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Boxes unchecked: Embracing my Arab heritage

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AUGUST 14, 2023

As the daughter of two Iraqi immigrants, I inherited a lot of key features, the most prominent being Arab unruly, curly hair — which I hated as a kid. 

I remember constantly wishing I had straight hair and telling my nanny, Ellie, that I would do anything to trade my hair for hers. I would cry and throw fits before parties if my hair didn’t cooperate. I tried cutting it short or letting it grow long. Doing everything in my power to resist my curly hair, I ended up routinely tying it up into a ponytail until eighth grade. 

Being Arab wasn’t yet something I completely understood, and consequently, it was far too easy for me to reject entirely. 

Growing up, my mom made a stew of spinach, beans and meat called sabzi. It was by far my favorite dish — until I took it to school for lunch. All the other kids with sandwiches and pizza in the lunchroom glared at me and my lunch. A girl came up to me and asked what it was, and as I struggled to explain, other girls pointed at me and whispered. The redness of embarrassment spread across my face, and I felt as though everything was hyperfixated on me. After that day, I stopped eating sabzi at school. 

I wasn’t just trying to reject my culture — I was practically ashamed of it. 

In middle school, whenever my mom dropped me off, she blasted Arabic music. I would slide down the seat and lower my head, hoping no one would see me until after I got out of the car. 

Fortunately, there’s always a triggering moment of the stereotypical character arc where the story takes a 180-degree turn. For me, it began with my distant relatives. I quickly learned that the best way to find out more about my culture was by getting my relatives to tell me stories. 

Eventually, I found myself curious and began actively seeking knowledge about my background. Hearing about other family members, such as my grandfather, was the vital beginning of spiking my interest in my background. 

My grandfather died long before I was born, so I cling to the stories people tell of him as if they’re as good as my own memories. Recently, I learned he was one of the first people in Iraq to deeply study coding and computer science. When I picked up the dusty book in our house on Fortran, an old coding language, I was stunned to see his name on the cover. He not only wrote the book, but when he died, he left the copyright to universities in Iraq that continue to teach with his book to this day. 

Despite all that I have learned about him, my grandfather still is, and unfortunately will always be, like a stranger to me. Even so, the fragments of stories I get of him and the shards of knowledge he left continue to support me in embracing my background. 

I am on an ongoing journey to learn more about him, hearing stories from my relatives of what it was like to live in Iraq and their cultural traditions. I have been able to strengthen the bonds I have with my family members by reverting back to my culture, each tie weaving into the intricate web of my own identity. 

Now, the moments where my family and I make Arabic food or dance to Arabic music are when I feel most comfortable with myself.

Looking back at the past feels almost silly because of how much I have changed. I wear my bouncy curls down almost every single day. I love eating sabzi in the house as well as at school. I don’t just sing, I shamelessly shout the lyrics to Arabic music at the top of my lungs with my mom near my high school. After years, I can confidently say that I am unapologetically myself, and proud of my background. 

Embracing my culture wasn’t easy, but finally being able to do so was a pivotal moment in my life — one that gave me renewed perspective.

Eventually, it sprung to my attention that forms and standardized tests lacked an option to select “Middle Eastern” on the ethnicity question. I found myself confused. After doing some more research, I learned that even the U.S. census does not have a box for Middle Eastern people; instead, it considers all Arab and North African people as white.

I was furious every time I had to check “other” on an ethnicity question. Although my reaction may seem irrational to others, it was defeating, to say the least. It had taken me so long to accept my culture, and yet, it wasn’t being acknowledged by others. 

Contrary to the census, being Middle Eastern in the United States is far from being white. Activist Naia Al-Anbar asserted this, saying that “right now we have that ‘white’ designation on paper but we don’t benefit from it. The truth is we aren’t ever going to be white in their eyes and we will still be discriminated against.” 

Realistically, a white person will never have to endure being the butt of a terrorist joke or watch their family members be constantly racially profiled at TSA. Our experiences are not the same. Claiming that we can be checked into the same box whitewashes my experiences, as well as the experiences of millions of Arab Americans. 

The U.S. census also deprives Arab Americans of potential funding for programs supporting our communities. These resources are desperately needed amongst the Arab American community and include access to language assistance at polling places, allocation of educational grants and access to health information and research.

Until Arab Americans are acknowledged on all forms and tests, there will always be a lingering reminder that our identity is not fully recognized within institutional frameworks. 

Despite the lack of recognition, I’m proud of the rich history behind my Arab roots. I’m honored to be so closely related to such accomplished and intelligent individuals. I will always find comfort in the fact that our culture ties us all together. 

I will never need a box to check for all of that to hold true.

Contact Selma Bahrani at 


AUGUST 14, 2023