By Geila Rajaee
The first time I lied to someone about my ethnic background, I was eight years old.
The first Gulf war had started and I remember being incredibly aware of the fact that some man named Hussein, in Iraq, was doing really bad things to people and that our president, our country wanted him out of power. Somehow I put the dots together then that telling people that my dad’s name was Hossein and that he was born in Iran would probably not have the best outcomes. I knew then – at eight – that assumptions about who we are and what our face/skin looks like can determine whether you will experience inclusion or exclusion. And that being Middle Eastern American was too risky for my eight year old self to be.
And so I pretended. I pretended to be Hispanic. Turns out having Irish, English and Persian genes makes you look pretty ‘ethnically ambiguous’ to anyone who tries to guess just where you are “from.” This trait has allowed me access to some of the most hateful rhetoric that you would likely be ashamed to imagine. As a chaplain, I have stood with individuals whose loved ones were critically ill or were themselves ill and listened to them rail against people of Middle Eastern descent and held my tongue because my pain in that moment needed to be second to theirs.
A part of me doesn’t blame them for their hateful speech. I get it, a few people from the Middle Eastern world have done terrible things but this isn’t exclusive to the Middle Eastern community. It isn’t as though the European/American/Christian world wasn’t responsible for the Crusades, the brutal domination of the Native populations of the Americas, or the subjugation of an entire race of stolen people….but I digress. What I struggle with is the decision that entire group of people, are portrayed as being as filled with an unmitigated rage towards the world.
Now, I realize that I’m saying Middle Eastern, and the connection to the Islam cannot and should not be ignored. The rhetoric that fills our heads via the media machine makes it difficult to pry them apart. One day I’ll write more about these connections for myself… but today, I am writing as a woman who lives between two worlds – one as a ‘white’ American and the other as a Middle-Eastern American.
A few weeks ago, three young Muslim, Middle Eastern American adults were brutally murdered by their neighbor seemingly over a parking spot. Within the last two years, a young woman pushed an Indian man into an on-coming train in New York City because she didn’t “like Hindu’s and Muslim’s” and had been “beating them up” since September 11. (Note, the victim was neither Hindu nor Muslim.) Stories of beatings, threats and death by violent crime continues. You could say this is just about Islam but it’s not… not everyone who comes out of the Middle East/North Africa is Muslim and not every Muslim comes out of the Middle East/North Africa. This is about ethnic/racial profiling just as much as it is about religiosity.
With the threat of ISIS, Boko Haram and factions that promote fundamental religious ideologies (of all varieties), it can be hard to keep the facts straight. But it’s equally important to know that those few do not speak for the many. From my own experience in Iran and the stories my friends have shared after their travels throughout the Middle East, we don’t always get the ‘real’ story about what people from these regions are like from the media…. It can be hard to know how to live in this world… But we have to figure it out.
Bridging ‘the gap’ between the Middle Eastern and non-Middle Eastern community isn’t just my job as a young woman born with the ‘right’ set of genetics. I see myself first this way – as a member of the human community, created in the image of God to love the world. It’s our job – not solely mine – to engage in the world and to try to have right relationships.
Why? Because although my skin, hair and eye color may be difficult to identify as a specific ethnic or racial group, I know that my identity – and yours – are easy to classify: child of God.
No one should have to lie about who they are to feel safe. No one should feel unsafe for being who they are. When we fear our skin, we end up fearing our neighbors skin too. We are all wounded by racism whether we own it or not. There must be a better way, my sisters and brothers. I don’t know what it is but what we have been doing isn’t working.