She snickered when I bashfully replied, “Mommy and Daddy?” I’m sure if it was capable, my tan face would have turned bright red.
Despite my embarrassing lack of knowledge about my family, you could ask me to recite the preamble of the U.S. Constitution and I would chant it verbatim to the tune of a Schoolhouse Rock song.
When I was in first grade, my sister was the only third grader moved to tears during our school play while singing “This Land is My Land” to a montage of veterans’ homecomings. I knew then nobody loved this country as much as we, as immigrants, did.
Then we moved to Florida, and it was abundantly clearer to me this love was unrequited.
In second grade, my sister and I were on the bus to the YMCA after school when we were asked if we were Christian. When we replied that we were Muslim, my classmate conspiratorially informed us that we were going — here he paused dramatically, so I will too — “down there,” whispering and pointing to the ground like the fact that we were going to hell was the world’s most obvious truth.
In third grade, I was delighted to be in with the cool kids. The most popular boy in class even graced me with an inside joke. We would bond over our shared love of Harry Potter, and he would greet me with a, “Look out, she’s got an AK-47 in her pocket!” and a boisterous laugh. I had no idea what an AK-47 was and at the time I only had the vaguest concept of 9/11, so I would giggle along with him, thinking nothing of it.
In fourth grade, a new girl joined our class, and from the second I saw her, we had a connection. I saw her tan skin like black tea in a sea of milk and I latched onto this girl whose darkness mirrored mine. We were delighted when people asked if we were twins, and it didn’t even occur to us this question was rooted in a racist veil that couldn’t distinguish between our different ethnicities, features and colorations and instead only saw “Brown.”
In fifth grade, I was on my way home from Egypt with my mom and my sister, running to get through customs to catch our connecting flight. At this point, I was unfazed by the disgusted gaze of onlookers as my mom frantically directed us in Arabic because I had experienced the same look in grocery stores as she walked silently, shoppers grimacing at the sight of her hijab alone. However, up until that point, I truly had more faith in authority figures. My mom walked up to one of the TSA agents in charge and made our case that we had less than an hour to get to our gate, asking if there was anything he could do — just as we had seen another family ask. He had given her an obvious onceover and promptly directed us to another line leading into a separate room. Our relief at the five-person line was short lived as we noticed that there was an obvious demographic in this alternate room of other Brown people in turbans and cultural identifiers. The TSA agent forcefully told my mother not to touch the bags, saying my scrawny sister and I could carry the bags from our month-long trip onto a table almost as tall as I was. Our bag had been thoroughly examined, each article of clothing scrutinized and our souvenirs confiscated. We left the room later than people behind us in the first line, and my fifth-grade self felt naked, violated and close to tears.
I could go through every year of my life with a traumatic incident, concluding how I came to terms with racism and learned to not let it affect me. I could say I learned to laugh in the face of ignorance and racist people around me were rendered speechless by the American confidence that oozed red, white and blue with every step I took and word I spoke.
But that isn’t the truth. I was so scared of becoming the scary Arab-Muslim everyone feared that I lost myself, retreating into a shell of a person who hid her culture and religion and felt the constant need to reaffirm her Americanness, to prove her patriotism.
I’m here now to say that I am an angry Arab.
I’m angry my best friend in elementary school recommended a skin lightening cream to me, and I’m angry I begged my mom to buy it for me.
I’m angry I was so obsessed with being fully American that I never had the chance to speak to my grandmother in Arabic before she passed.
I’m angry a woman in our small town took off her head scarf because she didn’t want her kid to be bullied at school.
I’m angry I was never taught to feel beautiful with my dark skin and darker body hair.
Most of all, I’m angry I felt the need to prove myself to a country that I never made prove itself to me. I was taught as the daughter of immigrants to love America, and I think it’s about time America showed love to its immigrants.