We are sitting at the table eating lunch. Mohammad and Aliyah have a neighbor friend over, a mixed race boy that, by skin color alone, appears to be black. Mohammad turns to his friend and brightly asks “Guess what color I am!” The boy looks perplexed and Mohammad clarifies “My skin, guess what color skin I am!” The boy’s brow furrows, “White? Brown?” he asks. “How did you know?!” Mohammad gushes excitedly. Listening to them, I wonder which guess Mohammad has identified with, since the boy guessed both white and brown. I say, “Mohammad, which one is it? White or Brown?” He says “I’m Brown!” then happily resumes eating his Mac n Cheese. The conversation moves to legos and plans for constructing a fort in the bedroom. I continue to contemplate the discussion of color and identity.
My kids are half white, half-Iranian. Though my Iranian-American husband has relatively fair skin and eyes, he does not identify as White. His father has the darker skin and eyes that most people associate with mid-easterners. His oldest brother does as well. Our son, Mohammad, is tanner than his father, but has enormous blue eyes. I wear the hijab (headscarf), which has negated my white skin and ethnicity, throwing me over that invisible and ever-shifting line between White and Not White.
Years ago I had a roommate who also wore the headscarf. She and I looked nothing alike. She was tall to my short. She was brown skinned to my white. She had dark eyes and I have light eyes. Our white neighbor did not figure out that we were two different people until months later when he saw us together. He was shocked. The headscarf erases my whiteness, my American-ness, and my individuality in the eyes of most White Americans. I become a nameless Other.
Before we had children I used to always tease my husband for checking off “Other” on the race selection part of forms. “You’re white-skinned with blue eyes,” I’d tell him in exasperation. We would debate the matter and always end up in a stalemate. In part, my argument stemmed from my own resentment that he, the Iranian-American, could “pass” in society, while I, the White/European American could not, because of my headscarf. It seemed unfair that he could claim “Other,” on his forms while seamlessly passing as White in public, meanwhile I had to put White/Caucasian on my forms while being treated as Brown and Other in public.
When we attend mosque nearly everyone is brown skinned. Once, when Mohammad was 5, he remarked “Only brown people are Muslim.” I asked him if I was brown, if he and his sister were brown. “Well we’re Muslim so we’re Brown,” he said.
I wonder what Mohammad’s friend, as a person of color himself, thought of Mohammad’s assertion that he is brown. I wonder too, on behalf of my son, if a boy named Mohammad ever can claim the privileges of whiteness. Like my hijab, his name alone seems to rescind that sociologic group membership.
Unlike her brother, my daughter does not seem to identify with any particular color or ethnicity. How much does that have to do with her name? Her name, Aliyah, more or less passes. It is not overtly Muslim, foreign, or ethnic, though it is more common among Black and Brown girls. She looks white. And she doesn’t wear a headscarf. Is that why she feels no burden to identify with a particular race or ethnicity? Has Mohammad’s name isolated him from whiteness from the time he was little, driving him to deliberately claim a separate identity in a way his sister has never needed to?
I don’t have the answers but I am curious to watch my children as they develop identity, to see where they end up. And maybe now I understand a bit better why my husband can’t bring himself to tick off “White” on forms.