My Family Always 'Passed' as White, Until We Didn't
Each of my siblings' names, skin, hair, and religious observances earned us different levels of privilege.
Images courtesy of the author
My family immigrated from Lebanon to Canada before I was born in order to flee a nasty civil war. Since we're quite light-skinned, growing up people assumed we were some kind of white: Italian, Spanish, or Portuguese was mainly what I heard. My mom explained how back in those pre-9/11 days, people she met hardly knew where Lebanon was and hadn't heard much about Islam either, so it was easy for us to live under the radar, hassle-free. This was before the hummus craze. But obviously, with everything going on today, things have changed. Now, the disclosure of who we are, along with some cultural clues, shifts how people see us regardless of our light skin tone. I suppose one could argue that it's a privilege to be passable as white, or a variant thereof, but it's a bit more complicated than that.
As a kid, my folks cultivated a dual identity within the Lebanon-like bubble of our southwestern Ontario home. We remixed the Lebanese Arabic dialect with English idioms and ate kibbeh with chicken nuggets and homemade fries. As Muslims, we studied the Qu'ran, prayed five times a day, and were forbidden to eat pork—including pepperoni and bacon, too. You'd expect it all to be confusing, but I was a happy kid living under the radar and felt my upbringing was normal.
When I write, I use the pseudonym Mike Miksche, but my birth name is James and only because my mom loved James Bond. I didn't think much of my ethnicity growing up since my name makes me that much more passable. My mom, Amal, and brother Ramie have Arabic names, but to many Canadians, they sound ambiguous enough, as does my sister's name, Aida. My brother, Ahmed, on the other hand, was less passable as a kid because of his name. Sometime during fifth or sixth grade, he was called a "Paki," which was confusing for him. Before that, he just thought he was a white kid with a strange name: Turns out that privilege can be turned on and off so quick that it puts into question the degree of it, particularly since we only benefit when people are unaware of who we really are beyond our skin tone.
Ahmed lost even more of that privilege during the Persian Gulf War in the early 90s where he was then compared to Saddam Hussein by kids at school. It's difficult to see the connection between "Ahmed" and "Saddam," but I suppose that's the thing ignorance is made of. Today he claims that the name doesn't inhibit him when applying for jobs because he works in IT, but when crossing the border, he's often asked to step aside for a special search.
In 1995, after my great uncle died, my mom decided to do the Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia, thinking that this religious pursuit would keep her close to her uncle and ensure he was taken care of in heaven. She started wearing the hijab that same year and subsequently lost her privilege. After putting it on, she lost roughly 20 percent of her clientele from the salon she ran off the side of our house.
Things changed yet again following the 9/11 attack.
"After September 11, the way people started treating me and acting toward me—it was like a wake-up call," my mom told me. She remembered one man randomly shouting, "Go home!" and soon told herself, "You're not Canadian. You are always Lebanese, and that's where you belong." The sad truth is that she doesn't really feel all that Lebanese either, having left her home when she was 15 years old and is now stuck in a purgatory state with her self-identity.
Ramie, my younger brother who was 11 at the time, hadn't thought much about his ethnicity until then. After 9/11, not only was he in shock from seeing the footage of the towers coming down, but he told me that he could remember going to school fearful that kids would beat him because the terrorists were Muslims just like him. Being so young, there was confusion in the classroom as to the nationality of the attackers: Some thought they were Chinese, and others believed them to be Indian. One boy finally said, "Actually, it was exactly who Ramie is. It's a Muslim." He was bullied for a few weeks after that, but it stopped until high school, where kids then began calling him "terrorist."
Today, some friends joke that I too look like a terrorist when I grow my beard out, which is useful to know. I now make sure my beard is trimmed when crossing the United States border—which is a privilege on its own to have the option. Still, even if I "pass," when getting to know new people I'll often disclose that I'm an Arab, raised Muslim, and am gay, too. The look of shock and pity I sometimes get by even the most liberal folks is hindering. It's the gay part that really trips them up, and some ask silly questions in an attempt to fit me into the narrative they expect for a Muslim-born queer like myself.
I don't blame them for their assumptions. These narratives find their way into our collective unconscious because of the horrific stories emerging today, whether it's accounts of the shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando or those heartbreaking stories of gay Chechen men being detained, tortured, and killed in the Russian federal republic. These stories also paint a very disturbing image of Islam's relationship with the LGBTQ community, which in turn creates fear, confusion, and anger within the community toward Muslims. LBC's Maajid Nawaz, a Muslim himself, argued on air that the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain who were marching at London Pride this year had the right to be angry at Islam since the only ten countries where being gay may be punishable by death are Muslim majority countries. I agree with their anger. I feel it's just, and I think they should be allowed to express their frustration at pride of all places. There's no doubt that Islam, like most religions, has a history of homophobia as Nawaz points out, but he then provocatively claimed that people like himself—Muslims—are killing gay people. This didn't sit well with me. I concluded that Nawaz can claim that he's somehow responsible for the deaths of gay men by virtue of being Muslim, but he doesn't speak for all Muslims. Neither does the Orlando gunman who pledged allegiance to ISIS, Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of Chechnya, or those ten shameful Muslim majority nations who are killing people like me.
It's silly that I even have to say it, but my mom isn't responsible for the death of any gay Muslims, and neither are my siblings. Still, some almost seem disappointed to hear that although it was tough coming out, my family now supports me, have met my lovers, and are extremely open-minded about my lifestyle. Hearing this challenges their prejudices that they've formed about people like my family, but there are approximately 1,053,945 Muslims in Canada alone and about 1.6 billion worldwide. To think all Muslims can be painted by the same brush not only lacks nuance but is plain ignorant. It's why I think it's important for me to disclose who I am.
More recently, Ramie has had friends share Islamophobic memes and clips on social media, knowing full well that he is Muslim. When confronted, they'd dismissed his concern, explaining that he's not really "one of those people."
"I just feel like I get written off for any sort of struggles that I have had with being Arab," he told me, adding how isolating a feeling it is to be misunderstood like that, as if the sum of who he is, is skin-deep. "I want to explain to my friends about some of the shit you go through and it's like, 'Uh, you look white. What's the big deal?'"
To me it's a very big deal: Whether people recognize that they hate me or not doesn't ease that gutting anxiety building inside as we continually see xenophobia go mainstream. In light of the mass shooting in the Quebec City mosque, which left six dead and 19 injured, I worry about my mom's safety. She now complains about being harassed or discriminated against in the mall, the bank, the gym, and on the highway. With the rise in hate crimes reported earlier this year against Muslims, I also worry about the type of world my nephews will have to deal with when they really become conscious of their identity. They won't get a chance to live under the radar the way we did. That's why I've learned to speak up more and more, not just for my family, but for anybody who faces discrimination for who they are and what they look like because I believe that we're all in this together.
Follow Mike Miksche on Twitter.