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Prejudice and acceptance – what makes someone white anyway?

Elmaz Abinader, of Lebanese descent, experienced cruel prejudice by the outside world and brought up in a world of self-loathing by her family. But on any U.S. government form, she is considered “Caucasian.”

I just came across an article about a Lebanese-American that experienced some truly disturbing, but not unfamiliar prejudice while growing up. Read, and I’ll have more afterwards. (Pittsburgh

There was the teasing at school and a name change from the nuns. There was the time, when she was 7, that she had to bleach her dark hair blond. And at a potluck dinner, someone referred to the dish her mother prepared as “lesbian” food. [WTF is “lesbian food? Tabouli?]

That was Elmaz Abinader‘s Fayette County, her youth, her America. A place where her Lebanese roots often were misunderstood, where a sense of community was best found in the family.

Reflections of that time have been captured in Abinader’s writing and acted out on stages worldwide. Within months, her family’s tale of immigration, prejudice and acceptance will be on display at the Arab-American National Museum in Dearborn, Mich., the first museum committed solely to showcasing Arab-American history.

“I was a little shy about it at first,” said Abinader, who spent her youngest years in Masontown but now lives in Oakland, Calif., where she is the head of Mills College’s English department. “I think of all the Arab-American families and all the Arab-American celebrities. We’re just another story.”

Museum officials didn’t see it that way. That story, the basis of Abinader’s three-act play “Country of Origin,” chronicled not only the experience of assimilating into American culture, but also the struggles of doing so as a woman.

…[Her parents] named her Elmaz after Jean’s mother. Abinader realized the significance of her name. When registering at All Saints School in Masontown meant changing it by one letter, she was crushed. She became Elma. The head nun wanted it that way. “I hated it,” Abinader said. “As soon as I went to register for college, I changed it back.”

Other kids called her things like “darkie” and “ape.”

Abinader said she dealt constantly with the pressures of two worlds that did not connect. “I think people, at the time, were uncomfortable with us,” she said. “There was a lot of friction some of us felt socially.” Even for a cousin’s wedding, Abinader had to rinse her hair with hydrogen peroxide before she walked down the aisle as the flower girl. She was 7 then. Her family requested the lightening. The concern, she recalls, was her appearance.

The desire to assimilate, or at least not draw negative attention to ourselves, was strong,” Abinader said. “So seeing how ‘Arab’ I looked with my dark hair and dark arms alarmed my family a little.”

I have discussed race on other House Blend posts on this before, but for newer readers, I’m restating a portion of one that dovetails with the above article.

I have a problem with this country’s attempt to pigeon-hole everyone into a neat racial box. Katie, my wife, is half-Lebanese, but she is technically “white” as far as government forms are concerned. All Middle Eastern people are considered Caucasian for statistics sake, yet for instance, Hispanics (another artificial construct) have a distinct category. I don’t see how someone from Lebanon has any ethnic, cultural or melanin-based resemblance to someone from a Scandinavian nation?

I doubt Freepers or the Klan would consider Arabs to be white. In fact, Katie’s father was on the receiving end of discrimination in the South as a young man because, in fact, he is darker than I am, and well, the dumbass rednecks don’t really give a sh*t whether you check white in a box if they can see you’re not “white” to them. This is about politics and numbers and attempts to divide and conquer by creating this implied racial hierarchy, which of course, the masses buy into. The fact that the exploding population of biracial and multiracial people is putting pressure on this inflexible construct of race is a good thing to squirm about — both for all of us as individuals and for our nation as a whole.

It just burns me up when I read this kind of article — what kind of message was this family sending this child? I say it is the same message young black girls are given that they have “bad” hair that requires chemical straightening. Oh, god, before I get riled up and repeat myself all over again, you can read what I said before about the kinky hair thing here.

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding