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Cinnamon Skin

Josephine Zohny

In the consciousness of post-9/11 America, is Arab a race or a nationality? Or does it sit at the white-hot point where the differences between the two melt?

Cinnamon girl of mixed heritage,
Never knew the meaning of color lines�
9-11 turned that all around,
When she got accused of this crime.
-- Prince, "Cinnamon Girl"

This past year, Prince drew the ire of political pundits everywhere when he released a video depicting the trials and tribulations of a young Arab American girl immediately following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. While Michelle Malkin was busy discrediting Prince's message and groups like the Muslim Public Affairs Committee were championing this acknowledgment of the bias faced by those with beige skin, I was busy contemplating my own blurring of color lines.

I've always occupied a gray area in the world of race. Light enough to pass until people get a good look at me, dark enough to elicit shifty eyes from certain sales clerks and ambiguous enough to fit in at almost any house party, my ethnic identity was entirely defined by long-winded explanations -- I'm a quarter this, a quarter that, and half this -- that I figured somehow absolved me from confronting stereotypes. My Arab-ness was purely a function of the fact that my father was born in a country that is politically considered such. It was just another ingredient thrown into the stew of my Italian-ness, my blackness, my whatever-ness.

In the consciousness of post-9/11 America, is Arab a race or a nationality? Or does it sit at the white-hot point where the differences between the two melt?

The history of the Arab in America is a convoluted one. The first immigrants from the Arab world were usually Syrian or Lebanese, and usually Christian, their lighter skin and religious conformity allowing them to assimilate more easily than those who followed. With the second large wave of Arab immigration, the one that brought my father to this country, less palatable Arabs began trickling into the States, usually seeking higher education. As society struggled to define us aliens of indeterminate skin color and inscrutable religion, it never assumed that we would be competent enough to define ourselves.

But after 9/11, I was no longer afforded the opportunity to hide my head in the sand (pardon the pun) and remain undefined. Suddenly faces like those I grew up looking at and last names that to me were commonplace had become public enemies. For once, my ambiguous skin color didn't shield me from the anger unleashed at a particular group of people, who were supposed to have attacked all that was right and just in the world. Few rushed to defend the Arab - or anybody who vaguely resembled one, for that matter. As cinnamon-skinned men all over the country were pulled off of trains, detained at airports and beaten in the streets, pundits like Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly defended these efforts as necessary to national security.

In my life I'd often been the token "person of color" in the room (though what that color was, people were never quite sure). I've been asked many times, as the only not-quite-white face in a classroom, to make declarations on behalf of those of color everywhere. But never before had I felt so compelled to salvage the reputation of my ethnicity, which in the minds of many Americans suddenly seemed defined as simply the group that commits terrorist atrocities.

At the time, I was scarcely into my first week of college. I found myself explaining to a classmate that No, my father didn't want this to happen� and No, all Arabs aren't terrorists who hate America and want it destroyed. I was put in the position to explain an entire race to people who seemed to have no real interest in hearing any real answers. I would venture that they were only interested in hearing something, anything the fit into their preconceived notions of Arabs as monsters.

Suheir Hammad, one of the few voices of Arab Americans heard during the time, lamented this predicament in her poem "First Writing Since":

one more person ask me if i knew the hijackers.
one more motherfucker ask me what navy my brother is in.
one more person assume no arabs or muslims were killed.
one more person assume they know me, or that i represent a people.
or that a people represent an evil. or that evil is as simple as a flag and words on a page.

Shortly after the attacks on the World Trade Center, a radio personality on a New York hip-hop station derided an Egyptian caller, calling him a "sand nigger" and accusing him of thinking that he was better than black people. This was more than just deplorable; it was strange, since the identification of some Arab Americans with African Americans had never been stronger. As Hishaam D. Aidi wrote in the Middle East Report, a publication that chronicles Middle Eastern politics and issues affecting the Arab community, "The fact that Arabs today are drifting toward black America and 'passing' for black or Hispanic, in contrast to yesteryear when African-Americans were converting to Islam and donning robes and turbans in an effort to 'pass' for Arab, is a clear sign that a shift has taken place in the American racial hierarchy."

In 1997, Egyptian immigrant Mostafa Hefny went so far as to sue the US Government over the right to declare himself black. The chocolate-skinned man had considered himself black for his entire life, but was informed that he was now white, simply because archaic representations of the earliest Middle Eastern immigrants were the standards by which the government measured ethnicity. Hefny's situation epitomizes the plight of the Arab in America. He and countless other Arabs can't pass for white (or at least a Greek or Italian) and certainly aren't afforded the benefits that come along with whiteness, yet they're forced by the government to adhere to that label. Alleged "whiteness" certainly doesn't help Omar Abu-Anybody when he's going through a security checkpoint, but the ability to define himself as he wishes - whether that means white, black or simply Arab -- might allow him to take advantage of programs meant to level the playing field for those subject to the structurally inherent cultural biases in our society.

This was apparent to me when a cousin from Egypt -- a country once so enamored of lightness and whiteness that former President Sadat was called "the black Donkey" by his detractors because of his sable skin -- asked me if I was scared of "the Arabs." Of course not, I replied, I'm an Arab�and so are you. "No," he said, "I'm an African."

And indeed, in my attempt to find a label that didn't represent everything that was wrong with imperialistic and colonial rule in the Middle East, I've become most comfortable using the term Afro-Arab. This nom du jour, although it possesses a pretentious hyphenated quality, best embodies the rich heritage of those who have political affiliations with the Arab world and live the "Arab experience," but continue to have ties to Africa despite colonial efforts throughout history to Europeanize them. Egypt is officially the Arab Republic of Egypt, but it is still Africa. Accepting the term Arab would be to deny the African roots of the country, but denying it still has implications of self-hatred and an acceptance of the stigma that currently comes along with the term Arab. Consequently, I've fused the two in a way that I think represents who I am.

Despite my pleasure with this self-devised classification, I wonder if I'm co-opting African American culture in an attempt to define what it is to be an Arab American, even though I have more direct experience of the African continent than most American blacks. In his article "The New American Nigger: A Love Letter to Arab-Americans," (Africana.com), Jimmy Izrael asked, "Why did whites have to come for you, before you sought my friendship, before you realized you were from Africa after all? Why did you wait until you were the new American nigger...?" That may be a legitimate criticism of recent immigrants who seek to keep themselves separate from American culture generally, or choose only to assimilate into so-called white culture. But are we Arabs really just now discovering that we're not white? Would that really be a fair criticism for somebody like me, who grew up thoroughly immersed in black American culture -- from hip-hop to Malcolm X to affirmative-action debates? Chuck D wasn't exactly talking about me, but am I not allowed to recognize the injustices of which he spoke and apply them to what I know when the situation calls for it? I, too, grew up using Just For Me and chances are that countless other little "Arab" girls did, as well: Are they abusing black hair care and, by extension, black culture?

The truth is that identity for Arabs in America is an amalgamation of past colonial injustices, ongoing global politics and current minority culture. Because of efforts by the world to pay no heed to us beyond vilification and the insistence of some to ignore our otherness, the Arab now has to assert him/herself more than ever. Without claiming identity, 9/11 and all of the negativity surrounding it will become our whole story while we're busy trying to pacify the masses. Prince's musical prophecy will continue being our reality, "[beginning] the mass illusion, war on terror alibi ...what's the use when the god of confusion keeps on telling the same lie?" The question mark isn't whether this cinnamon girl and others like her are willing to dispel the lie -- it's whether everyone else will be willing to put aside preconceived notions, listen and maybe... just maybe... let us tell you who we are.


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