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Race & Ethnicity

White (Hall) Passing

Radix Admin

By Mona Shadi '15

Trigger Warning: racially motivated violence; suicidality.

“We’re not moving to the States for my wife, she’s helpless, but she has me.

We’re not moving here for my son, he’ll be a man. And this is a man’s world.

We’re coming for my daughter. So that she won’t be helpless in a man’s world.

                    I think the women here are fighters, and that is what I want for her.”                                       -H.H.S.

    Someone once told me a story about a young man who left his home to go to the market for his parents. He was of mixed heritage and, at the time, war was coming with another country. While he went about his errands, a small mob began following him believing him to be a spy. They confronted, attacked, and mercilessly beat him. In their paranoia and hysteria someone yelled for a lynching, and they began dragging him to a main square where there was a tree. As they took him, they passed an old man smoking outside his shop. Horrified at what he saw, he ran, fought his way into the crowd, and threw himself over the youth. He screamed, “He’s one of us! This is Hussien’s boy! By God, he’s one of us!”

    I wish I knew the name of this shopkeeper. The year was 1967 and the man he saved was my father.

    My dad never forgot that day and wanted to give me and my brother a life where we needn’t worry about what we were. That quote at the top is his; he said it to a confidant who later said it to me. A year after he shared those words he died.

    My father wanted me to be a fighter. For most of my life I thought that meant having a galactic chip on my shoulder. When we moved here without him, we were unprepared and quickly slid into economic precariousness. His vision was never realized, as a new world of “whats” awaited us in the States. My brother and I began our lives here during the Gulf War, when we were quickly made the poster children for the new Arab public enemy number one: immigrants, off-the-boaters, aliens, hajis, towel-heads, camel jockeys, and desert coons. I grew up to be suspicious, angry, and bitter. In my rage, I strove to inhabit both the Egyptian and American worlds as a huge middle finger to anyone and anything that would try to cage me into one of them. And I thought I was doing a decent job, until last semester. When, upon listening to a talk by students explaining the MoHonest movement, I was introduced to the term white-passing.

White. Passing.

     To be completely honest, it made me recoil and sick. It made me angry.

    A rush of images flashed in my mind’s eye: I thought of my father being dragged to his own execution; I thought of the girl in first grade who said I couldn’t be from Africa because “only black people were”. When I didn’t understand because of my broken English, she beat me and nearly suffocated me by mashing my face into a pile of wood chips, saying she’d make me one. I remembered the abuse by our mentally-unstable mother, the same person who would go on to throw me out of the house at seventeen. Of being so hungry we ate salt and sugar for days. ESL classes and the awful Child Services woman who came for visits and would needle us with condescending questions while we tried to make dinner. Of only having money for one utility bill and choosing heat over lights. Of living in a condemned house and looking out the school bus window thinking, they always stop at the nice neighborhoods first.

     In my chair in the Clapp lecture hall, I once again felt like a monster -- a thing. Labels, paperwork, stamps, applications, notices, forms, stereotypes, and judgments were always required before a handshake or a greeting. The dread of airport and immigration interrogations in frightening rooms. When I heard the phrase “white-passing” that day I grew emotional, another label. When I heard one of the students invite white and white-passing students to separate meetings I was teary, more judgment. At thirty years old, it had taken almost ten years of menial work, doubt, and uncertainty to sit in this classroom all to, once again, hear my personhood summarily classified. I was one of those people. Those who didn’t understand; those who were lucky; those who were acceptable. Even after the cultural acid bath of assimilation -- Sorry Mo, you still came up short.

    Afterward I began to wonder about this phrase and what it meant. I tried to remove my emotions and willed myself to try and apply to my life. It was hard; I’d been threatened, beaten, abandoned, and degraded throughout my life. Where the fuck was this privilege? Where? I wanted someone to take a highlighter like my life was a reading and say, right here? See that? Yep, that’s privilege-and riighhht here. I spoke to friends on campus about it. Students from the States and abroad, students who were white and of color. I read what I could find. I desperately wanted to see where it inhabited my existence.

    And I came to one conclusion: my privilege was everywhere.

