To be or not to be: struggling with identity in a colorblind world

“You’re … something … right?”

“Where is your family from?”

“You were born here?”

Yes, the aforementioned questions are all things that have been asked of me at one time or another, all in avoidance of the real question they mean to ask.

You don’t look white, so what are you?

I’ve been approached everywhere from the bar to the gym to the workplace, by friends and complete strangers who evidently feel my race is of utmost importance to the entertainment value of their day. Sometimes it’s hilariously awkward, sometimes it’s downright inappropriate and offensive.

This has been my life thus far: navigating the line between what I will and will not tolerate as somewhat of a biracial human being.

The first of the above questions came from the lips of my former boss, after he nominated me to be our company’s minority representative without officially knowing whether I was in fact a part of a minority group.

Yep, this really happened.

The story would have been tragically funny, if the laughter wasn’t curttailed the following year. I was once again nominated, and when I began to consider taking the offer, one editor shot me down for not being “Arab enough.” As if I’d been carrying the last name Abdilla ( literally meaning slave of God in Arabic) around my whole life with an undeserved sense of entitlement. As if it was the only thing that made me ethnic, that made me different. I instantly felt silenced by the likes of a brainy white girl who scarcely weighed 100 pounds.

This tendency to let others define me before I could define myself kept me from my true identity for longer than it should have. But now that I’m aware of it, it’s no longer something I can ignore. My heritage is no longer a sense of shame, something I must hide my pride over. 

I wish I didn’t have to write this, but it appears an explanation is needed. Although I have been privileged in many aspects of my life, I must write this because our country’s current colorblindness in the face of multiracial individuals has become evident. Although it’s not the typical story of race and ethnicity, it’s my story nonetheless.

But before I get ahead of myself, perhaps a climb up the family tree is in order.

My mother is about as Irish as they come. Her mother’s family, the O’Learys (could it get any more typical?),  immigrated to America during the World War 1 era. There’s also a bit of German mixed in there, as with most white folk in the Americas.

My father’s background is where it gets complicated. My great-grandfather, lovingly referred to as “Grandpa Anthony,” was born and raised in Tunisia in a traditional Arab-Muslim household. In mid-life he immigrated to Malta, a cluster of islands south of Sicily in the Mediterranean. He then converted to Catholicism, married a Maltese woman and had my grandfather.

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My grandfather, in his workshop in my father’s childhood home in Little Malta, Corktown Detroit.

My grandfather grew up in Sliema, a now-bustling city in Malta that was once considered the ghetto of the main island. After much economic devastation post-World War II, which reached into the mid-1950s in terms of impact, the Abdilla family was split by immigration. My grandfather moved himself, my grandmother, my great-aunt and my two eldest uncles to the United States, while the rest of my family headed further east to Australia, which has the largest Maltese population outside the country proper.

My father was the first in the family born in the United States. My grandfather, my father and uncles attempted to fulfill the typical “American dream”: working on the line at Ford. Because they came to Detroit on the cusp of its racial upheaval, my family was subject to discrimination many working-class people felt.

The first of such cases was with language. Because of Malta’s strong ties with the Arab world, the Maltese language is essentially a dialect of Arabic. So in America, my dad was socially conditioned to only speak the language at home. Because my father and uncle grew up with learning disabilities, they were essentially left for dead in the authoritarian-style Catholic classrooms that were common at the time. For my uncle, who was still learning English, his version of hard work just wasn’t good enough; he was functionally illiterate until he approached adulthood. Another uncle felt so pressured to conform to American ideals that he legally changed his name from Carmel, a popular Maltese name, to Charles.

My family also felt the sentiments of colorism within segregation-era Detroit. As most

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My father, in the red polo, and five of his siblings in Detroit. Check out that beauty of an automobile behind them.

people with Arab and Mediterranean roots know, the variation of skin tone in both communities is vast, even within families. My father, being the darkest, said he often felt as though he was scapegoated for less severe behavior than his siblings because of the way he looked. To a certain degree I still see it: while my father and two oldest uncles, who are darker-skinned, seem unaware of their otherness, some of their lighter-skinned siblings ascribe to the very belief systems that once oppressed them in childhood.

I feel as though this long-winded explanation needs another explanation: I am not in any way saying that I can relate to the oppression and struggles of various peoples of color. Rather, I am stating that the oppression I have seen within my own family casts a heavy weight on my shoulders, and that the history of such behavior has caused others to stratify me and others like me in one of two categories: as “too brown” or “not brown enough.”

