I remember it like it was yesterday, even though this month marks a decade. I was sitting for days on my friend's grey sofa in Charlottesville, where I was in the second semester of my first year at the University of Virginia, transfixed by news coverage of the War in Iraq. Almost immediately, there was a gnawing at my soul -- one that inflicted a not completely unfamiliar pain, but one that I tried to ignore nonetheless.
Several weeks later, I found myself at the university's counseling services center, dressed in the duct tape-lined pants I once found to be daringly original -- but now know to be a cliche sign of teenage rebellion -- and beginning to unravel emotionally. There, I met with a gentleman -- a larger African American wearing a navy blue cardigan, pleated khakis, and white sweat socks with his dress shoes. As his thickly-rimmed glasses slid down his nose, he inquired about my racial background, intrigued by my name And, then, he had his epiphany: The war was the catalyst for my anxiety and confusion. I scoffed, picked up my book bag, and excused myself, making sure to include my signature eye roll in the process. His theory was preposterous. After all, the tragedies that were unfolding had no immediate, tangible impact on me, nor did I have particularly strong relations with my extended family that remained in Baghdad.
I owe that gentleman an apology, although I am sure he does not remember this encounter just as I do not remember his name. I realize only now that I internalized the war as an attack on my own personal identity, and the emotions it evoked were directly tied to those of a lost little boy from more than a decade earlier, of me as a six-year-old trying desperately to comprehend the Gulf War in an Iraqi-American household. Once again, Iraq was the enemy in the media and in the conversations that dominated every social encounter.
While I could not intellectualize it at that age, what the Gulf War prompted me to do instinctively was embrace the notion of 'passing for white' -- a phrase often used in racial identity discussions on light-skinned African Americans. Despite my name, because I did not present a constant physical reminder that I was Iraqi by blood, because I did not fit into the preconceived image of an Iraqi, because I was born and raised in the United States by gloriously educated, fashionable, and cultured parents, a huge part of my makeup could be dismissed easily rather than appreciated and embraced -- by me. I knew inherently that 'Iraqi' was not synonymous with 'bad.' Yet, I carried with me a fear of how my peers would perceive me. In a society so fixated on the pursuit of inclusion, I did not want to be 'the other.'
The War in Iraq came just at the time that I was beginning to embrace my roots, as a youth on the precipice of adulthood eagerly and excitedly studying Middle Eastern history at the beginning of my undergraduate journey, relishing in the details of how most of modern civilization is based on that which came centuries ago from Mesopotamia (Iraq, today) and freeing myself of the negative connotations tied to Saddam Hussein's regime. That process was stunted, as I reverted back to many of my old ways, as I retreated into the shell of the nondescript white American -- not wanting to be judged, to be the poster child for a group either reviled or pitied.
But, the problem that I see now, as we mark this tenth anniversary and the Iraqi people find themselves in the beginning stages of rebuilding a nation and defining themselves to the world, is that too many Iraqi Americans -- and, really, Arab Americans as a whole -- have stood silent on the sidelines, stymied by one fear or another, using their light skin color or changing their names to 'Andy' and 'Sam' in hopes of going unnoticed, of passing. In doing so, we do everyone a disservice -- Iraqis, Americans, global citizens, and, most importantly, our own selves.
Each individual does not need to shoulder the deemed burden of standing strongly as a representative of an entire people. However, each individual should stand strongly and unapologetically as a representative of his or her whole self. It is a duty as a member of the human race to represent ourselves not just artistically or in written words but through our everyday actions in everyday communities. That sense of pride is necessary for personal fulfillment. It also helps to chip away at sweeping derogatory stereotypes without the shackles of a formalized activist movement, humanizing all for which one stands and fostering necessary dialogues that are not entrenched in agenda-driven frameworks. And, in the straight forward process of people basing their identities in truth, figures will emerge that provide wide-eyed six-year-olds and angst-ridden, couch-bound teenagers alike with reflections and role models in society, keeping them from self-inflicted isolation -- regardless of the political climate.