Nadia Karizat: Divided into nothing

Wednesday, May 18, 2016 - 8:10pm

There are moments in my life that have burned me silently and set me up for questioning what I am. I say “what” and not “who” because I know who I am. I am someone who believes that the best moments are spontaneous, that music cures all and that the most fun thing one can do on a Saturday night is sit with friends and discuss our exquisite lives. I am also a biracial (Arab and White [Italian]) woman from Michigan who’s checked “other” on every single form she’s needed to fill out since she was 8 years old and made aware that society felt the need to force all her complexities into a single box.

From the age of 11, I’ve been on a journey of reclaiming my Arab identity — an identity I was taught to keep hidden from my peers. We didn’t speak Arabic at home because previous experience had taught my immigrant Lebanese father that the world is not kind to those who do. For the same reason, my siblings and I weren’t born with Arab names. Eleven-year-old me changed her name from Christina to Nadia. Twelve-year-old me taught herself the Arabic alphabet. Fourteen-year-old me responded with disgust when she was forced to prove to her world history class that she did not grieve Osama bin Laden’s death. Sixteen-year-old me took every opportunity to present on the Middle East or Arab culture because she was tired of everything being from a Western viewpoint. Eighteen-year-old me came to Ann Arbor double-majoring in communications and English language and literature, and minoring in Arab and Muslim American studies to be able to challenge dominant narratives in the media that have led to the oppression of many identities throughout history.

At the University of Michigan, I chose to study Arabic for my language requirement. Anyone who’s taken Arabic will tell you that it is extremely difficult, and that’s true. But, it also gave me what I’ve wanted since I was little — a space to learn my father’s native tongue. During one of our class activities, my professor asked if anyone was Lebanese. Without much thought, I raised my hand.

“You’re not really, though. You’re just half.”

The sting I felt as I let my hand fall to my desk wasn’t unfamiliar to me. My whole life has been moments of being told what I’m not.

“You’re not really Italian.”

“You’re not really Arab.”

“You’re just half.”

If I am not really Italian and if I am not really Arab, what am I? Being divided into nothing — not feeling as if I’m enough of anything — is painful. My experience as a biracial woman is longing to not be mixed and feeling shame for hating half of yourself. It’s dreaming of not constantly feeling the need to justify your identity. It’s wishing you could work through your confusion in a space with other mixed-race individuals, instead of staying silently lost in others. It’s wishing you could be viewed as a whole person and not as pieces.

It’s this moment here where I’d like to acknowledge and fully claim the privilege that comes with being, for the most part, a white-passing, biracial individual. Life has taught me what to share, which questions to answer honestly and what to keep hidden in spaces where I’m alone and vulnerable. Being able to try and hide and choose depending on what space I’m in is a privilege. It is for this reason that I tread softly in spaces made for people of color — while I share similar experiences, I will never be able to relate fully and do my best to never forget that. This does not invalidate the pain of my lived experiences, but recognizes that I experience the world with moments of both privilege and oppression.

When expressing how I felt to a close friend of mine one day, he responded with “You’re not half, Nadia. You’re both.”

Simple words — a reminder to not succumb to the pressure of dividing myself to explain who I am to others.

At the end of my sophomore year, I’ve accepted that you will always have to face people telling you what you are and what you are not. But it’s important to not forget that the only person who knows exactly who you are is you. I am incredibly proud to be Arab and love being Italian — the abundance of delicious food in my life is just one of the perks. But it would be dishonest to claim here that I am fully sound in whom I am and that I do not pick myself apart. I do not fully identify with either of my identities — I can’t. But I’m still working through many things when it comes to navigating different spaces on campus and throughout my life.

This will be a lifelong journey of learning and figuring myself out — there is no easy explanation. Even still, I will not let myself be divided into nothing by others; I am a whole person.

Nadia Karizat can be reached at nkarizat@umich.edu.