And I’m just not about that.

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My grandmother, Lilly, left, and my grandfather, Frank, center. My grandma was known as “the General” –  she didn’t take any you-know-what.

I’ll be the first to admit I didn’t always feel this way. I used to laugh at the jokes my coworkers made, and I still feel some of them were genuinely funny. I pick fun at my own complicated heritage routinely. But when I think back on what my father went through because of such ridicule, how profoundly it affected his ego, I’m left silent, stunned by my own complacency in the face of racial discrimination.

Studying social work has taught me a great deal about the concept of white supremacy. It conditions individuals to see two categories of race: white and “other.” For the former, it causes them to conjure up questions and definitions geared toward the latter, as if their explanation of the otherness is the only one that matters.

Their definition then exoticizes all the very traditions that make each culture beautiful, appropriating them as if they’re theirs for the taking. Or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, the culture is rejected completely, leading members of said culture with a pivotal decision: reject their origin and assimilate, or learn to love the differences. The second option, of course, often has left even the most mundane decisions of my everyday life up to scrutiny.

For example, I was once told by a guy I was interested in years ago that my choice to straighten my hair from time to time made it seem as though I was trying to “act white.” Little did he know that a) half of me is white, b) I got my curly hair from my mother’s side and c) his assumption that curly hair must be an ethnic trait is incredibly racist and offensive. Needless to say, this was the end of his presence.

As with my family, they gradually rejected our Arab roots and even the Maltese traditions began to fade, reducing my childhood cultural experience to pastizzi (meat pies) from Dearborn bakeries on holidays and distant stories of “the homeland.” My grandparents both died before I was born, so most of the stories are left up to aunts and uncles to pass on. To this day my father often tells me he regrets not teaching me and my siblings Maltese, but since he was often teased for it he didn’t want us to feel the shame he did.

There will never be a day when this does not shatter my heart into pieces. My father was mocked for being himself in a place where Anglo-Saxon privilege is the norm, and as a result I cannot fully know, understand or enjoy the culture I was born into.

To white people, my skin tone gives me away as an “other.” But amongst other Maltese and Middle Eastern individuals, my experience pales in comparison and renders me unfit for the categorization.

I fit in everywhere, or I fit in nowhere.

So when people in public innocently ask me where I’m from or what my ethnicity is, I constantly weigh the benefits and consequences of going into my usual spiel.

If I could say what I felt like saying, I would say this.

I’m a mix, a mutt, or as they say in India, a masala. I don’t always feel brown, but I suppose I am. Most days I’m proud of my olive-tinted skin and my long dark hair. But some days it feels like I’m wearing a sign on my head that reads “question ethnicity here.”

No, I do not practice Islam. I cannot say much in Arabic outside of the casual keefak between cheek kisses  and a scattering of obscenities I learned from a childhood Egyptian friend and my foul-mouthed great Aunt Mary.

I am the consequence of years of white privilege bestowed on every individual marked “other.” My lack of true affiliation is both a blessing and a curse.

According to the Census Bureau I am “white,” but anyone of Arab heritage will tell you this often could not be further from the truth.

I am a question mark amid dinner table conversation, considered white by some and brown by others, as if my genetic makeup is theirs to define.

Occasionally, though, I do have moments of pure pride. When the wise-beyond-her-years Syrian woman who directs the nonprofit I routinely volunteer at tells me she’s the Tata I never had, I relish her hugs and appreciation. Last fall, when I met a friend’s new boyfriend, whose family is Lebanese, he looked at me with a sly smile and asked the universal question of acceptance.

“So I hear you’re brown too?”

But just as I will not subscribe to the idea that my semi-brownness is the be-all-end-all of existence, I also will not allow mindless people to vilify my heritage because it doesn’t suit their desirable bloodline. I might be a few standard deviations away from true “brown identity,” but I will embrace my identity exactly as it is at this very moment.

Perhaps one day I’ll make the trip to Tunis and Sliema. One day I’ll see the house where my grandfather was born. Perhaps I’ll learn Arabic so I can avoid speaking to distant relatives in broken English.

For now, all I care about is making myself and my father proud, and I believe I’m well on my way to doing just that. I went to a top university, and am now getting a master’s degree. My father was never given the opportunity to go to college, and here I am dedicating my life to make sure people like him have a fighting chance. Despite how I feel about my own self day in and day out, that’s more than enough for me.

Photos courtesy of my lovely aunt, Brenda Abdilla. 

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