“You’re Muslim but don’t wear a hijab?” “You’re a Sudanese woman traveling alone?” “You’re American but you weren’t born here?” “Is that even possible?” “That’s really confusing.” It’s possible, and it’s actually quite clear.
I’m a proud Muslim. I’m a Sudanese female and an American. These things are not mutually exclusive. There seems to be a construct within our society where certain characteristics can’t coexist. Somehow it’s become impossible to identify with multiple groups of people. Do I have to be either Sudanese or American? Do I have to wear a hijab to be considered a Muslim? Who created these identity boxes and decided to sort through humanity selecting who goes where? My whole life has been one long episode of failed attempts of labeling.
As the only non-white, non-Asian in elementary school, I was the token “black girl”. In middle school I was just “foreign”. In high school I was everything from “IB kid” (because I was in the International Baccalaureate program) to “Indian” (because I was constantly surrounded by Indians and people are ignorant *eye roll*) to “just black” (whatever that means). I was too Arab for the Africans, so they labeled me “Arab”. I was too African for the Arabs, so they labeled me “African”. My parents constantly stressed that we were Sudanese, but interestingly enough, every time I visited Sudan, I was labeled “American”. Enter identity crisis.
I never fully resonated within a certain construct. Whenever I entered a box, there were always clear indicators that I didn’t fully belong. The biggest indication being people telling me I didn’t belong. Many people in my high school believed I was Indian because many of my close friends in the IB program were. We had a little group going and casually called ourselves “Indians plus Wad”. I was the constant other. Most Africans disqualified me from being a “real African” when I didn’t know what FuFu was. Most African Americans took away my “black card” when they found out I had never seen "Baby Boy" or "The Color Purple" or "Boys in the Hood" or "Friday" (no, I haven’t seen "Next Friday", "Friday After Next", or "Three Weeks Ago Friday" either, don’t ask me), and the list continues.
I’ve constantly been probed with questions of my identity. “Where are you from?” “What are you mixed with?” Then prodded with statements like, “well, your house doesn’t really smell like an American house.” Just, let me interrupt here... what the hell does an American house smell like?
I’ve spent the majority of my life trying to find a box to call home. Attempting to suppress versions of myself to fit into a socially acceptable box. Trying to force my mom to make meatloaf (yuck) for dinner instead of Moolah (traditional stew eaten with a starch) to become more American. Missing every prayer but wearing a hijab to identify with Muslims. Finally sitting down to watch "Baby Boy" (which wasn’t that great) to retain my “black card. I’ve attempted to clean up pieces of myself that were deemed unfit and add pieces in that never interested me.
Eating meatloaf for dinner doesn’t make you American. Wearing a hijab doesn’t make you Muslim. Watching "Friday" doesn’t make you black. You can be American and Sudanese simultaneously. You can be Arab and African or an Arab-American and undoubtedly an African-American. You can be a Muslim Sudanese girl and convince your conservative family to let you solo-travel. Just because society has created a construct for you, it doesn’t mean you have to live within it.
Societal constructs give you boxes. You fit here or you fit there. This dichotomic thinking leaves you confined to choosing between attributes that amalgamate to your distinct character. I took these boxes with labels and decided to roam in them, around them, on top of them, beneath and between them freely. The idea has never seemed possible because it has never presented. I looked at each box trying to figure out where I fit in, said screw that and decided to roam aimlessly through whatever box I chose to, for as long as I identified with it before moving on. If at some point I wanted to revisit a box, I made my way there. I decided that I could and would simultaneously live within numerous boxes. I can also live between boxes, outside of boxes and standing on top of said boxes.
When I’m feeling Indian, catch me at the Bollywood show. When I’m feeling Latin, catch me at the salsa club. When I’m feeling India Arie-esque, catch me at Tuesday Verses. When I’m feeling Sudanese, catch me at the jalia. When I’m feeling like myself, catch me wherever the hell I want to be.
"I WILL EXIST WHEREVER THE HELL I WANT"
When you restrain yourself to fit into a construct, you are efficiently killing off the best parts of yourself. They are the best parts of you because the parts you’re killing off are the ones you have yet to discover. You lose the opportunity to discover your hidden talents and skills when you close the door on other boxes because society told you that you can only fit in one. Open yourself up to a world of possibility. Learn all that you are and uncover the most beautiful aspects of yourself.
If I allowed for society to tell me where I belong, I would never be traveling the world, let alone going on solo-trips. Many Sudanese women come from conservative families that would scoff at the idea of solo-travel. I come from one of those families. My parents scoffed. But lo and behold, here I am, solo-traveling with their consent. Just because something is the norm, doesn’t mean that it’s the right way to go about things. Test your limits, test the limits of your “box” if you’ve encased yourself in one, and don’t let these social constructs hold you back.
A box is where creativity goes to die. It is where all of the eccentricity of your nature begins to stifle itself. Numerous boxes contain opportunity and possibility and adventure. Your ability to roam not only within, but outside of these boxes will test your true character. Don’t let this world tell you where you belong. Exist where you want, for as long as you want, doing what you want. Define yourself before the world builds an identity for you.
When did you hold yourself back? Let me know in the comments below!