My social identity through Angelou, Obama and Oprah

Tuesday, October 1, 2019 - 8:01pm

Michelle Obama and Maya Angelou

Michelle Obama and Maya Angelou Buy this photo
Photo via Essence Magazine

My sound of striving was not of a piano or coach’s whistle, it was my mother's tongue — the Arabic language, her Palestinian dialect, the language of my people. My upbringing was not an American one. My identity is borne out of a mosque on Tireman Street and living in a city of people just like me. In Dearborn, I never had an experience that made me question my identity; rather, it was reaffirmed time and time again. I could speak Arabic and not feel out of place. My days would be filled with visiting khaltos (aunts) and having potlucks during Ramadan, eating our days away and playing tag at four in the morning with the neighborhood kids who were more like family than friends. It was a life of contentment and just being.

Although these experiences reaffirmed my identity, I was never given the illusion that I was the same as a white person. I grew up seeing Muslims being portrayed as terrorists in movies and news channels, being called an ISIS lover in high school for defending my faith, or being scorned for refusing to call myself anything but Palestinian. Everywhere I went outside of Dearborn growing up I felt the difference and thought to myself, “These people are not our people. They are foreign to my values and customs, but only because they have made it so.” Whether it be the extra looks my hijab-covered mother gets, the struggle teachers had pronouncing my last name in classes, or the scorn my dad gets when speaking Arabic, we are made to feel different. It is because of this socialization that I cannot recall a first discovery of my social identity. It was just always there, a division.

This division has been a constant in my life, until I read Oprah Winfrey’s foreword for Maya Angleou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and had to answer the question of whether or not a memoir should always speak to you. I thought to myself that no memoir could ever relate to my experiences as a Muslim Arab-American, but Winfrey then quoted Angelou in saying that, “I am a human being, therefore nothing human is alien to me.” I pondered this for a while and came to the realization that although we have had different experiences, the feelings are the same. I, like Angelou, used to wish for the blonde hair and blue eyes of my Barbies and the children I saw on the television. I, like Angelou, cared about the thoughts of others, always wondering, “What you looking at me for…?” Angelou’s words were the first to form cracks in my division, but when I read Michelle Obama’s preface and first chapter for Becoming, I finally understood that although I have had a different upbringing, life experience and values — we are all just searching for our "middle C", or firm knowledge in where we come from. Like Michelle, my middle C is my familiarity in my community — around Muslims, Arabs, and Dearborn. But I was stuck finding my middle C not at a piano recital, but at the University of Michigan — where I look white, but will never be afforded the privileges that come with being white. Her middle C, like mine, was her transition into a newly polished world of being an other. It was the sound of her striving in a world of being the other. Where my mother’s strong Arabic over the phone is her playing the chipped middle C in Aunt Robbie’s apartment. Michelle said, “the world showing her its disparities for the first time,” was her recital, but after this recital she only became stronger, more astute in her identity and strength. That was me my freshman year at Michigan, never standing down from the weird name comments, being told I have an odd accent I can’t seem to hear, and looking white, but not quite looking “white.” 

I don’t think it was ever one experience that allowed me to discover my identity, but rather a multitude of emotions lived along the way — the hate, love, acceptance, rejection — like Michelle Obama and Angelou, were all feelings in my road to self assurance and pride in my Muslim Palestinian-American identity.