Michigan in Color: Learning to see color

Courtesy of Layan Charara


Published April 17, 2014

When I check off “white” on applications, I think of the woman who taught me English. She immigrated to the United States 22 years ago, leaving behind a country torn apart by civil strife. When I ask if she ever wants to return to Lebanon, she says she can’t. I ask this of my mother on a regular basis, and her answer never changes. That doesn’t make it any less painful to hear.

Taghreed. The song of birds. When birds chirp, I hear my mother’s laughter. I replay the memories she’s recounted to me hundreds of times in her voice that is my only solace — memories of a childhood stolen by war. My mother changed her name when she received her U.S. citizenship. She grew weary of hearing it mangled by American tongues.

Don’t forget who taught you how to use those words. My mother is an educated woman. She holds degrees in journalism and business. She read, wrote, and spoke English years before moving to America. And yet, when the slightest hint of her accent surfaces, she’s immediately dismissed as inferior. Demeanors shift upon encountering “the other.” My mother is not worthy of attention and respect because she’s not “from here” — whatever that means. We’ve been given white status and denied white privilege.

Please specify your race/ethnicity. I struggle with race and identity politics daily. Not a day passes without reflecting on my position among my peers and questioning my attachment to a land I have not stepped foot on in over 10 years. I am only beginning to understand what it means to be a woman of color. As a white-passing person of color, I have privileges my darker-skinned and veiled counterparts will never possess, and for a very long time, I despised this about myself. In the Arab World, my fair skin and light eyes are coveted. Here in the United States, I find myself desperately longing to look the part of an Arab woman, brokenhearted by the global obsession with Western standards of beauty and perturbed by the surge in whitening cream sales in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.

If I peel off the topmost layers of my skin, will I find color? Convincing myself that passing as white does not strip me of my identity is an everyday task. When my friends question why I hold onto the Arabic language and culture for dear life, I want them to understand that they are my life. I often find myself envious of the lives my parents once led, even though the very reason we are here is that they would never wish them for my siblings and me. It’s hard to appreciate the freedoms and opportunities America boasts when I don’t always feel welcome.

Oh, I went clubbing in Beirut once! Non-PoCs, my ears will not be your audience in this matter. This is not about you (read: personal). This is about the systemic racism that subjects my people to “random” screenings and reduces them to collateral damage. This is about the anti-blackness that has rooted itself in my community. This is about the struggle to love oneself when confronted with so much hate. Before you tell a person he/she doesn’t look **insert race/ethnicity here**, be mindful of the feelings that may invoke. Don’t use that line as a method of tokenization. We’re not here for that.

Color is not binary. Identities are fluid. People come in many shades, and it’s important to understand that they are all difficult to navigate. It’s not a matter of white versus non-white. It’s a matter of giving people the space they require to negotiate their feelings and experiences.

I no longer seek others’ validation and affirmation of my thoughts and feelings. When I say I am a woman of color, it has nothing to do with my skin and everything to do with the plight of my people. Refugee camps are dispersed across the terrains of my heart, tearing at its seams — this gives me color. The call to prayer is recited as an explosion is heard blocks away — this gives me color. People who dream of returning to their home one day — they give me color. I am a woman of color, and I have every right to identify as such.

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.