Color Talk


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“When talk of the presidential campaign veers into a discussion of race, I feel like I know a bit about what Barack Obama is going through.

When I was growing up, my Jordanian father didn’t refer to his own skin color as “black” or “white” but instead used the Arabic word “Teen” or “wheat-colored.” I always thought this was a much more elegant and accurate term than black or white. Still, it rarely helped all that much with the questions of identity that seemed to go along with the issue of color….”

Author: Diana Abu-Jaber teaches at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon and is an award-winning author
Published in: newspapers in West Virginia and in Missouri
Date: October 26, 2008

For the full article:
Color Talk
(525 words)
by Diana Abu-Jaber

When talk of the presidential campaign veers into a discussion of race, I feel like I know a bit about what Barack Obama is going through.

When I was growing up, my Jordanian father didn’t refer to his own skin color as “black” or “white” but instead used the Arabic word “Teen” or “wheat-colored.” I always thought this was a much more elegant and accurate term than black or white. Still, it rarely helped all that much with the questions of identity that seemed to go along with the issue of color.

My family was multi-cultural and multi-racial—my dad an Arab-Muslim and Mom of Irish-Catholic descent. Because I’d inherited the lightest coloring of my parents’ three kids, my Jordanian relatives often referred to me as “the American.” When I was very young, I’d see them peeping in at my sisters, cousins, and I at play, murmuring to each other, “There she is—that one’s the American!” Even as a child, I sensed this was a term of distinction and exclusion—vaguely prestigious yet not quite part of the gang.

In the adult world, whenever people heard my name — Diana Ghassan Abu-Jaber– they generally didn’t think I was Muslim because I didn’t look the part. Instead, I was asked, “Where’d you get THAT name?” as if I’d just cooked it up for some cockamamie reason.

And when we traveled back to the Middle East to visit my father’s family, the Arabs would often ask if I was Greek, Turkish, or Russian. And, with my long curly dark hair and pale skin, they frequently assumed I was Israeli.

For much of my life, I’ve resented and felt hurt by the way that people thought they knew who or what I was or how I felt based on what I looked like.

Some Americans seem to feel there’s only one desirable way to look or sound or act. Once, upon returning home from a trip to Jamaica, I was held at the Miami Airport. The security officer said we had to wait for my name to be cleared. It took hours while I waited in a forbidding back room for someone in Washington to give me the all-clear. When I was finally released, several people suggested I should just change my last name. After all, one friend told me, I didn’t “look the part.”

But what is that “part” supposed to be?

There have been times in my life that I would have given anything to look “the part”—to have inherited my auntie’s jet black hair, my father’s warm, wheat-colored skin.

The irony, I’ve learned, is that the more people insisted they knew who I was, how “un-Arab” I looked, the more I treasured and clung to that hidden part of my identity. We think we can tell who people are by looking at them, but in the end the plain truth is, the more we focus on surfaces, the less we really see. Over the years, I grew to realize that these appearances are all an illusion—that love, beauty, truth, family come in every name and every color.

Diana Abu-Jaber is the author of Crescent, which was awarded the 2004 PEN Center USA Award for Literary Fiction and the Before Columbus Foundation’s American Book Award and was named one of the twenty best novels of 2003 by The Christian Science Monitor, and Arabian Jazz, which won the 1994 Oregon Book Award and was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award. She teaches at Portland State University and divides her time between Portland, Oregon and Miami, Florida.