I remember exactly what dress I wore. It was powder blue, with sunflowers dancing at the bottom hem. When we walked through the door, they handed my father, my brother and me little American flags, which my brother waved jovially. I had brought a book because I didn’t fully understand what was going to happen — I just knew that a bunch of adults would make speeches and I would be bored. My job was keeping my four-year-old brother quiet, since he didn’t like to sit still. As he fluttered the fabric flag, I attentively read my book.
I zoned out as a man addressed the crowd, speaking about what an honor this was going to be. I don’t remember much of the ceremony other than my mother on the stage, carrying her own American flag. My brother and I reciprocated with excited waves, my father with the widest grin I had ever seen. I felt giddy with pride for my family. This was the first time I really understood what citizenship was, curiously asking my father when I was going to have my own ceremony. He told me that I was lucky to be born here, that I was already a citizen. I felt a little dejected that I wouldn’t get my own ceremony, not anticipating the gratitude I would feel years later for being lucky enough to have won the birth lottery. This is one of the most poignant memories of my childhood, but I was forced to relegate it to the deepest recesses of my mind. Why? Because it made me different.
Fast-forward to the first time I took the Preliminary SAT. I hesitated, my No. two pencil hovering over the Scantron circles. My 14-year-old-self had to decide between two options: “White/Caucasian” and “Asian-American.” I knew I was Lebanese-American — Lebanon is technically in Western Asia — but my experiences didn’t align with those of my friends who filled in either of those two bubbles. Later, I researched the College Board guidelines regarding race and discovered that being Lebanese-American meant that I should fill in “White/Caucasian.” I was indignant: Yes, I have the privilege of being white-passing, but my peers didn’t have the same experiences that I grew up with. If I was considered “white” in a colloquial sense, I wouldn’t get so many questions about my heritage and ancestry. Again and again with every standardized test and application, I was reminded that I didn’t belong in the bubble that I was assigned to, that, according to this shaded bubble, my experiences were equivalent to those who had the privilege of generations of European ancestry. Being lumped into the same category failed to acknowledge a fundamental privilege that those of “traditional” Caucasian — read: WASP — descent had.
This question wasn’t more than a nuisance until later in my high school years. I watched as people who I had known since elementary school — who played with me at recess, who rode the bus with me, who had weathered blizzards and snow days with me — said that minorities and immigrants, especially Middle Eastern ones, posed a threat. They claimed that our country would be better if immigrants weren’t allowed here anymore, that even naturalized citizens should be stripped of their rights, all while multiple studies showed that two-thirds of American-born citizens would fail a citizenship test. A lot of the time, my peers didn’t realize their hypocrisy: asking me for help in class while insinuating that I shouldn’t even be there in the first place; requesting hummus recipes while claiming that immigrant culture threatened them. Their attacks weren’t meant to be personal, but how could I not be offended when they took advantage of all the benefits of immigration and culture-spreading, even as they refused to accept my identity? My Caucasian classmates never had to tolerate these attitudes, while I had no way of expressing my frustration with such biases.
At Yale, I’m privileged to be with peers who are more understanding and empathetic. I am also privileged that I blend in until someone hears my name. But I am not treated the same as my Caucasian classmates. The implicit bias and lack of community still exist, a feeling shared among many in my community. Instead of homogenizing a whole culture of varying shades and skin tones that spreads from the Tigris River in Western Asia to the Atlantic Ocean in Northern Africa, we should make a more concerted effort to hear its stories, to create more platforms to learn more about Middle Eastern experiences.
Even now, the flag from the ceremony still stands in one of our vases at home. I smile every time I look at it, motivated by my complex identity.
Hala El Solh is a junior in Berkeley College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .