Passing for White
‘But you don’t look Arab? You look Latina… You’re too fair to be Arab… Is one of your parents English… Speak Arabic, prove it.’
This is the general response I get when I tell people I am Iraqi. My ethnicity is a fraction of who I am, but when I tell people I am Arab, they automatically respond with: ‘you don’t look it,’ and I wonder if their expectations of an Arab is a group of people ululating (high-pitched tongue-trilling) around the streets of London in Abayas (a traditional women’s dress) with their shisha pipe in hand. Or do they simply expect to see someone who has darker skin paired with a comedic Arab accent?
The Good Immigrant by Nikesh Shukla is a collection of people of colours’ written experiences with racism and ethnic discrimination in the United Kingdom. After reading the hilariously relatable experiences shared in the book I was inspired to tell my own experience with ethnic discrimination in the UK.
I grew up in Guildford, Surrey a predominately white middle-class area in the South East of England. I moved to London at the age of 14. Saying it was a culture shock is an understatement. When I lived in Guildford, everyone dressed the same, sounded the same and looked similar. Except for me. No matter what I wore, or how I spoke. I was different. I was made aware of this when I was around the age of 7 or 8 and I was talking to my friends about my crush. One girl asked if he was blonde (he was) and then urged ‘you can’t be a with a blonde boy.’ I remember clearly that I did not reply to her remark, but I knew it wasn’t his hair colour that made our pairing unacceptable for her. Regardless, it made me feel out of place and it confirmed that I was different. From that day onwards, I tried so hard to be ~white~ lying to people about my religion and my true ethnicity in an attempt to be accepted or to fit in with everyone else around me. Fortunately, the lack of exposure to what an Arab looks like and my fair complexion worked in my favour for re-shaping my identity.
Spending my teenage years in London I was exposed to a variety of different ethnicities, faces, styles and it got me thinking how much we associate our physical appearance with our ethnicities.
I know it sounds like a first-world-problem, but every time I go to buy a foundation I am matched with a colour a couple of shades darker. This usually happens when a white sales assistant is helping me match my skin to the available foundations. I had one particular experience at a NARS counter in Knightsbridge, where the sale assistant insisted that the shade she applied to my face was a perfect match. When I turned to the mirror all I could see was a streak of orange across my cheek. I laughed to myself. I Kindly thanked her for helping me and went on looking at the other shades. I found my shade and when I went to the counter to pay the assistant who helped me earlier examined the small tube of concealer and proceeded to read out the shade ‘Vanilla 2,’ with disbelief. And then congratulated me…
I looked over at my friend, and if looks could talk security would have had to escort us out. Walking out of the store I was bewildered, why is my correct shade of concealer something worth congratulating?
Time for a little history lesson…
In the region of Iraq my family originates from, the majority of the population are fair due to Ottoman conquest (1534–1704 and 1831–1920.) There is a common misconception that everyone from the same country will have similar or noticeable physical features. However, the way in which Iraq and much of the Middle East prior to the ‘Partition of Mesopotamia’ were structured or divided was through tribes. Therefore, individuals were not recognized by the ‘state or country’ they were from but a specific region and tribe.
So, when people say I am too fair for an Arab it confuses me because my whole family is fair, and so is the majority of the Iraqi community I have been exposed to. The Middle East is so diverse and regarding Arab identity as a mere physical appearance is farfetched. Being Arab is more of a shared culture than specific physical traits. That being said, there is an infatuation with having fair skin across the Arab world. But that’s a completely different discussion that cannot be discussed in a few sentences.
So, before you see someone who does not match up to your stereotype, stop and think before you say, ‘but you don’t look…’