    I realized I have no way of knowing what life could have been like had I a different appearance. On 9/11, my friend Aja ran and held me outside our high school cafeteria; she whispered into my ear what I didn’t want to admit to myself: “I’m so grateful you look the way you do; I don’t want to lose you honey”. Within weeks, we saw the news reports of the slaughter of South Asians, Sikhs, Hindus, Arabs, and Muslims by other Americans. As an Egyptian Muslim, I escaped persecution because of my skin. When I applied for citizenship, it was by having held alien cards for twenty-three years. As scary as that had sometimes been, it was absolutely nothing compared to someone who is here undocumented. I may have lived in a condemned house -- but at least I bloody had one. The only police who ever suspected and held me were in airports, and only when I didn’t have an American passport. I appeared so societally agreeable people would talk to me about the need to intern every Arab and Muslim in concentration camps until “we” could figure the “good ones from the bad ones”. Or how they didn’t have a problem with black and hispanic people just those or these people.  How America had enough immigrants and should ship all those “begging little shits back to their rice paddies and jungles”. I was like a decoy. A trojan horse as a “respectable piece of white Americana”. Again and again, I was given the benefit of the doubt. I was the holder of privilege.

    I initially bridled at the term ‘white-passing’ because I felt it reduced my life to an assumption. One that stated I’d had it on easy street since I took my first breath. I felt like it was another label slapped onto my being -- another thing that was given to me without my having a say. Something that implied that the suffering of others was something I was incapable of understanding. I know now that it means having access to freedoms and opportunities that are denied to others.

    So -- now what?

    Should I still accept being directed to another room?

    Now that I can see how insidious and unfair privilege can be, should I cloak and spirit it around like a thief? Should I pull a Hester Prynne and walk around with a big white ‘P’ on my chest? Is it an albatross I should wear around my neck? Even if I try to educate others who are unaware of their privilege, what the hell good is it without the voices of others who’ve experienced its force first hand? How do you address something when it is continually relegated to another space? I understand that the fear of appropriation is a very dangerous and real precedent and potential outcome. But that will also continue if the people who are in danger of doing the appropriating aren’t made aware of it. Here’s the thing, and this is might be infuriating to hear: not everyone who says and does certain things is racist/sexist/ageist. Many do not know what they’re doing is wrong. They only have their own points of pain and failure as a reference, and believe that is some kind of equalizer. We are living under a paradigm of white patriarchal privilege that has placed many of us in communities where we could never know each other, until now. Many don’t have the cultural fluency to freely communicate as themselves while respecting the differences of others. And many feel shame and anger thinking about times they’ve made mistakes and been lambasted, labeled x, y, or z. That shame and fear goes on to fester into attitudes of dismissal, rejection, and mistrust. And this cycle goes on to claim another generation.

    This is where I ask you, what should we do now? I see how others won’t own up to their privileges, how there is a need to address the inequities of our society, to change the thinking and the culture. I don’t want to be a token, sponsor, endorser, or appropriator of something crucial. But is putting me and people like me in another room the answer? This assumes everyone who is white or white-passing understands their privilege, but many do not. Does that mean that everyone that doesn’t understand or see their privilege is racist/sexist/bigoted/apathetic? We’ve had different experiences but does that mean we cannot build between ourselves a respect -- a trust? When am I able to prove myself to you? Because I certainly won’t be able to do that by just being marked an Ally. When do we have an opportunity to make a meaningful decision about each other? Because we won’t be able to do that without time spent together. When do you get to teach me and help me be a better person? Because that won’t be possible without looking each other in the face. When can we have a painful but essential conversation about where we are, where we should go, and how to get there? Because for that we need agreement -- and that means we need each other’s faith and respect.

    Students, both international and domestic, have told me they feel fearful of misstepping, speaking, and expressing themselves on campus. They are terrified of inadvertently harming or offending other students with questions or conversations. This does not mean I am arguing for the end of safe spaces -- quite the opposite. Safe spaces are essential, and no one should feel that they are a de facto ambassador for their race, country, class, or orientation by virtue of being who they are. What I am asking is if we can have both: safe spaces and spaces for to foster trust across divides.

    This college means the world to me. Coming to this school had been something of an act of faith -- a continuation of trying to test myself. I didn’t have a family to hold to; my roots were continually torn up and replanted in gardens that grew ever stranger and more frightening. What that has meant is I’ve been seeking my family the world over -- a sacred treasure hunt that has yielded some of the most amazing truths about life to me. Truths and family that I have found on this campus. Yet, there is also rage here, rage because of fear and pain. I see this more clearly now, as I am learning that my rage was never my friend. And it’s not yours either. The same response to our greatest pains can trick us into believing it is also our salvation and comfort. That is a lie. Mine didn’t make me special or set me apart. It almost annihilated me.   

