By Rachelle Hughes
Am I white? I acknowledge my privilege as a white passing person, but I am still hesitant to classify myself as such. My late mother was British and Caucasian, but my father is Persian, and even though I identify as Middle Eastern, the ‘Ethnicity’ section on every single official document I’ve ever encountered seems to want to pigeonhole me into a white identity I am not fully comfortable with. So what am I? Am I white? And regardless of whether or not I am, why am I so uncomfortable with this label?
I’ve been conflicted about my racial identity ever since I learned of the complexities of racial privilege in the United States and what being a person of color really means. Middle Easterners are often boxed into the “white” category, but the term P.O.C. represents the racial groups that are not dominant in this country and that struggle under its existing systems of racial privilege and hierarchy. Now, faced with this definition, I can do nothing else but conclude that Middle Easterners are undeniably a group that falls into the P.O.C. category.
The fact that some Persians and Mid-Easterners still assert their “whiteness” is evidence enough of how badly we are treated when we are not white. When we cannot pass ourselves off as such. Rampant Islamophobia after the 9/11 attacks has led to an increasingly contagious level of hatred towards Middle Eastern people in the United States (ive seen “MUSLIMS GET OUT” sharpied onto the back of a street sign). When I remember how intense this hatred can be, I remember how privileged I am to be white passing. But recognition of my privilege often comes with guilt as I ask myself: “What makes me more worthy of respect than non white-passing Middle Easterners?” I would gladly renounce this privilege if it meant I could help other people fight its existence in our society, but all things aside, it is a relief and a blessing to be able to slip under the radar of racists, or to have a common, English first name that doesn’t prompt suspicious glances and whispered jokes from my classmates whenever it is called out for roll. I often take these little things for granted, and that is why I am scared of assuming a white identity.
I am scared of assuming a white identity because I am scared of becoming complicit in a system of oppression that is pitted against people just like me and my father. By calling myself white, I would be reinforcing the notion that it is shameful to be anything contrary to the white norm in our society—that it is “better to be white.” I also refuse to call myself something that I am not. I am Persian. My whole life was spent around my Persian father’s Persian acquaintances— I belong to no other ethnic culture. An African-American person who has one white parent and one black parent can still identify as African-American, so why can’t I identify as Middle Eastern? I am fervently proud of my Persian heritage and feel like it represents me strongly. I refuse to back down against society telling me to be anything except what I am. I will not bend to a racist will; I will fight it. I am Persian. I am of mixed Middle Eastern descent. I will fight for my identity. In the words of the Iranian-Americans who stood up against the ethnic misidentification of Middle Easterners in the 2010 U.S. National Census, “Check it right, I ain’t white.”