On Ambiguity

Preface: This has taken me nearly two semesters to write. I had the idea to write about my ambiguity after the Trump protest in November. There was a moment where someone said “Use your white privilege and sit down with us,” when several students began blocking the intersection between Church and Broad St. That moment really defined my constant conflict with my ambiguity. So there’s that.

Feta cheese.

This is the nickname my family gave me, and as one of the three pale women on my mother’s side, whenever I go back home, I am constantly reminded of my pale-ness. Weirdly enough, I was always told that I was, technically, more beautiful for looking white, for looking more European, and more so, American. After hacking off my eyebrows at the ripe old age of twelve, I virtually erased all signs of my “Turkish-ness”. If anything, people will hit me with the Are you Italian? Well, what about Greek? And when I finally cut off the string of European (never Middle Eastern) guesses, I always get: Are you sure you’re Turkish? And to be completely honest, I get it. Unless you’ve had your fair share of Turkish genetics, I could pass as European. I have a sort of racial ambiguity.

Let’s be honest here, I would never be targeted in the street or at the airport for “looking Muslim.” No one would try to tell me I am “oppressed” for my religion because I am not a hijabi. Chances are, the average Joe on the street would never guess I’m Muslim. My ambiguity has given me a certain amount of privilege out in the world, but it’s never something I really considered until I came to Wesleyan. And the simple reason for that was because I never had to think of my ambiguity and how that plays a role both in my identity and my activism from this point on.

So, let’s break this up.

Part I: My Ambiguity as it Intersects with my Identity

One of the first questions I was asked when I came to Wesleyan was if I identified as a woman of color. And to be completely honest, I’ve had a constant conflict with my exact identity. For one, Turkey itself is located in a weird place. We’re too far West to be Asian, too far East to be European, and little too North to be Middle Eastern (although the current political climate says otherwise).

When I was younger, I remember filling out a survey in the movie theater, and having to check off my ethnicity. By this point, I had a relative idea of Turkey’s geographical location, so I had automatically assumed that I would check off Asian. Instead, my mom told me to check off the combined White/Caucasian (because those are definitely the same thing) and it’s still stuck to me. The standardized exams I took each had a different racial selection: Asian, White, Other, Other, fill in the blank here: Middle Eastern, Other, fill in the blank here: Turkish.  I not only confused myself, but I also *probably* confused the division of the College Board who has dedicated themselves to try to find those “smart minorities” (mmmm…standardized tests…oh the integrity). It was incredibly difficult pinpointing which microcosm I belonged to, because my culture doesn’t necessarily line up with those who also check off “white”. On the other hand, there has never been an instance where I have been completely confident with this sort of stuff. The closest I’ve gotten to is White, subdivision, Middle Eastern.

So, coming to campus, I was still going through my brief existential crisis on my own identity. Coming to WOC spaces–especially when I didn’t know anyone–left me with this urge to constantly defend myself, to constantly say I know I don’t look like a woman of color, but I am! And it’s sometimes difficult to be in spaces with my Middle Eastern friends, because most of Turkey conveniently doesn’t speak Arabic. There are pockets within the country that are primarily Arabic-speaking, but the Black Sea isn’t one of them. Amongst my friends, the natural progression of conversation into a common tongue leaves me slightly out of the loop. I end up in this liminal space where I don’t exactly know where I belong. I am in constant conflict with finding a space, a group, of people who can sympathize with the same identity clash.

To be completely honest, I thought I’d have it figured out by now. This year has been such a whirlwind of conversations and debates about race and identity, especially since the election. I’ve been exposed to so many resources and information and I thought I’d eventually have this dawning moment where it all suddenly makes sense. I thought I would have some sort of epiphany that would come at 2 AM, where I would throw some papers out of the window or something, screaming, I KNOW WHAT I AM, but it simply doesn’t work like that. I’ve learned that as long as people tend to associate Middle Eastern-ness with darker skin, associate pale skin with whiteness, associate, or even disassociate, religion with ethnicity, I’ll be left in a middle ground, constantly on edge, trying to find my place in a world that imposes labels that I’ll never quite be comfortable with.

Part II: How My Ambiguity Plays Into My Activism

This entire quarter-life existential crisis intensifies when thinking about my own image, and how that translates to which activism I can participate in.

As I mentioned before, my apparent “whiteness” protects me on the streets, but I wonder about the extent of this protection. I were to speak about  my ambiguity, would that physical shield disintegrate?

Even so, how much can I use my voice before I end up putting myself in danger? Passing is a privilege, but passing also means that my experiences are largely invisible until I voice them. How do I convey that having to explain myself to be recognized can be exhausting? How do I grapple with the expectation that I’ll use my “white privilege” on the activist frontlines, based on how others see me? What do I do, when my mom is beyond terrified of something happening to me?

More often than not, my descent into this string of questions leads me to the following hypothetical scenario: me, on the frontlines, doing exactly what I want to do, becoming involved some sort of civil disobedience resulting in the police contacting my mom, who has a very Turkish name and even more of a very Turkish accent. The conversation with her would result in sirens blaring, implicit bias, and whatever privilege I had shattering. I would be labelled as an “angry muslim woman” and the like, and so on, so forth.

And the question arises: can I actually do that? Or more so, can I put my mom through this?

I remember right after the election, my mom called me, pleading that I don’t tell anyone I’m Muslim anymore. Right after she called, my uncle called, as if they had planned it, and he told me the same thing. Just don’t tell anyone about anything about you, he told me.

After I wrote an article on The Artifex addressing the ICE posters on campus, I received the same speech from the both of them, and I couldn’t help but completely understand their concerns. On the other hand, I know the value of my voice, and I will continue to use it to whatever extent I can, but I also acknowledge that I need to tread carefully, because the world out there isn’t as forgiving as Wesleyan. 

And as much as I can know myself, I know my tendencies to constantly overthink everything. I therefore know that my ambiguity will continue to be a topic of conflict for me and my identity. And, ya know what? I’m completely fine with it. Yes, it’s a pain in the ass most of the time, but it’s a part of who I am, and how I articulate myself in this conforming world, and there are far worse things to existentialize over.