Making sense of my racial/ethnic development.

I find it hard to understand my development around race and ethnicity. I have often censored my words and experiences because of the political correctness, binary thinking, and racism in America. My mother is a Catholic from Virginia of mixed European heritage a couple generations back. My dad is an Iraqi Jew who came to the US on a gov’t scholarship, then later stay and became a citizen after his family left for Israel.

I have always looked up to my father and still consider him my biggest role model. So in 9th grade, when I told a few boys that my father was Iraqi, I wanted to share my pride for him and where he came from. It was the year of 9-11 and these boys responded by making jokes about my father being a terrorist who was going to bomb America. I was shocked by this response, yet even in my confusion I played along. I am ashamed to say that I even repeated the joke in an attempt to evoke fear and amusement in other students. My father is the most gentle and compassionate man I know and the fact that others, and worse myself, distorted him into a racist stereotype, disgusts me.

Since my parents divorced when I was very young, I grew up with my father only every other weekend where I remember playing baseball with invisible men, warm family dinners with extended family, and stories of his youth in Baghdad. The nine years I lived at boarding school and then college, I seldom spent more than a few days with my father (and he’s not known for his phone skills), often competing for his time with my siblings. All this made it so I did not understand him, what he meant to me, and how I should understand that part of my heritage.

I spent more time with my mother growing up, and her understanding of race greatly effected me. She has told me on a number of occasions that I am white. In my mind, I then thought I pass for white, receive white privilege in many arenas, have a white mother, and check the Caucasian box on forms; therefore I am white. I chose to ignore and suppress my feeling that I was something other. I described my own skin as simply white, despite my private thoughts about its subtle olive and yellow undertones. In the mirror I think I even distorted my reflection. I did not dare speak these thoughts out loud for fear I would be claiming an of color identity (I had too much privilege to relate to), fear I was tokenizing my father’s life (something I refuse to do again), and fear to claim an identity I sometimes feel I’m supposed to forget (as a community in exile or in other ways now enemy from a new home).

When I was in college I met many socially critical people of color from a variety of backgrounds. I found myself relating very strongly to some of their experiences, especially those of being mixed, passing, connecting to your parent’s first language, desire to know your own history, struggle to claim a place and language in that history, just to name the strongest. I was unable to speak what I was feeling then because of my fears and because of my guilt, so instead I focused my mind on how to be an ally.

When I think of my sexual relationships with men, they are colored with confusing racial feelings (impossibly tangled up with gender and sexuality). For my own body, I have wondered why men find me so attractive, and questioned if it has anything to do with a possible “exotic” look I have. On the other side, for the men I’ve had sex with, those that are of color come to mind first (both good and bad experiences). Why? I could go into a list of possible reasons, but most feel like I’m grappling for some connection to race that is actually false. In the end I think the answer is simple. I identify with men of color in certain ways and being close made me feel at home (even when threatened). On the flip, on a base level, I felt unsafe with white men (even when loved). When repressing my male and Arab self, I projected my fears, ambitions, and hopes on men of all colors. I know these are artificial blocks of people, but to me, at that time, the boxes of identity confined my world view. I did not understand these emotions. I felt ashamed. It was easier for me to feel I was a white racist, than to accept the ways I identified as a POC and a man. A thought process fueled by internalized racism and transphobia.

My mental breakdown at the end of college centered on identity issues, and I find coming to terms with one means coming to terms with all. During that scary time, I admitted to one of my roommates my discomfort about my skin color, and the joy that filled me due to his affirmation is not something I can forget.

I really don’t know where this exploration will lead me. In certain ways I am afraid because of the conflict I fear it may cause within my family when I dig too far, but I am confident it is important and coincides with my desire to be true to myself, support others, and pursue happiness. My father’s recent support of me as trans* has only heightened these goals. I am the trans* son of an Iraqi Jew and White American Catholic who wants to live a life that honors and respects the privilege (and opportunity) my father’s work has provided me, and oh ya… love every day.

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