    I’m thirty-one now, but ten years ago I was the age many of you are today.  I was in the midst of being a low-income Egyptian in a post 9/11 America; as well as trying to fit in as an American-raised, westernized Muslim in the last years of Mubarak’s reign in Cairo. Things went horribly wrong. I made mistake after mistake. I felt so very alone. And one night in late October, I couldn’t take it anymore. I tried to drive my car off of a cliff on Mount Greylock. When I smashed a light from fishtailing into the guardrail on my second attempt, I got out, sat on the hood and had the most physically painful cry I’ve ever known. And I realized I wasn’t sobbing because I stopped myself -- but because I literally felt, for the first time, how dearly I wanted to live. Because to live is to love, to welcome, to be hurt, to help, to accept, to admit defeat, to grieve, to refuse, to learn, to demand, to give, and to take a chance. To risk it all.

    That is what I’m asking if we can all do now: risk it all in the name of vulnerability. I’m not saying to forget what happened to you, and all that has transpired between the peoples and places we hail from. My God, never. What I am asking is if we can bridge a divide by coming through the fog of what has been given us. We are alive and here now -- together. Yet despite new understandings and terms, we run the danger of repeating the travesties of the generations that came before. In our bid to create awareness, we are still not engaging each other. In our efforts to right injustices we are moving further away, becoming more and more indiscernible to each other.

    I am a white-passing minority, and to look at me one would never think I am the daughter of a man who was almost lynched for his appearance. Or that the my brother and I were saved from days of eating salt and sugar as children, by the Colombian family that lived downstairs. A family that, after realizing what was happening to us, started coming to our door with “extra” food they made. That when I almost broke my neck at a manual-labor job, the two people who carried and drove me to the ER were two ex-felons on parole for kidnapping, drug-dealing, and gun-running. That the only man who read books to me, and ignited my love of stories, is named LeVar Burton. That almost every time I was in danger or in pain someone came for me regardless of who they or I was. Like the man who saved my Dad.  My father would never have made it if that man hadn’t risked everything for him. And today, I’m not going to make it without you.

    You are more than in your right to criticize, dismiss, insult, disagree, and/or forget me. It was never my intent to hold myself higher than anyone. Please believe that. You are completely free to see this letter as an act of idiocy, vanity, or privilege -- to say something to my face, to leave an email. Whatever you wish. I shared painful things because I don’t need them to define me anymore. They are for me to use to reach out to you. Not so I can say, “I know; been there.” But in the hope that perhaps, if I’m honest in my vulnerability, you may feel you can be honest with me. For better or worse.

    I don’t know how to make things better. This is me merely trying to feel my way through the dark. I don’t have a Truth, or a way. I’m asking you. Because if there is a way to help each other it isn’t in possession of one person or group. We have so much to give and share with one another -- so much to teach. There must be a piece of that beautiful knowledge living in each of us. Forged in the fires of our unique trials and agonies, enshrined in the myriad loves and experiences that each and every one of us have known. I don’t want to represent a pain or struggle that isn’t mine, but I don’t want a wall between us either. Can we find a way to do this? And do this so that we are all  honest, honored, and welcomed? I’m asking you. Because I wouldn’t have made it without all of those before. And I sure as hell am not going to make it without you now.

    I want to own as much of myself as possible -- the noble and the detestable -- and that’s a work forever in progress. Even my attempt to own my privilege should evolve as my life does. And for that I dare not stay where it had gone unnoticed. Where it wants to grow and unfurl in the injustice that sired it. I have to go forth, listen, learn, and continually revaluate myself if I’m to have any hope of being worth my life. And yes, it should hurt -- because that pain means I’m confronting my pride and its compliment of insecurities.

    My father wanted to raise me in the States so that I’d grow to be strong. He could never imagine that when we arrived I’d be put on a collision course with the desire to be vulnerable. A trajectory that brings me lessons about myself; and how those lessons can affect those around me. It brought you and I together, and for that I am eternally thankful. Yet, this is a letter and I wish it were in person; I would like to ask if that’s possible. And if so, how. And when.