It has been ages since I dared write anything for this blog (I use the term “dare” since it is a time consuming activity, and heaven knows anything that consumes time away from our daily tasks is quite daring). As always, I love to occasionally pen my thoughts down; otherwise my head may explode from recurrent reflections and informal observations. A year ago, I proudly donned my cap and gown and felt ready to embrace the so-called real world. After all, I felt I’ve seen it, lived it, been through it. In my view, we are all somewhat cocky when it comes to learning–humans love to believe that we’ve learned all we need to know. Or, we love to convince ourselves that we are fearless and ready to tackle any problem that comes our way.
I convinced myself a year ago that as an ethnic and religious minority, I’ve experienced it all: I’ve witnessed people wrestle with their collective identity, with the notion of being at odds with society and the mainstream culture, and of course with their past struggles in this turbulent world of ours. I have relatives who changed their names on their resumes to sound more “American” just to secure jobs (so your Palestinian Salams become Sams, your Mohammeds transform into the more acceptable Mo or Maddi, and so forth). Let’s face it, the very term “Palestinian” evokes a myriad of responses. I notice that Palestinians tend to embrace their diaspora identity as ardent nationalists (oh we know who we are and it is our duty to make the world aware of it!), or, they hesitate to answer the question, “Where exactly are you from?” I am still borderline amused when I hear a friend respond, “The holy land” just to evoke that “Aaaaah I see” reaction. Of course, that term seems more user-friendly than the seemingly hostile name “Ramallah” or “Khaleel” which may produce a few raised brows. Either way, Arab-Americans are still attempting to secure their place in America alongside other racial and ethnic groups. One demonstration of our social standing is illustrated by your typical job application. Notice that there is no separate category for people from the Middle East, yet Pacific Islanders, African Americans, and Latinos are usually represented in demographic questions. Arabs are treated as invisible, a category of people that do not deserve separate and distinctive representation in paper form. Apparently, we all hail from the Caucasus? Uhmmm no.
So here I am, a person who believed I am tough as nails, a person who defined myself in terms of my struggle to find my place in this country’s culture and institutions. I never identified myself strongly in terms of class status, but increasingly find that a redefinition may be required. Class is one key issue this country is hesitant to address. I wonder if one asks Americans which class they belong to, how many would answer, “The middle class of course!” What would happen if I told people that my freshman year in college, my father was laid off, unemployed for a few years, and my family hit the poverty line in terms of income? What if I told people I knew what it was like years ago to worry if groceries would make it to the table, or that we might lose the house? No, of course I shouldn’t share that information because when it comes to class, we are encouraged to toughen up and face the facts. After all, if people are in a lower rung on the class ladder, it is their fault right?
I am not writing this to obtain sympathy for my past–there were several times in college I refrained from sharing the above information since I despised the idea of being singled out, or buying a pity vote, or of being treated differently than my peers. In retrospect, I wish I would have discussed my experiences in greater detail for the sake of active reflection and life learning. I never realized how much class status influences a person’s perspectives until this past year. I was always very self-conscious of my ethnic and religious background since people tend to respond to those identities first (after all, how often do people ask, “So, what do you think about this issue as an Arab or Muslim?” I have never been asked the question, “What is your viewpoint as someone who comes from a lower-income family?”).
Looking back at my undergraduate experience, I often wondered why I sometimes struggled as a student. I would not classify it as an academic struggle as much as a deeply personal one. Coming from a lower class, I constantly felt like I existed in a parallel universe at my undergraduate institution. American University is by and large, a very affluent campus filled with students who come from middle and upper class families. It is fairly common for parents to pay for a significant portion of the tuition costs. I recall my friends were quite shocked to hear that I was bearing my full education costs by myself (grants certainly helped). I remember I frequently ran on 2-3 hours of sleep to prop up a perfect GPA when possible. “Why?” my peers often asked. My response, “No safety net, no bails out here. I am in this alone. I can’t afford attending parties like you can and I certainly can’t afford to fail.” The detrimental consequence was that I turned into an avid perfectionist, a person so utterly concentrated on success and achievement that I forgot to truly breathe, live, and take in the moment. I was even hesitant to ask for advice from faculty and others in general; my mode of thought: I am self-sufficient, fiercely independent, and can do this by myself as I always have.
The sharp effect (among many) of this country’s culture towards class (ignore class tensions exist and pretend that everyone can overcome adversity of any form at any time), is that it is easy for any individual to ignore their class identity and the struggles associated with it. I often wished away my past and pretended as if that economic struggle never occurred. I silently prayed to be like my peers: carefree, youthful, and truly living life as a 22 year old rather than packing 10 additional years of life experience in a young adult’s frame.
Granted, I still possess high expectations of myself and am still determined to overcome my past. The difference this time is that I accept that past exists. I embrace my class identity and hope this country will move closer to acknowledging the class divisions and struggles which persist…