Wearing your difference on the outside.

mona-lrMona Khadr,
Washington, DC.

“But where are you from, originally?” is a question I get a lot. When I was younger, I answered proudly (“Egyptian!”) because my heritage was something that made me unique from my mostly white-American peers in the suburbs of MD and PA. As I got older and entered high school, college, and the work force, things changed both in myself and in society. I was becoming more sensitive about this question and aware that some people had preconceived notions about Arabs because of what they saw either in 80s and 90s movies and TV shows, where Arabs were often portrayed as terrorists, or because of very unfortunate events in the news. And there didn’t seem to be any portrayals in the media or popular culture of “normal” Arabs to even things out. I started wondering about the best way to answer while retaining my right to privacy. I received advice from colleagues who were also either immigrants themselves or from immigrant families. Some advised me it was nobody’s business where you’re from and to keep it to yourself. These people basically promoted the idea of playing a game of chicken until the question-asker gets the hint and stops asking. But that can lead to awkwardness in a conversation if a person doesn’t “get the hint” to stop their line of questioning (as if you didn’t understand the question the first or second time), and I’m not a confrontational person by nature – so this would be uncomfortable for me. And I truly don’t believe that everyone who asks this question has bad intentions – most are just innocent and curious. I tend to evaluate on a case-by-case basis depending on the tone of the conversation, where it’s taking place, and the vibe I’m getting from the person asking questions. Sometimes it feels completely innocent, like someone in a store or a restaurant asking me where I’m from because they think I look like I was from their home country. And sometimes it feels completely inappropriate, like a colleague in the workplace asking the same question. (You’d think everyone would know that this question is illegal to ask in any workplace in the U.S., but they don’t!) Luckily I’ve never encountered a hostile person asking this question, and I’m not entirely sure what I would do in that situation. I still have no perfect way to handle this question, so I just try to take it one instance at a time. Wearing your difference or your uniqueness on the outside is a fact of life for many people (tall people; short people; people with physical disabilities; women in a male-dominated workplace/field; any minority in a majority-dominated situation), so I try my best to keep that in mind and take it in stride.

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