“But are we Arab?”; Creating meaning of my children’s identities, Part Two
To read Part One of this post, click here.
When I was little, I always claimed, somewhat proudly, that I was “a quarter Lebanese” and that “my dad was born in Cuba” perhaps because it made me different. But I always claimed it with “but I’m not really Lebanese or Cuban” in the same breath. Because I was not connected with any of my Lebanese/Cuban family. Because I was “more” Jewish.
At the same time, I had many experiences being called “exotic” as a child, and questions, as I got older, about “where I was from,” sometimes questioning my Whiteness—which I have always connected to my Lebanese heritage. Though my experiences benefiting from White privilege dramatically outnumber these former experiences…they very much informed my sense of identity.
My Lebanese relatives immigrated to Cuba in the early 1900s where my grandfather was born. My Jewish/Polish grandmother had immigrated to Cuba before World War Two and though my grandparents met in The Bronx, they were living in Cuba when my dad was born. At two years of age, my grandparents divorced and my grandmother and dad moved back to the Bronx, NY where he grew up, disconnected from his Cuban/Lebanese family until he was a teenager and, even then, only sporadically in touch.
Recently, I tried to skype with a cousin who still lives in Lebanon. Our internet connection was not great but I heard his voice and then saw his face freeze in a smile that I could feel on my own face. “He looks like me,” I thought when I saw his face. He looked like he could be family.
This skype call had been prompted by my four-year-old daughter and a conversation she overheard a few months ago about Donald Trump wanting to send people of Arab descent to detention centers. As part of this conversation, we revisited a previous discussion about prison—and then I shared the following:
“Donald Trump is a candidate for president that Mamma really does not like and one reason I don’t like him is that he doesn’t want people who are Arab and especially people who identify with the Muslim religion to be allowed to immigrate to the United States. This is very, very unfair. Papi immigrated to the United States but Donald Trump is saying if you are Arab or Muslim, you would not be welcome in the United States.”
“But are we Arab?” my daughter asked her usual question to see how this related to her.
“Well, both Papi and I have relatives who are Arab but Donald Trump isn’t talking about us. We are US citizens, we aren’t Muslim, and we weren’t born in an Arab country like our relatives.”
“Where do our relatives live?” my daughter wanted to know.
“In a country called Lebanon, “I told her.
“What are their names?” she asked.
“One of them is named J, and another is called T.”
“I want to meet them,” she told me.
“OK,” I had said at the time. “Maybe we can skype with them some time.” (My daughter lost interest in the call due to our technology troubles, but I hope there will be other opportunities for her to meet my Lebanese family).
When I applied to college, I was horrified when my dad suggested we identify as Cuban to strengthen our applications based on “diversity.” We did not have any connection to Cuba or our Cuban relatives. We did not feel “Cuban.” We did not identify as Cuban.
Though my dad still stands by this idea as legitimate (and I still beg to disagree!), what has changed for me since then is that I have made meaning out of my Cuban ancestry. I have traveled to Cuba and visited various homes where my grandmother or grandfather lived. I still don’t identify as Cuban—but my Cuban ancestry has meaning for me.
I want my children’s ancestry to have meaning for them—meaning that I am seeking to learn more about in the case of my Lebanese/Cuban heritage. I want my children to see richness in all of the cultures of their ancestry. I don’t want them to feel “culture-less” as White people (which, of course, is also a function of White privilege)—instead, I want them to understand where they come from. Of course, this will be a life-long journey.
For those interested in creating meaning around their family history, consider engaging your older relatives in telling their own stories via StoryWorth—a project that my children’s four grandparents have been committed to over the last year.
Sachi Feris is a blogger at Raising Race Conscious Children, an online a resource to support adults who are trying to talk about race with young children. Sachi also co-facilitates interactive workshops/webinars and individual consultations on how to talk about race with young children. Sachi currently teaches Spanish to Kindergarten and 1st grade at an independent school in Brooklyn. Sachi identifies as White and is a mother to a four-year-old daughter and one-year-old son.