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Rolla Selbak Headshot

Brown Girl Passing for a White Guy

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Before your imagination runs wild with the title, this isn't about creating a fake profile on Grindr to partake in a voyeuristic experiment (although now that I mention it, that would make a good blog post for next time!)

This is about making the case for why I, in fact, prefer that people be politically correct any day, rather than display their casual prejudice, even if it's "really how they feel inside."

You see, I am regularly mistaken for being white (someone of European decent), and therefore, privy to all the surreptitious comments some people make about us Arabs. I also happen to work in two of the most male-dominated industries in the world: filmmaking and the technology sector. Since women are still a big minority within those realms, some guys around me are very loose with their misogynistic banter -- as if I was one of their own.

I actually believe that this is the biggest reason we rightfully see articles published week after week, asking, "Where are all the women in tech?" and "Where are All the Women Directors?"

Let me be clear. I do not look like a guy. At all. No one would ever mistake me for one on the street. But somehow, I find myself the only female in a room full of guys, talking about their "whiny women who are probably on their period, and who simply need a shot of their Go Girl Energy to appease themselves."

Seriously? I'm right here. In a professional setting. No, I'm not going to fist-bump you, that's not cool, "bra." At least wait 'till I leave the room. That's my point. If you're the kind of man that would insensitively trash-talk women anyway, at least have the courtesy not to do it in front of me. I just don't want to hear it anymore.

Even more discouraging are comments like the one I got from an engineering manager at a time when cutbacks were looming. He comforted me, saying that there was a low possibility of me being cut. I immediately took that as a compliment, thinking he was referring to the sleepless nights and weekends I put in at the office, but no. The reason he snarkily gave me was that the company had a quota of female engineers to fill, and they couldn't afford to let me go because of it. All my hard work and dedication reduced to a quota.

I had yet another manager, during a promotion, advise me to be sensitive to some of the male engineers feeling uneasy about having a female manager. I was to be sensitive -- to them. Do you hear how ridiculous that sounds? I am not making this up. I wish I was.

To be fair, this is a very small minority amongst many guys I know and work with, who wouldn't be caught dead being that disrespectful. But still, it hurts. A lot. So guys, if you see your brethren acting like jerks, on or off camera as it were, please tell them like it is. It makes a difference if they know they don't have a matching fist bump waiting in the wings.

This is why I understand the women who may be discouraged about going into filmmaking or engineering. To them, I would immediately point to a TEDTalk that revolutionized the way I conduct myself professionally. I call it the "Sit At The Table" talk, or more specifically, the "Sheryl Sandberg: Why we have too few women leaders" talk. It's a must-watch for any woman out there trying to make it happen in a world of boys' clubs.

As to me being an Arab, I am what I like to call kubbe b'laban, or meatball with yoghurt. White on the outside, brown on the inside. Basically, I would never be visually profiled to join the "other" line at the airport, but the minute an immigration officer knows where my parents were born, it's game on.

I come from a proud Palestinian family, I grew up in the U.A.E, and I came to America after the first Gulf War -- to Beaverton, Oregon to be exact. I like to joke that a town with a woodland creature in its name can hardly be that sophisticated.

Even though my name sounded strange, no one ever guessed I was Middle Eastern unless I told them. It's always Scandinavian or Greek, or Eastern European if they're feeling extra exotic. But since no one ever guesses Arab, I have heard every deplorable insult in the book.

I even had my high school teacher bring a newspaper to class, with the Oklahoma City bombing news plastered on the front page, ranting and raving about how horrible and dangerous Muslims are, and placed bets that they were undoubtedly behind the bombings. I stood up and disagreed, arguing the point that you can't generalize a whole group of people like that. My people.

This was, of course, before they convicted the Unabomber. And remember this was also before 9/11, so things went downhill from there, as you can imagine. Now don't get me wrong, I've taken hits from Arab people as well. Not knowing I spoke Arabic, I've experienced covert sexualized comments or gossip about me holding a girl's hand as examples.

I'm proud of who I am. Proud of my female identity, proud of my Palestinian heritage, proud of my nerdism, proud of my gayness, so I don't for a second think of myself as a victim, because frankly, I'm over it.

I concede I am a big, grey area to most who are not familiar with my specific type of blend. I don't fit into the box of what a woman is defined as, an Arab, a filmmaker, an engineer or even a Lesbian, so hopefully this helps people expand what these definitions mean to them and to our society. Or just pretend I'm a white dude, and carry on.

Have you ever experienced anything similar by passing for something you are not?