We need help navgiating 2018 so we live freer than we did last year. There are few better people to help us through these times than Randa Jarrar, award-winning author of A Map of Home and Him, Me, and Muhammad Ali. Every other week, our new advice column “Ask Auntie Randa” will post on Wednesdays and be devoted to your questions seeking advice for life’s complexities especially health, sex, Muslim stuff, and identity (we extend an extra hearty welcome if the quandaries are about first- or second-generation living). Have questions? Send them along to Randa: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Auntie Randa,
You write so bravely and honestly about sex and sexuality on public platforms. How do you navigate your relationships with your son and parents in this regard?
Living Two Worlds
Dear Living Two Worlds,
Sex was completely taboo in my home growing up. When I had a baby at eighteen (incidentally, my pregnancy possibly happened because I was not allowed access to birth control pills) I decided that I would not raise my son this way. He grew up at the same time that I was growing up, and we were going to be sex positive. This meant that I answered his questions about sex honestly and thoughtfully, and told him that masturbation was a great gift. Later, when he was a teenager, I bought him condoms, asked him if he needed lube, understood when he said he needed time alone with his girlfriend, and openly spoke about sex as a pleasurable human experience. I continued to speak to him about consent, quizzing him through his teens on what counts as a yes and what doesn’t.
Now, I will text him and tell him if I have a date and if he needs to stay away from the house. There is no judgement or weirdness. It’s exactly how I wished my life could have always been.
So, my son knows I write about sex. I don’t think he reads anything I write though; not because he’s grossed out by it, but because he’s got his own life, other things he wants to read, and other things he wants to do with his day.
My parents are another story.
My mother will probably read this column, because she has grown a lot and is very supportive. But she probably won’t talk to me about it. I asked her as nonjudgmentally as possible, recently, why she dislikes talking about sex. She said that sex to her was something very, very private. “It’s like going to the bathroom. We all do it. But we don’t talk about it.”
I write about poops and farts, too, though. But the point is that she, like my father, grew up in a time and place that made invisible the acts of the human body. Acts that were visible and celebrated included hosting, working, walking, dancing at weddings, getting pregnant (somehow!), giving birth, raising kids, rocking babies to sleep, holding our hands at the fair or the beach, swimming, and so on.
I have always rebelled against this. I was constantly curious about sex as a child and a preteen. As a teenager, I masturbated daily, fervently. I couldn’t imagine not writing about something that is such a big part of my life.
My father was, and remains, upset that I write about sex. He didn’t speak to me for seven years after my first book came out. Most recently, he was upset at the mention of a vibrator in my newest book, and didn’t respond to my texts for a few weeks. When I’ve talked to him about this, he said that he felt that my inclusion of sex in my writing made the writing smut; pornography; unnecessary. When I’ve tried to explain to him that I believe it is necessary, and that he probably shouldn’t read my books or essays, my mother intervenes and says, but maybe you can write about something else.
I don’t want to write about Something Else. I want to write about what I want to write about, because I want to read about whatever I want to read about. I want my personal life to be without shame, without silence, without invisibility. I want to be loud. I am loud.
The solution I’ve come up with is to ask my father and mother not to read my work, especially the pieces, essays, chapters, or books that focus on sexuality. My father once asked me, “What’s more important to you, me, or your writing?”
I didn’t have to answer. Because he knows, and I know, that it’s more important to express oneself fully, to connect through to others, especially, for me, other Arabs and people of color. And you know what? Yes. My writing and self-expression and truth are more important to me.
Dear Auntie Randa,
I was born and raised here as the child of Palestinian immigrants. With my light skin and accentless English, I have the ability to pass as white and I look ethnically ambiguous. Looking back at my personal history with my race, I see years of cultural rejection and shame, assimilation, and a deep need to belong. The problem is, I am labeled as “too white” or “Americanized” when I am with other Arabs/POC, even my own family. How can I forgive myself for assimilating to white culture so strongly, develop a Palestinian identity in an authentic way, and find a space where I feel like I belong?
You are Arab. Period. Your parents are Palestinian. You are Palestinian. Palestinians can be light skinned, Brown, Black, and everything in between. The years of cultural rejection, shame, and assimilation you’re telling me about were years when you were trying to survive. You were ill with the toxicity and genocidal erasure properties of white supremacy. You are not a fundamentally self-hating person. You grew up in a culture that actively encouraged and rewarded you for erasing yourself.
Let’s move onto Arabs and their problem with white-passing and light-skinned privilege. Most Arabs have internalized white standards of beauty, again, because it was forced down our throats. Now that we are adults and can educate ourselves, I encourage you to correct yourself and your family members when they refer to you as white. Remember that white is a construct; white is property; “white” is people whose DNA and ethnic background is from Europe. Palestine is not in Europe. White is the idea that light skin is superior to others. When or if anyone values your light skin or says you’re prettier for having light skin, or celebrates your light skin, remind them that they are victims of white supremacy. It will sound weird to them at first. But the more you remind them, the less weird it will sound. As a first generation immigrant, you have the power to break cycles, introduce new language, and practice patience.
Let’s move on to being Americanized. Again, remind yourself that America is everyone. It’s Indigenous, Black, and everyone else who came after. American does not equal white. There are 1.5 million Arab Americans. They are Arab and American. They are American and Arab. You do not have to choose.
Let’s talk about other POC. One thing you have to do is accept that you have light-skinned privilege. This does not make you too white, nor does it negate your experiences as a person of color. It does make you have privilege. And your POC friends are right about that. As a woman with light-skinned privilege myself, I try to be quiet and listen; to use my privilege to affect outcomes that will be ideal for my friends; to be sensitive in my complaints. For example, I would not talk about how difficult it is to find a stylist who does Palestinian-Egyptian fine curls with a Black woman who lives in the same city as I do and is having a much more difficult time finding a hair person. This is a combination of common sense and sensitivity. Every day, people with light-skinned privilege must examine our anti-Blackness, and the ways in which we have invested in it, however shameful that may feel.
Last, you will not need to feel part of an Arab or Palestinian identity club if you remember that you’re an authentic human person, and don’t need the approval of others. You wake up, and you are Palestinian. You are Palestinian in the shower, in a car, at work, on a walk. That need for approval is left-over white supremacist and white Zionist toxicity, which tells you that you don’t exist, which erases you, or convinces you that have to apply, or be chosen, to be part of the club. You’re already here, sis.