Arab, White or Brown? A Little Girl Learns to Walk Through America’s Ethnic Maze

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For a child from the Middle East, America's racial divisions are even more confusing Credit: Beth Nakamura,AP

I’m an Israeli-American lawyer, Jewish, married to a Palestinian resident of Ramallah, and author of the Hebrew-language book “Maqluba – Upside-Down Love,” which describes how we met and fell in love. This blog is about raising our two children, 7-year-old Forat and 3-year-old Adam, in the West Bank and more recently in the United States, where we’re spending a sabbatical year.

We are trying to lead ordinary lives in an extraordinary and unforgiving reality, one that I will share with you. I have changed people’s names to protect their privacy. My real name is Sari Bashi, and I’ve been writing this blog since 2019 under the pen name Umm Forat, which means Mother of Forat in Arabic. I invite you to visit my website: www.ummforat.com.

Seven-year old Forat was eating Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough ice cream, a purchase I made in part to support the company’s decision to stop selling ice cream in Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

Ima, the cone is the same color as my skin,” she said, pointing to her tan-colored finger holding the sugar cone.

“Yes, sweetheart,” I said.

“Maijah is Black, Ima,” she continued. Maijah is one of the two other children who sit at Forat’s table in second grade, a welcome change from the last school year, when each child sat alone and half the kids joined online. Forat’s social life is improving.

“What about Eva?” I asked, referring to the third child at her table.

“Eva is white,” Forat said. “And I’m also white.”

We moved to North Carolina from the Ramallah area nine months ago for my partner Osama’s sabbatical year, and Forat has already learned to locate herself within the ethnic frameworks salient in the United States. “Yes,” I told her. “Here in the United States you’re white. You’re also Arab. Some people say Arabs are white, and some people say Arabs are brown.”

“I’m not Arab, I’m Palestinian,” Forat said.

“You’re Palestinian from Baba, and Palestinians are Arab. But Grandpa is from Iraq, and Grandma is of European origin, so you are mostly Arab and also European.”

“But white is not really white,” Forat continued, licking her cone. “Not like ice cream. White is the most white you can be but still be a person.”

Moving between groups

The next day, Osama and I waited in a line of cars stopped at a red light on our way to a rare date made possible by a visit from my mother, who was watching the children. A young Black man, dressed in a T-shirt and sweatpants, weaved in and out among the cars, a plastic cup in his hand, walking toward us.

He passed our car and stepped onto the sidewalk, where he stopped, took a sip from his cup and then continued on his way somewhere. The light turned green and Osama drove through the intersection.

“I have to confess something,” I said to Osama. “I guess this is what people mean when they talk about structural racism. When I saw that man walking toward us, I thought he was going to ask us to put money in his cup.”

“I thought the same thing,” Osama said, his eyes glued to the road. “I was ashamed of myself.”

“Me too. I don’t think we would have assumed that had he been white. And I thought – what terrible stress, to be Black in the United States, where people are always assuming negative things about you. Like in South Africa, where the inequality was so stark. After living there for just a few weeks, I already developed assumptions in shops about who was the salesperson and who was the owner, based on the color of their skin.”

“I’m even more ashamed, because I hate when people do that to me,” Osama said. “Like when I lived in London and I came back from a trip to Paris by train. Three security officers were waiting for me at the station and immediately took me aside. When I protested, they said, ‘We’re checking everyone,’ but it wasn’t true. And one of the officers was Black. That drove me even crazier.”

Osama belongs to the oppressed group as a Palestinian in Israel-Palestine or an Arab in Europe, and also to the privileged group as a white person in the United States. That duality somehow seemed healthy. Maybe it fosters empathy. Maybe it encourages a person to take responsibility.

I thought again about Forat’s attempt to position herself in the United States. When she was 3, Osama received a rare permit to enter Israel, to accompany me on a prenatal doctor’s visit in Jerusalem. After the appointment, the three of us ate lunch on a bench near the Mahane Yehuda market. A 50-something man, a resident of East Jerusalem, sat next to us.

Forat chatted with the two of us, speaking to me in Hebrew and to Osama in Arabic, and also intervening in the conversation Osama and I held in English. After a few minutes, the man addressed us in Arabic, trying to decipher Forat’s identity: “How can such a little girl speak so many languages?” he asked.

Osama and I burst out laughing, but Forat didn’t understand what was so funny. Forat has the ability to move seamlessly between her different identities and to decide, depending on the language she chooses to speak, whether to be seen as a white American in the United States, a Palestinian in Ramallah or a Jewish Israeli in Tel Aviv.

I hoped that her extended visit inside the dominant group, American whites, during our stay in the United States would foster in her feelings of empathy toward those who are oppressed and toward those who have privilege, too. I wondered what assumptions she would develop for herself, for each group.

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