Recognizing being white-passing as a privilege

Where I stand as a proudly-identifying Arab Muslim

In her first year at Queen's, Hareer realized her responsibility to her community.
Credit: 
Hareer Al-Qaragolie

I was born in Baghdad to Iraqi parents who fled war to Amman, Jordan. Although I grew up as part of a marginalized Iraqi community in Jordan, I was also part of the majority of the population, adapting to the Jordanian accent and identifying as both an Arab and a Muslim.

In Jordan, I never thought of my privilege beyond the fact that I was part of the Iraqi diaspora.

However, through my experiences at Queen’s, I’ve had to add another definition to what privilege means to me: being white-passing. 

Otherwise known as racial passing, white-passing is when a person of colour belonging to a marginalized community  “passes” to identify as white, allowing them to have access to a certain amount of white privilege. 

Moving to Canada was a step I was never really afraid of taking. I had always planned to study abroad and expand my perspective without sparing much consideration for the drastic cultural differences. 

At that point in my life, I hadn’t truly experienced racism or discrimination of any kind. Because of this, I didn’t harbour any worries about adapting to life in Canada. 

Of course, this changed after I arrived.

Just like any international student, I struggled with the countless questions rolling around in my head about my identity, where I stood at Queen’s, and how to tackle the burdensome feelings of loneliness. 

BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) students each face different fears about oppression and discrimination based on their ethnicities. I, however, have come to realize why my fears of being a person of color at Queen’s weren’t as significant as some of my peers’: my pale appearance had made life in Canada easier for me. 

The complexity of my Arabic name, the undertones of my Arab accent, my Muslim values, my family’s historical trauma, and my ongoing struggle to find my voice in a predominantly white space fit the criteria of the immigrant narrative.  

But because I am not dark-skinned and I choose to not wear a hijab, I am a less obvious target for islamophobia and racism. 

But because I am not dark-skinned and I choose to not wear a hijab, I am a less obvious target for islamophobia and racism. 

I’ve never had to be afraid while walking the streets of Kingston or heading to class on campus because of my appearance. I’ve never had to ignore the stares while eating out at a restaurant that many hijabi women experience. 

The colour of my skin grants me the privilege of feeling safe. With that privilege comes a responsibility for me to do my part in advocating for my community, and in acknowledging that colourism is very much alive within it. 

Growing up in an Iraqi household, I was praised for having pale skin. 

The history of the effects of colonization and imperialism are very much prevalent in my community, stemming from Eurocentric beauty ideals that have dominated Iraqi communities for generations. 

I have also come to understand that most of my friends’ and relatives’ praise for a white-passing appearance isn’t merely due to a prevalent beauty standard. As countless Iraqis have escaped the political turmoil in their country and found refuge in the West, the idea that being white-passing allows people to hide their identity of being coloured and avoid targeted hate has shifted to the forefront of peoples’ minds. 

I remember a video call I had with a close family relative who lives in the United States. When talking about my studies at Queen’s, she asked if people immediately recognized if I was Arab from my name or accent. When I told her no, she responded with “good.” 

At the time, I didn’t think to be mad or to question what she said. Since then, I’ve begun to realize the extents to which my family would go to access white privilege. It’s a reminder of the trauma they endured leaving Iraq during the war and the ongoing struggles they continue to experience from the colour of their skin and personal freedom of wearing the hijab.  

Needless to say, I am very privileged to be white-passing. I do not disregard the fact that I still do face certain oppressions and discriminations similar to the Arab and/or Muslim community, but I must acknowledge I have it easier when it comes to my pale skin.

This is not to say that I have never faced racism here at Queen’s. In fact, it’s an experience I had in first year that shifted my perspective about this country, one that people talk so highly about back home. 

During my first year, I met many great people whom I still today call my closest friends. One person I befriended that year had a particularly significant effect on me. 

The two of us would talk about our upbringings, our struggles, and find relief and pleasure in opening up about ourselves to each other. I shared how very different life in Amman was compared to life in Canada, and I shared all the values I brought with me. 

Most importantly, I told her how happy I was to be Muslim and how freeing my beliefs are to me.

I told her how happy I was to be Muslim and how freeing my beliefs are to me. 

This ‘friend’ later told my roommate that she felt bad for me because I’m a Muslim. She said that she must “save me” from my beliefs and liberate me from the values she thought oppressed me. 

As devastated as I was to learn someone I trusted would speak of me this way, I was also confused about why she remained my friend for so long. 

I have come to realize it’s because, to her, I was the “safe kind” of Muslim. 

I didn’t adhere to her inaccurate definition of what it means to be a Muslim: I didn’t look Muslim to her, I didn’t “dress” as a Muslim, and—what hurt the most—I didn’t scare her as a Muslim.  

My white-passing appearance made her feel safe. 

I called this girl my friend not only because I felt comfortable with her, but because I loved hearing stories from her, supporting her, uplifting her, and genuinely cared about her. To me, that is what it means to be a Muslim: to love and give unconditionally to your surroundings regardless of who they are, what they identify as, and what they believe in. 

I never previously thought I would need to educate people about acceptance and respect. I started to consider how the situation would have unraveled further if I wore a hijab or had dark skin.  

My whole life, I never second-guessed my Arab-ness or my beliefs. I built myself a little bubble to try to avoid the pain and frustration that comes with being confronted with the racism and discrimination that I face today.

I must acknowledge that as significant and confusing as my pain is, it will never compare to Arab and/or Muslim folks who experience this treatment on a regular basis because of their appearance. 

At Queen’s, I’ve had to learn a lot from my negative experiences, particularly in terms of where people think I stand as a proudly-identifying Arab Muslim in a predominantly white community. 

Every year I spend at Queen’s forces me to add to my understanding of what it means to be part of a minority, as well as the responsibility I hold in helping my community as a white-passing woman of colour. 

Acknowledging your privilege is the first step to understanding how you can support BIPOC individuals. I check my own privilege by speaking up, knowing my resources, and continuously educating myself to enhance my advocacy and promotion of effective activism. 

 

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