Passing on Privilege
My parents did not tell me I could be anything I wanted to be. They told me I was capable of being anything I put my mind to. Surgeon, lawyer, writer. No one could take away my innate ability, but ability is not an all-access pass to the American dream. Dreams, in America, are for white people.
For a time, my husband tried to convince me I am a white person. Technically, I am caucasian, but I was raised Arab and Muslim, and my ethnicity is stamped all over my body. I have passing privilege, which is to say I learned young to stay out of the sun and forget my native language. Passing temporarily ended much of the aggression I faced growing up, but it did not dissolve my experiences. I argued with him that if America has never accepted me as white, I don’t care to identify that way. It took me years to accept my heritage in spite of cultural stigmatization by white America. I have only recently learned to celebrate myself.
I want to teach my children to love who they are, where they come from and to follow their wildest dreams, but they have already received another message. With the election of Donald Trump for president, America has declared their ethnic differences criminal. The information wound its way into their ears on playgrounds and in hallways. They are fortunate to attend schools that celebrate difference, yet they still begged their father and me to move them out of this country to keep them safe from Trump and the violence he incites against Others.
Hugs are not enough. I cannot reassure my children that they will not be targeted. They are my children and I have been targeted consistently, most recently by a neighbor who felt his power when he took hold of my child while declaring that all Arabs are Muslims and terrorists and immigrants should be forced to leave this country. My child knows where he comes from. His grandfather is a Lebanese immigrant, his mother is ethnically half-Arab. He shares this ethnic and cultural legacy, and he is afraid because of how he was born.
Mothers of color know that fear can be a tool to teach safety. As we did, so must our children know when to be meek and defer. We must carefully balance our rights with our reality. A dose of fear is good. A dousing of fear is dangerous because we then either buckle in on ourselves or flare outward in the way that draws too much attention. White attention.
I weigh the fear of my children. Right now it is too much. My job is to remind them they were born beautiful. Regardless of color, religion, heritage or ability, they have as much right to be here as anyone else. I remind myself as well. Because when my white husband asked me what I will do my instant reply was, “I passed once. I can do it again.”
He looked at me with concern, “Really?”
I thought about it. Passing is not what I want to teach my children nor will it help call attention to the terrorism American minorities and women are facing as a result of the hateful rhetoric that founded Trump’s presidential campaign. “No,” I answer him, because my plan is to do what I need to for my family’s safety, but it is also to continue fighting social injustice by embracing who I am while teaching my children to do the same.
Shawna Ayoub Ainslie is a coach, writer and creator of safe spaces for artists and survivors. Her writing examines issues of survivorship and social justice and has been published by The Manifest-Station, Huffington Post, Open Thought Vortex Magazine, The Good Men Project, [wherever] and is forthcoming in Exit 7. Find more about Shawna by visiting her in her online home, The Honeyed Quill.