Michigan in Color: On being an exception

Courtesy of Rima Fadlallah

By Rima Fadlallah, Michigan in Color Editor
Published February 11, 2014

Just 45 minutes away, in Dearborn, MI, people like me who attend college away from home are the exception. Being the exception in any community can be a double-edged sword; on one side, attending a prestigious university like Michigan, I have the ability to put my community on the map. People cannot get to know me without also “getting to know” Dearborn — home to the largest community of Arabs outside of the Middle East. But it’s the other edge that cuts deepest: being one of few at such a large university can lead to tokenization, or having my peers assume they know my people because they think they know me.

Courtesy of Rima Fadlallah
Courtesy of Rima Fadlallah

It’s not that simple.

The other day, I ran into Ahmed K., an old friend whom I have not seen since we graduated from Fordson High School together. We started catching up and I told him I’d be graduating at the end of the year and accepting an offer to be a TFA Chicago Corps member. His response: “Of course you are. You’re a Fadlallah. We always knew you’d be successful.” The only way I could react was by looking down bashfully, thanking him and nervously laughing off my guilt and embarrassment.

But enough about me; I want to highlight the word “we” in Ahmed’s response.

To my community in Dearborn, I will always be so much more than just “Rima Imad Fadlallah.” Those closer to me who have come to know me by “Meme” understand that they are a part of me and I, a part of them — a bond strong enough to persevere through time, distance and, on my bad days, a language barrier. You see, I am a member of a beautiful community so rich in pride and culture; when I succeed, the community triumphs, when I suffer, my community mourns. By that same token I am infuriated by the low expectations and lack of opportunity that plague my community.

I resent being an exception for two main reasons: 1. Because it shouldn’t have to be that way, and 2. Because those who meet me assume they understand everyone else from Dearborn, simply by association.

Upon acceptance to the University, I was so incredibly excited to get the hell out of Dearborn. I attended Fordson High School, a school that is over 95 percent Arab American, and an overwhelming majority of that statistic includes first-generation Americans from the south of Lebanon. Dearborn is a bubble, especially for young women whose fathers, brothers, cousins are often extremely overprotective of them; many young Arab girls in Dearborn have to rebel at some point in their lives for the sake of their own self-determination, for the pursuit of their personal goals and dreams.

Before you judge us though, let me clarify that it’s not that our parents don’t want what’s best for us — bil‘aaks, as my father would say when assuring me of his always pure intentions. Bil‘aaks.

.بالعكس

It’s that our parents only had bruises to welcome them into this country, a land tens of thousands of miles from the place they call “home.” The only identification they brought with them were their passports and those bruises: others could identify them by their passports, but they could identify one another by those bruises. You see, those bruises branded our parents in all sorts of colors, like yellow and green — which you don’t hear about because that’s when it really hurts. Black and blue are the colors of healing, and my parents didn’t have time to heal.

.بالعكس

It’s that, over 30 years later, our parents still have scars for souvenirs to ensure that they never forget their struggle as immigrants, so that the trial and error of understanding their children — who are working so hard to be acclimated to this foreign American culture — will be forever exposed for the world to see.

Our parents have been scarred, do you really blame them for being scared?

Family is everything in Dearborn; understand that the fathers and mothers denying their daughters the necessary opportunities for empowerment and success is about fear, not intentional oppression. While my community in Dearborn does perpetuate a patriarchal system that expects its daughters to be less ambitious than it does its sons, things are changing.

Please understand that it’s just not that simple.

While trying to understand, please recognize that — even in a community as closely knit as mine — my perspective is limited to my individual experience. Consequently, your perspective is limited to what you think you know about my experience.

Anyway, enough about you.

My family is relatively progressive. My parents emigrated from Lebanon as teenagers and are both college-educated and very successful, hamdillah. By the time I entered high school, both of my brothers had the in-state and out-of-state university experience, so my family had always expected me to move away for school. I was privileged in comparison to many of my sisters in Dearborn who had to lie to their parents about applying to college and, upon acceptance, had to beg and fight for their parents to allow them to leave.

While the student body at Fordson High School — the largest public school in Dearborn — is overwhelmingly Arab-American, our teachers do not reflect this demographic. Most of the teachers at Fordson are white. Let me be clear: Their race is not the problem, but the often lower than low expectations of us — rooted in racism, imperialism and bigotry — is the problem.

But this isn’t about them.

In 2002, my older brother Mahmoud was one of the first students out of our community to apply, be admitted to and attend this University. He graduated high school with above a 4.0 cumulative GPA and earned more than double the required credit because, as a junior, he was dual-enrolled at the local community college. Mahmoud was a game changer; he was an exception. Yet during his senior year of high-school, when Mahmoud went to his counselor to ask for a letter of recommendation for Michigan, she grabbed an application to Wayne State University, pushed it across the desk, and insisted Wayne State would be more realistic.

Still, Mahmoud attended and graduated from the University of Michigan. He opened the floodgates for over 200 Fordson students who have pursued a college education outside of the imaginary walls of the 313. Even so, the overwhelming majority of students at Fordson are never told that they can do more and be more.

My friends here probably don’t know that for every hour of study time they put in their freshman year, I had to study for three hours, just to make up for all of the shit I didn’t learn at Fordson High School.

They don’t know that, in certain circles, I still have to make very conscious efforts to change the way I speak so I don’t sound “uneducated,” or — I quote from experience — “ghetto,” that I am so grateful for the spaces where I feel comfortable just doing me.

They don’t know that I’ve kept the same best friends since my freshman year of high-school because when I’m with them, I don’t have to explain myself. When so much of my time is spent holding my breath, treading and sometimes even drowning just to “swim good” in a sea of white, my “Dearborn friends” are my necessary breather before I dive into the ocean again.

I want people to know these things about me.

But not so they can express a faux sense of empathy or, even worse, pity for me; I don’t need any of that. I’m happy and I’m going to be successful — thank Mama and Baba for that. I want them to know because there are thousands of students in Dearborn who I do not represent.

I’ve heard many people ignorantly claim that underserved communities should just stop complaining and work hard; “I mean, you’re here aren’t you? Everyone else should just stop being lazy.”

Man, it’s just not that simple.

I want people to know these things about me because I doubt I’m the only underrepresented minority on campus who hates being an exception. I’m guessing there are many students hailing from Detroit, Flint, Chicago, or wherever else they call home that have a love/hate relationship with their home. While I would never speak on their behalf, I assume that if they’re like me, their hate stems from the sad truth that their home has failed to provide the opportunities needed for the community to excel; if they’re like me, their love is for all of the community members whom we do not properly represent but are forced to because we are the only exposure that many of our privileged counterparts have to that community.

So here’s what I’m asking: unless you’re a part of my community, please don’t approach me pretending to know my brothers and sisters in Dearborn — know that I will always treat you with the same respect and understanding that I’m asking of you. Please don’t pretend to understand their struggles just because you know me.

I told you, it’s not that simple.

I told you, I am an exception.

Michigan in Color is the Daily’s opinion section designated as a space for and by students of color at the University of Michigan. To contribute your voice or find out more about MiC, e-mail michiganincolor@umich.edu.