In a TED talk titled “The danger of a single story,” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie describes her experience as a black Nigerian woman living in the US, explaining the tropes of what she calls “a single story” or when stereotypes simplify identities to create “no possibility of a connection as human equals.” The entire 20 minutes are worth watching and can be found at this [link].
One sentence she said in particular (which can be found around 5 minutes in) really struck a chord with me. She said, “I must say that before I went to the U.S. I didn’t consciously identify as African.” This adoption of a new identity came from being othered in the US, as the Americans she interacted with were generally ignorant about the diversity of the peoples and countries on the African continent. The picture of Africa that circulated in Western literature was a picture of “beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals, and incomprehensible people, fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and AIDS, unable to speak for themselves and waiting to be saved by a kind, white foreigner.”
I strongly identified with this, as I’m an Arab-American who grew up in a conservative-leaning state post-9/11. Even the term “Arab-American” is relatively new to me. Before 9/11, I never questioned my Americanness. I knew my family was Lebanese and that my life was largely influenced by the Lebanese culture, but it never occured to me that that would take away from my American identity.
The day of the attacks, I remember sitting on a bean bag at school with my best friend (a white girl) reading a book together about a girl with black blood who could turn into an owl on command. Gradually parents poured into the elementary school, taking kids home. My BFF’s mom ran in, saw us sitting together, pulled my friend towards her into a rough hug and said, “You can’t be friends with Alice anymore.” She then had to explain to me that I was Muslim (news to me!) and that meant I was one of the bad people.
Unlike how Adichie was treated with “a kind of patroning, well-meaning pity,” I was treated with hostility. Before 9/11, people saw my skin color (which was darker then) and my strange face shape and suggested many different races to me–often after attempting to speak Spanish to me and seeing the blank look on my face: “Ok, so you’re not Mexican… Are you Italian? Jewish? Uh… Brazilian?” After 9/11, though, I stuck out like a sore thumb. The media did quite a thorough job of representing what “my people” looked like. And with that came the language used to describe “us.”
The media’s repeated representation of Muslims/Arabs/etc. made it easy for the people around me to (a) point me out as one of “them” and (b) have a mental dictionary full of vocabulary with which to categorize me.
Instead of listing (and perpetuating) the negativity placed upon our community (notice the lack of quotation marks around “our” now), I will share some counter-action in the arts by members of my community.