“I wish I had white skin, Mommy,” my daughter told me when I asked her how the exchange made her feel. I was angry, scared and worried she would experience worse marginalization soon. She is the daughter of an immigrant, she is interracial, she has brown skin, she is a Muslim, she is a girl. A perfect ball of yarn spun with fibers a bigoted campaign targeted.
My immediate thought: What if they won’t feel welcome in their country of birth? I know this is possible, because it happened to me.
I was born in Turkey and lived there until I was 17 as a Kurd. My parents told me to be proud of my ethnicity but not to disclose it to anyone. Turkey had a Kurdish problem. Kurds wanted basic human rights like identifying as Kurds and getting educated in Kurdish. It sounds simple, but in the ’80s and the ’90s, people argued that Kurds were “Mountain Turks.” If anyone challenged Turkey’s unity under one language and one nation, they could be discriminated against at best and imprisoned at worst.
In the 1970s, when my father was in law school, he was imprisoned for two years because he was associated with a Kurdish student organization. In the late ’80s, my uncle was imprisoned for three years for celebrating Kurdish Newroz. My mother would have me write letters to him on Eid. “Dear Uncle,” I would begin, “I pray this letter finds you in good health.” Later I learned his body had been suspended from the ceiling while blindfolded as he was sprayed with a pressure hose or, sometimes, electrocuted. I wondered if this was happening at the same time I was writing my letters.
In the ’90s, the government forcefully dislocated its Kurdish citizens from their villages. Kurdish political parties got shut down on the basis of being terrorist organizations. Leyla Zana, a parliamentary member, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for taking the last sentence of her oath in Kurdish. Musa Anter, a Kurdish writer and activist, was assassinated.
Meanwhile we lived in a nice house and there was no trace of an accent in my Turkish, which was typical for other Kurdish kids. I blended in at school in such a way that people didn’t suspect anything. I remember a girl on the school bus making fun of Kurdish kids as having lice and snot running down their noses. I didn’t speak up, partly because I was shy and partly because my mother’s words rang in my ears: “If anyone asks you if you are Kurdish, tell them you are not in school to speak about politics. You are there to learn.” Also I wanted to fit in and be the same as everyone else. So I didn’t acknowledge being a Kurd, which I realize now is worse than admitting the truth, because I was ashamed of who I was, which then made me ashamed to be ashamed.
Eventually, my parents won a green card from the American Dream lottery, and we moved to the United States. Suddenly I could tell people who I was, and they had no clue what Kurd meant. This was liberating. People coexisted in the United States. There were translations available in minority languages on legal documents, an unthinkable practice in Turkey. I began to fully embrace being a Kurd.
And then 9/11 happened and Muslims became stigmatized in the United States. Although I wasn’t religious and didn’t think about Islam as a large part of my identity, people saw me as a Muslim because I was from Turkey. Around then, in an effort to keep her children faithful to her culture, my mother began wearing a head scarf. I went to Arabic grocery shops in Dearborn, Mich., and was surprised to feel kinship to the people there. The stores smelled of feta cheese and spices, which were the smells of bakkals in Turkey, and the memories of similarly dressed women came to my mind. I realized I was undeniably a Muslim — if not religiously, then culturally. I can be both, I decided: a Kurd first and a Muslim second.
Today I am a mother to three interracial children — my husband’s parents are Pakistani immigrants. When my son was called “chocolate face,” I realized there was more to my identity. I will never forget the way his small body shrank as he muttered, “I’m dark because of the sun, right, Mommy?”
“Right …” I said hesitantly. “Your friend is blonde like his parents and you are dark like your parents, and that’s okay.” And then I did what any parent in Silicon Valley would do when their child is confronted with their race. I bought a bunch of parenting books. From “Nurtureshock” I learned that kids form biases early, that they are not color blind, we just think they are. The earlier kids have conversations about race, the more likely they will be accepting of others. This makes sense to me because my parents did something similar when they asked me to not tell people that I was a Kurd: They told me I was different. My children can’t un-see their color, but I understand. “We’re all different, and that’s okay,” I tell them. I want to instill in them a good moral compass and I think this is possible by having empathy. In fact, I think that will come a bit naturally to them because the marginalized minority experience can give one empathy.
In both the United States and in Turkey, I am marginalized. I realize now the idea of “other” will exist no matter where I go. I don’t want my children to be ashamed of being brown-colored Muslims. I want them to be empowered by their heritage and feel that they are fully Americans in ways I never felt Turkish in Turkey. I know this is possible because, despite everything, I feel that the United States is my home.
I went to Michigan for Thanksgiving. I thought I would feel resentment there, or that my mother would get unwelcome stares. Instead, people were pleasant in their usual Midwestern ways. And although my mother felt the need to replace her hijab with a hat when we went to Lowell, a small town, there was no tension. “You are all so beautiful,” a woman told us as we entered her shop, “all of you.” It probably helped that my mother has a charming smile and we walked in with a cute baby. We were exotic as non-blonde people, yes, but we were not hated.
I choose to remain hopeful about the future of the United States. The burgeoning message of hate hasn’t stolen the goodness out of all the people who voted for Trump and I saw that in Michigan. Since the election, I have called my representatives. I have donated money to Muslim Advocates and to the ACLU. I resist the hate rhetoric. I will keep an open mind even though it’s hard when everything I read online paints a gloomy reality for minorities. That’s because I have no other choice: I must move forward not just for me, but the sake of my children.
Neval Pektas is an MFA candidate in fiction at San Francisco State University. She passionately believes in a writer’s ability to reach others’ hearts and explores the Kurdish culture and identity in her short stories. You can find her at @npektasj on twitter.
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