Before I begin this blog, I’d like to make a quick disclaimer: this article is purely based on my own experiences and no way speaks for other people of colour.
I’ve come to the unfortunate realisation that a lot of people aren’t aware of how significant is the impact words can have, especially when they’re racially charged. As a (Jordanian) Arab growing in a predominantly white community, I’ve had my fair share of experiences with microaggressions. Microaggressions, as defined by Dr. Kevin Nadal, a psychology professor and activist, are, “the everyday, subtle, intentional — and oftentimes unintentional — interactions or behaviors that communicate some sort of bias toward historically marginalized groups.”
I am Jordanian and American. I was blessed to have grown up in both countries, and I wouldn’t change that experience for the world. It has made me who I am today and upon reflection, I’ve grown to recognise how the words I have been told impacted me and my perceptions.
Looking back at my time in the US as a child, I experience subtle microaggressions. My classmates would wrinkle their noses because I brought ‘weird food’ for lunch. Someone once told me I smelled weird because I’m Arab. I’d be asked questions like, “Do you have Internet in Jordan?” or “How do people live in the desert? Do you like, live in huts?” and my personal favourite, “Why don’t you wear a headscarf?” There was an undeniable assumption, held by both children and their parents, that Jordan was an underdeveloped, barren land.
These comments got a bit more explicit as I got older. “Oh you grew up in the US, that’s why your English is so good!” (as though Jordanians/Arabs are incapable of being taught proper English); “Wow, you’re so Western for an Arab!” (as though progressive ideals are exclusively Western, which they’re not). I’ll be honest, I’ve turned a blind eye to so many of these that I’ve forgotten what I’ve been told. Although I’ve forgotten what was said, I haven’t forgotten the impact.
For the longest time I ignored my Jordanian identity and mainly addressed my American one, because I was convinced nothing could be as appealing. And I know for a fact there isn’t a specific ‘moment’ that caused this -- it’s a result of the microaggressions I’ve faced on a regular basis. When you regularly hear comments, or are subjected to passive actions, you can’t help but internalise this racism and avoid characteristics that make you a target.
When I was applying to universities, I was told to apply with my American passport because I’d have a better chance of getting in. For most of my life, I thought I could never be (objectively) beautiful because I didn’t have Eurocentric features. Whenever I introduced myself to people, I’d be sure to mention I lived in the US and say I’m American, because I assumed people would like me more.
So although your statements might have been just a silly comment to you, they have very real (and lasting) effects on the people that are on the receiving end. They aren’t just words. Your intention doesn’t matter. Recognise the impact of what you say, and take the time to educate yourself on what you say wrong.
These microaggressions have significantly impacted me despite the privilege I have. I am a woman and I have lighter skin, so I don’t fit into the stereotypical, Oriental image of Arabs most people hold. Because of that appearance, I wouldn’t pose as much of a threat as my darker friends. Most importantly, I have my American passport and a non-Arab name -- I can present myself as white and people wouldn’t blink an eye.
I’ve more recently come to terms with my identity and begun deconstructing my internalised racism that was fueled by microaggressions I face. It hasn’t been the easiest process, and I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that I would quickly throw my identity under the bus to appeal to others.
And this whole experience was started by a few simple words -- your biases (intentional or not) have real impacts.
This piece was first published by the UCU newspaper.