The Daily Northwestern

The Spectrum: Deconstructing white-passingness

Jolie Boulos, Op-Ed Contributor

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This essay is part of The Spectrum, a forum in our Opinion section for marginalized voices to share their perspectives. To submit a piece for The Spectrum or discuss story ideas, please email spectrum@dailynorthwestern.com.

“What are you?”

When I was little, I didn’t understand the offensive and insensitive implications of that question. All I understood was that nobody ever asked it to me. As a fair-skinned girl with freckles sprinkled across my face, people just assumed that I was white.

As a white-passing individual, my skin tone affords me several privileges. Walking down the street next to some of my closest friends whose non-whiteness is apparent, I know that I will be greeted with a neutral facial expression or even a smile — my presence will not be questioned. Conversely, my friends will draw unfriendly stares, scoffs or on a “good day,” blank eyes and slightly upturned lips that seem more like a white person’s attempt at a peace offering or feigned politeness than a genuine smile.

Yet, despite being granted numerous privileges by the coincidental lack of melanin in my skin, I am not white. I am a Coptic Egyptian woman and a first-generation American. The daughter of immigrants, my lived experience has not been that of a white person. But instead of these experiences qualifying me as the Egyptian woman I am, I continue to be categorized as white — just not white enough.

In elementary school, I could not understand why every white teacher felt the need to comment on my hair. Its thickness. Its brown color that shimmers red in sunlight. Its frizzy texture. Its “uniqueness.” While likely well-intentioned, these teachers othered me, and my classmates did the same. They couldn’t understand why I wasn’t allowed to have a sleepover, or later, why I wasn’t allowed to go to school dances. During lunch, they would look at my leftovers of macarona bechamel or kofta with confusion while they took out their ham and cheese sandwiches. They couldn’t wrap their minds around why I celebrated Christmas on Jan. 7 or why it’s expected in my church to go vegan during Lent. Instead of accepting my cultural differences as legitimate parts of my identity, they just saw me as “weird.”

Both proud of my culture and desperate to explain away my inability to fit in, I took every opportunity I had to tell people that I was Egyptian. Year after year, needing to explain myself has become incredibly tiring. I know that I do not owe anyone an explanation of my ethnicity, yet I still feel a need to describe how my life experiences make me non-white, especially in spaces for students of color. Whenever I enter one of these spaces, I draw the same stares I receive from my white peers. I see the question burning in people’s eyes: “What is a white person doing here?”

One of the most isolating experiences for me at Northwestern was attending Jabulani, the African Student Association’s winter cultural show earlier this year. At the start of the show, students were encouraged to call out when their region in Africa was mentioned. When I called out after North Africa was mentioned, heads turned and incredulous eyes inspected me. It was as if people thought I was just some white person trying to joke about my ethnicity, especially since I was one of the only people in the room who called out. A moment later, I heard a comment mumbled over the mic so quickly it could be easy to forget if not for how hurtful it was: “It’s OK. We don’t care about North Africans anyways.”

The phrase “person of color” has always been complicated for me. From my understanding, it is meant to create solidarity for non-white people: from African Americans to East and South Asians to Latinx individuals to Arabs who happen to have more melanin in their skin and beyond. Experiences like the aforementioned incident are part of why I’ve always been reluctant to classify myself as a person of color, despite often feeling most comfortable around students of color due to shared cultural experiences. Even in Arab communities where there may be more white-passing students, I’ve felt ostracized for not being Egyptian enough: My poorly spoken Masri Arabic and my inability to read and write in the language — despite my ability to understand almost all spoken Arabic — seem to justify people cracking jokes at how I’m too white. And yet, I recognize that while my upbringing rings true to other people of color, my white-passingness makes me more readily accepted by society. I feel stuck in a Catch-22: In spaces that make me feel most at home — where they speak the language I grew up with — I’m isolated for being too white in both my skin color and in not preserving the culture enough. In all-white spaces, I’m isolated for looking the part while having too different a culture.

Herein lies the problem for so many white-passing individuals: there is no space for us. Our culture is erased when we are categorized as white, yet even in some of our own communities, we feel out of place. While I do not have all the answers to this issue, I want to bring attention to those of us who struggle with our identities in a time when identity is one of the mostly widely discussed topics on this campus. If we are to have these conversations, we as a society must stop pretending that people fit in perfectly defined boxes. We must stop imposing ideas of people’s experiences upon them. Instead, by listening to and validating other people’s experiences, we may just learn more about ourselves.

Jolie Boulos is a SESP sophomore. She can be contacted at jolieboulos2020@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to spectrum@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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