“Are you from Iraq or Kuwait or…”
I’m from Kansas, but that doesn’t matter. When someone asks me where I’m from, they’re asking what kind of foreign I am. To avoid the typical litany of questioning that ends when I finally give an answer with somewhere in the Global South, I state, “My parents are from Bangladesh, but I was born in New York.”
“That’s great. Welcome to America.”
The thing with racialization is that everyone is a participant. White people may be the ones who determine the rules of the game and thus are the ones who benefit, but the racialized ideology they’ve constructed becomes the collective common sense of everyone that lives within in the system — people of color included. When people see me, what they see before anything else is my place in the racial hierarchy. And my place is that of a foreign object. People like me do not look like what an American should look like. I do not meet the necessary prerequisites for social citizenship regardless of the facts of my life, my experience, or who I am. For me to exist as a brown American Muslim hijabi means that the all-powerful American assimilation process — the great power of American culture- failed to entirely dominate me. That fact cannot exist contemporaneously with the dominant racial logic. The only conceivable explanation then for my existence is that that I traveled from somewhere else. I am clinging to my roots of somewhere other – and that is why I look and exist like this. And so, to a Haitian immigrant who has learned and adopted some of the predominant racial common sense, the natural, friendly thing to say to someone like me is, “Welcome to America.”
At times, my very physical being feels like an insurmountable miscommunication.
I was sent to table for Catholic Legal Serviced in front of Miami-Dade College. At our table, we had fliers but no giant sign declaring which organization we belonged to. Consequently, many people assumed that I was there because I was working with Arabs and Arab refugees. One woman came by from Jackson Memorial Hospital and asked, “Do you have this in your language?” In case I need to clarify, she didn’t mean English. A few moments later, a case worker trying to find resources for Syrian refugees stopped by. Almost everyone who saw me ascribed a purpose to me based on what they perceived as my race.
All other aspects of my identity including my cultural and ethnic identity take a back seat to this strange category of Arab/Muslim due to a false link between religion and race, another piece of common sense constructed by the racist Islamophobic project taken upon by the US and Europe. Who I am, what I aspire to be, what I care about, the details of my life all remain as unread footnotes cut from the final draft of America 101.
This is not to say that anyone has been mean, hostile, or aggressive. The assumptions they made about me weren’t malicious. However, they do reveal something about the way in which Muslims are seen in the U.S.
At best, we are the “perpetual foreigner,” physically here now, but emotionally, mentally, socially, culturally, and spiritually elsewhere. However, even this best case scenario has attached to it toxic ideas. My best friend from high school is one of those people who views me in this pseudo-positive light. She doesn’t think I’m a terrorist. She’s horrified by Donald Trump and anti-Muslim hate crimes. But she also believes that people like me should have restricted civil rights because of our faith. She does not believe that Muslims can or should be in office, and especially not the Oval Office. This notion that she and so many others ascribe to – the idea that Muslims do not belong ensures in many ways that Muslims can never fully belong because they will be willfully excluded. And this conversation, the one that says, “Let’s not destroy all Muslims, but let’s acknowledged that all Muslims are other,” is not at all separate from the conversation that states that Muslims should be gotten rid of altogether.
The concept that America belongs to white people and that the rest of us are all foreign is extremely dangerous. Moreover, it is extremely inaccurate. The US is a colonial nation built by genocide. The US is a racist nation built through slave labor. The destiny of white America is the manifestation of foreign violence, oppression, and exploitation. The “us versus them” binary in which I exist as a “them” is based upon an illegitimate claim to possession, a claim which cannot be substantiated without the erasure of the histories, bodies, and souls of all those who have been decimated by this nation.