Written by Najwa Jamal
“Najwa? That’s such an exotic name!”
“If you’re from Africa, then why are you white?”
A line from Mean Girls? Yes. Something that has actually been said to me? Also yes. Exotic. Interesting. Cool. These are only the most popular responses I’ll receive upon introducing myself. A tight lipped smile and forced laugh follow these recurring interactions, ones that I have become accustomed to. If only being a second generation immigrant, but most of all a woman of color, was as breezy as being exotic.
An incredibly large part of who I am stems from my background, as a first generation Moroccan, daughter of two immigrants, also raised Muslim. Some may say it is a chip on my shoulder, and although I have not thought of it this way, as of the latest political turmoils, the chip has begun to feel heavier and heavier, trying to suffocate any sense of who I am for the sake of social and political standards. The Muslim Ban, enacted in December 2017, was not the first blow to my identity, but the first one that actively struck a chord in me, because of its stark reality. This was one of those moments where someone realizes there really is no turning back, and helped to cement what shaky doubts I had in my mind about who I am in American society: someone to be banned.
However, the fetishization of exotic cultures, and the romanticism of the cultures of immigrants is something I am constantly met with, wherever I go, especially at any predominantly white institution, stemming from the mentality of “white ignorance”. Now, that is not to say that I do not feel welcome, or embraced at an environment like Bard’s, but stigmas surrounding immigrants, and women of color still exist, and sadly, will continue to exist, unless something is done to expose them, stigmas that often override the reality of their lives.
The intersection of my religious background and immigrant identity has proved to be a tricky one for me to deconstruct. For as long as I can remember, being a “white passing” woman was something to be praised, proving detrimental to embracing my true heritage. It was something people would compliment me on, as if I should take pride in being fair skinned and blending in to the anglo saxon majority, and white culture. This has not only affected me by making me feel as if there was something wrong with me, but only hindered any assimilation into women of color communities, feeling as if I had it too easy by not being dealt the microaggressions they deal with every day of their lives. Inherent insecurities of being inferior to whites, as well as real ones, like my name, kept me from fully integrating into American culture too. So then, which community did I belong to? Did I consider myself more an immigrant than WOC, or are they one in the same?
Speaking to several colleagues helped to shed light on complicated questions like these. Shila Bayor, a senior here at Bard, emigrated from Togo when she was 10 to reside in the Bronx, then eventually in Queens. For her, being a WOC supersedes her immigrant identity, which she doesn’t feel like anymore, although her home and identity will always be shaped by her Togolese heritage. Funto Omojola, also a senior at Bard, spoke of a similar feeling; an immigrant from Nigeria, she moved to reside in Massachusett at the age of 8, and describes her WOC experience dominating her immigrant one, feeling “alienated by other black women” due to the white culture she was immersed in back at home. Even within the WOC community at Bard, there are divisions and tensions due to “degrees of blackness”. For example, Shila’s status as an immigrant makes her feel as if her experiences cannot be paralleled to the struggles of African American women here: “Immigration should be spoken about as a black issue”, she told me, whether this is in politics, regarding the repeal of laws like DACA and the Visa lottery, which aid a significant amount of Africans in gaining means to get to the US, or in WOC communities and clubs here, where struggles should not be diminished, despite a different culture. She believes race and immigration to be interconnected topics that should be addressed by Bard in the same way.
These aggressions are only exacerbated by tensions brought on, perhaps unintentionally and subconsciously, by the white community, as “white ignorance” functions under the “guise of liberalism”, Funto commented. This liberalist mentality only enables certain groups of students here to be “fake woke”, something I thoroughly believe in. Many people here are subtly ignorant, if not blatantly rude when it comes to approaching topics like race and immigration. “People are not willing to learn, but just prove their intellectuality,” commented Shila. Whether that mentality is manifested on remarks on someone’s name, accent, physical appearance, or anything else, the concept remains. Funto commented that this mentality is seen in the classroom and educational curriculum; most of the First Year Seminar readings remain written by White men or women, and there seems to be an interest in POC culture only for “social currency”, or to “earn brownie points”, Shila explains. Many join a club like Afro Pulse simply for a class task, or for when it serves their best interest, and not because of a genuine investment in their own educational and social awakening, viewing it as only a dance club more than anything. Furthermore, class issues drive the stake deeper into these social divides, working with degrees of blackness, or certain immigrant backgrounds to heighten tensions.
With all this being said, I hope to reveal the struggles that WOC immigrants have to deal with regularly. When one is in a position of privilege, it is easy to be oblivious of the realities of those around you, in other terms, ignorant. We cannot keep functioning like this as an institution or community; measures must be taken to ACTUALLY educate people on these topics, and the initiative should not be taken just by students, but faculty as well. Study abroad programs in more diverse countries and a light being shed on more immigrant laws and what we can do about them are just ideas. Now, this is a daunting task, and one that takes time, but is vital to the lives not just of the oppressed, but those whose status allows them the opportunity to thoroughly learn. For example, one can join clubs and/or organizations on campus that delve into minority struggles, like La Voz, AfroPulse, or Colored Women United, all of which have been explored by 100Days. Similarly, start petitions on campus to get your voice heard, perhaps to help change the limited sources of coursework (i.e. more females and females of color). Holding panels or simply a group discussion amongst immigrants and POC would alleviate distress, as people can share their experiences while revealing the truth. But, the fact still stands: a genuine intention and interest in these communities and their lives must be present for a true understanding. Otherwise, we will be stuck in a vicious cycle of stereotypes, growing desensitized to these offenses and their effects on people.
“We shouldn’t diminish their [immigrants] struggle, and different struggles should not define the culture of blackness,” Shila says.