My hidden ethnicity

By Ysabella Titi.

On the first day of my summer internship, my mom sent me the following text: “Don’t tell anyone you’re Palestinian.

Though her words would soon return to me, I didn’t give them much thought that first morning. The only thing on my mind was getting to my congressman’s office in the center of U.S. politics—Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. I was nervous but excited to be on the Hill, where policy decisions and debate filled the air and change appeared inevitable rather than merely possible. What I didn’t realize, however, was that my internship, the summer before the 12th grade, would teach me more about myself than it would about American policy.

While I knew I was interning for a Jewish, strongly pro-Israeli Congressman, I didn’t think this fact would personally affect me. At the time my main interest was domestic American politics. It was enough for me to be able to secure an internship for my Congressman at such a young age. However, my blissful perception changed almost immediately. On my first day, during an initial run-down of the basics, a fellow intern invited me to an event hosted by America’s Pro-Israel Lobby. It was a bipartisan congressional panel for D.C. interns interested in U.S. relations to the Middle East; this event’s particular focus was on how to counter divestment from Israel. I took the information he wrote down for me on a post-it, but I knew I’d be uncomfortable attending. After all, it was families like my own in which divestment aimed to help. It was through this, my first experience on the Hill, that I realized I had failed to think about my background in a truly comprehensive and meaningful way. Instead, I chose ignorance—for years. Since I am not obviously Palestinian or even Middle Eastern to the rest of the world, I had hidden behind this mask of ambiguity, viewing my background as interesting but something I did not need to outwardly acknowledge. 

I didn’t anticipate that working for an Israeli-American would elicit such inner conflict—mainly because of my ambiguous appearance. However, appearance is not the only trait of relevance in one’s identity, and my father being Palestinian defines me whether I want it to or not. My connection to this identity is not the type of connection to an ethnicity one feels through a trendy DNA test but rather the kind that grows out from the roots of childhood memories and the stories I was told of our homeland.

My experiences on the Hill encouraged me to reflect on events in my past that I had previously not given a second thought to. One day in high school, I was airing my grievances to a close friend about another girl who was bothering me. My friend told me, “Don’t worry, she’s gonna bomb the place anyways.” The girl we were talking about is a Muslim who covers her hair. Her identity was obvious, yet mine was completely hidden. My dad is a Palestinian Muslim immigrant, and one of my best friends didn’t even know that I was Middle Eastern.  While her background was open for the world to judge, my traditional dress of the city of Jaffa is shoved to the back of my closet, hidden so that when my friends go looking for something to borrow they see my short sundresses and huge collection of knit sweaters instead of the white floor-length dress with colorful embroidery.

Working on the Hill fundamentally challenged how comfortable I had been with the safety net of appearing ethnically ambiguous in a country with a troubled and ever-changing relationship with race. But it was this failure to understand the implications of my background that taught me a greater lesson of self-identity. Although I am still unsure of what it all means, I’ll start by owning my identity and challenges as a half-Palestinian woman. There is no bliss when we are ignorant of ourselves. After that summer, I stopped looking at my ethnic ambiguity as a hiding spot—it is not. 

Since then, I have changed drastically. For starters, I came here to Sciences Po Menton to study the Middle East and I began to say my ethnic background with pride rather than fear of judgement. Despite what my family’s history in Palestine means to me, I know that my experience will never extend out to Palestinians elsewhere. My experience will never extend to my cousins who speak Arabic in public with each other and wear their hijab in America’s southern suburbs of football games and sorority girls. My experience will never extend to my father’s, as Palestinian in America when a (now very prominent) journalist came to interview him while investigating the 9/11 attacks. My experience will never extend to my family living on the Gaza Strip. My experience in my bubble of American privilege will never extend  to the lives of true, born, raised, persecuted Palestinians. While my story may not extend to those whose Palestinian identity defines them most, I still am Palestinian…and I can no longer reside contentedly in a silence of my own making.

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