In the USA, Arab-Americans have been classified as white for the past 70 years. With recent contestation arising around this classification, it must be asked: in a multinational context, what are the tensions around being considered white, despite being a person of colour? Aaisha Dadi Patel chatted to 34-year-old Mina Demian, a Swedish writer of Egyptian descent, living in Westdene, about the complexities of his identity and how he sees himself fitting into a race-obsessed South Africa.
My parents are Egyptian. I was born in Cairo but I’ve never lived there. My father was an expat so I moved around a lot, and always attended American schools. In 1993, we moved to South Africa and my parents have been here ever since. I went to school here, and to university in the UK in 2007, and then I came back here.
When I lived and travelled overseas post-9/11, I got singled out – when I grow a beard I look Muslim. I’ve had bad experiences at airports and train stations. I’ve been asked at JFK in New York: “Is your father part of Hezbollah?” In London, I was sitting in a car with a friend and police came to inspect us. I quietly said to the officer: “Sir, we’re Christian.” He was horrified and immediately left. I got stopped once at Heathrow because I was a suspected Mexican drug lord.
Ethnically I’ll say I’m Egyptian, not Arab. To be Arab, for a Christian Egyptian, has historical connotations. I feel it’s a political classification, and is inherently Islamic. But I can’t say that I’m purely Egyptian, even if my parents were born there. This “pure Egyptian” conception is as reductive as the “Rainbow Nation”; too simplistic and diluted, and I can’t accept it.
Culturally, I’m a mix of a lot of things. I also lived in Sweden and I end up telling people I’m Swedish because I have lived there and I feel like I have a connection.
A lot of middle-class Egyptians aspire to whiteness and other outward forms of privilege. I was raised to think that to be Western and white is to be cultured and successful. Over time, I realised that you can’t be white just by being like them. No matter what schools or universities you went to, or how you spoke or how you were.
I always thought I was white, but now I realise I’m not [and] I don’t share their views. Around 32, I developed a political consciousness. I wasn’t only questioning being Egyptian, but also deeper societal issues attached to class. I started getting into a lot of disagreements with people. I met young intellectuals in Jo’burg, especially in the build-up to #FeesMustFall. And my worldview came smashing down.
I grew up privileged and I’m not ashamed, but now I know I have to be aware.
Being politically conscious in this country is a blessing and a curse. For instance, your relationship with white people changes. Now that I’m challenging and speaking more openly about race and privilege and class, white people think I’m brainwashed. “Why are you talking about race all the time?” they ask me. I feel like asking them, “How can you not?”
Even though I’ve benefited from being in proximity to whiteness, I no longer want to be a passive benefactor. I can’t deal with whiteness the way that I used to. I’ve blocked a lot of people. I’m more assertive now. I will call you out. I won’t let it stand. You can’t just say what you want to.
Dating is something I struggle with. This happens between all race groups. The biggest problem is that people don’t want to move beyond the constructs. To be white or in proximity to whiteness and date a non-white person is unforgivable. The euphemism, “It’s not my preference” is bullshit. I went through a phase where I thought that to date a white person meant success.
When you get down to the nitty-gritty, identity is self-determined. It’s none of your business if my skin profile doesn’t match what you’ve grown up with. What I tried to do for a while is be in more circles with black people. But I realised that isn’t always an easy thing to do. I have good friends and acquaintances who have told me that I can have black friends, but never be one of them. And I’m at peace with that, and when I say something problematic they’ll call me out. I’m learning what it means to be an ally. You don’t need to be anyone’s saviour – that’s not your job.
When I fill out a form, I always look for “other”. When there isn’t an “other” option, putting down “white” makes me uncomfortable. But I can’t deal with this black/white binary. I hate labels and sometimes I find South Africa kind of “boxy” because of the preoccupation with categorising people. People become agitated because they don’t know how to deal with me. In South Africa I feel invisible. To be in a place where people see you, but you’re almost not there because you can’t be boxed.
Life becomes more difficult when you’re more aware. Maybe it’s a South African thing, but it always goes back to race.
I did not choose to be politically conscious, but I feel as if I’ve been released. I’m now more aware of the power dynamics at play.
The Daily Vox
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