Today’s post is the first ever guest post to grace Verily Merrily Mary. Emileigh Rogers is a recent blogging friend of mine who blogs at Flash Back Summer and she is the woman behind today’s post. She is a fellow Third Culture Kid (TCK) like I am and I found her story and insight to be candid, interesting, and quite unheard of when the concept of whiteness is discussed. I was interested in having her share her story here so take it away, Emileigh!
Hey guys! I’m Emileigh, and Mary has graciously allowed me to share a post with you guys. I love Mary’s blog because I get to hear different perspectives on important issues that society doesn’t always like to discuss. I’m especially passionate about intercultural and interracial issues, and a lot of that stems from my experiences as a TCK in Egypt and Sudan.
I was older when my family moved to Egypt; I had just turned 17. My family moved to Egypt specifically to study Arabic, and I finished high school online while attending an intensive language school usually reserved for only adults. My whole family attended and studied hard, and we lived in an Egyptian neighborhood in Cairo where no one spoke English. After a year of study, we moved to Sudan. We lived in a house in a Sudanese neighborhood next to the trash pile where everyone took their goats to eat.
My family was eventually kicked out of Sudan along with most other foreigners, and my parents now live in Egypt. We love the people of these countries dearly, and Egypt and Sudan will always feel like homes to me. I lived in East Africa in high school only before going to university, but I learned a lifetime of lessons that have forever changed who I am. Here are three of the top things I learned.
1. My experience/worldview doesn’t necessarily create a full view of reality.
As I was surrounded by a new culture for the first time, I realized the way I perceived things wasn’t always true to what was really happening around me. I didn’t understand colloquialisms of the language; oftentimes gestures didn’t hold the same meaning for me as it did to everyone else. I had been raised to hold eye contact with people as a sign of respect and confidence, but now I always lowered my eyes in public to avoid appearing flirtatious. I saw how I could act out of one motivation, but it would be perceived in an entirely different way. As I would talk about government and religion with my Egyptian friends, I heard us approach the same issues with different outlooks. I realized how our “cultural lenses” and personal experiences affect how we see everything, and only by comparing notes with people from different vantage points can we get a more complete view of reality, much like the Indian story of the blind men and the elephant.
2. America’s worldview about racial and cultural issues is not the world’s view on these things.
My parents live in a Nubian village, and Nubians are an oppressed people. Artifacts of their heritage have been carelessly destroyed, they’ve been uprooted from their land, they are looked down upon for their skin color. When living in Sudan, I saw intense tribalism and conflict that went back hundreds of years. It was rooted in the slave trade between black Africans and Arabs from the north, religious differences, and greed. I saw how humanity’s tendency is to separate people into groups: those “like us” and those “not like us.” Every country has some element of this; it just takes different forms in different places. No matter the place in the world, an ‘us and them,’ divisive mentality has to be intentionally fought by dismantling systems of inequality. Unity will not come about by accident.
3. Being different from everyone else is difficult.
For the first time in my life, after moving to East Africa, I didn’t look like anyone around me. I didn’t speak the language. I was a minority religion. Having grown up in Missouri, this was a completely different experience! I was suddenly intriguing, “exotic,” and weird to the people around me, and it was pointed out every day, all day.
My experiences in Egypt and Sudan were incredible and, overall, extremely positive. However, there were very difficult parts, and as is often true, these not-so-great parts had a deep impact.
(Before I go on, please know I LOVE the people of Egypt and Sudan and there are many beautiful aspects of the cultures and many incredible, kind people. That is my disclaimer; please know there is far, far more positive than it may seem in the following stories. It just so happens that, as is common, the negative experiences caused me to ponder and cope in ways the positive ones did not.)
I dealt with and observed the preference for lighter skin. I saw that many Egyptians considered me more attractive because I have white skin, blonde hair, and blue eyes. Women would photoshop their pictures to have lighter skin and lighter eyes and use whitening creams daily (which blew my mind because I thought their caramely skin tone was gorgeous!). While being sought after for being different might seem nice, it really wasn’t that great. I was daily harassed and groped by men, treated like a piece of meat. Many men assumed I was promiscuous and loose like the white women they had seen on TV, even though I dressed more modestly than many Egyptian women and was careful to conduct myself appropriately. My brown haired, brown eyed sister could pass as Egyptian and didn’t receive much attention. Yes, history and Western media had affected things, but I sorely wished it hadn’t.
I just wanted to blend in with everyone else, to look like everyone else. I didn’t want my name to be khawajah, outsider, anymore. I didn’t want to be the desirable Barbie with the American passport. I just wanted people to see me. Or, better yet, not see me at all and let me blend in. I had to pray on a daily basis that God would help me let go of the anger I felt all the time.
Other times, people weren’t malicious; they were just curious. They commented about how white my skin was, touched my hair and poked me, laughed at my accent when I spoke Arabic. I didn’t mind these things so much; I understood that I was different and people were just interested. But, still, it grated on me sometimes. In Sudan, no one knew how to cut my hair, so I had to wait until our yearly trip out of the country or do it myself. Sometimes I had to be careful about what I said because I was a religious minority. I had to learn to deal with feeling unsafe a lot of the time because my gender was a liability. All of these things were foreign to me, and while I tried to cope with them the best I could, I ended up going to counseling a few years later to work through a lot of these experiences, especially with danger and harassment.
I learned, somewhat, how it felt to be a minority. Obviously, it’s not an apples to apples comparison with minorities in the U.S. by any means, but it gave me a taste of what it’s like to have people assume things about me simply because of my appearance, to be the odd woman out. It hurt sometimes, and I had that anger to deal with more often. As racial issues have come into the media spotlight more in the past couple years in the U.S., I’ve heard my thoughts and feelings expressed by people of color in the States. I could not 100% identify with everything they said, but I could empathize a bit.
Racial equality has become even more important to me because I know what prejudice on a personal level feels like.
It isn’t just hypothetical head knowledge to me. Even though much of this understanding came through negative experiences, I’m grateful for it. It has helped me understand others in a way I never could have before if I had stayed in a bubble of people just like me.
These three lessons about how my experiences don’t equate to full reality and how being different feels like have changed me forever. I share my story because I believe strongly in comparing notes. I believe in contributing to the collection of global stories we can all access as we develop strategies to eliminate racial injustice. When it comes to whiteness, I know that it is a complex concept that has evolved over time while the privileged part has remained. However, stories like mine, stories of being a white minority, are all but absent in conversations about race. Even rarer are stories of how being a white minority has caused a white person to become compassionate and passionate about issues of racial injustice. I share my story with you because I know the more vantage points we can view from, the more likely we are to spot solutions in pursuing social justice. Collaboration and diverse teamwork can be difficult to navigate, but it’s worth it!
Do you have any experiences that may be surprising to others, that may not fit the assumptions society has of you/your culture/ your race? Has an experience with a different culture changed how you view intercultural and interracial issues where you live? What do you think are barriers to interracial collaboration where you are at? Let me know in the comments below.
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Emileigh is the blogger behind Flashback Summer and she loves talking about all things vintage lifestyle while adding an intercultural twist. She writes on sewing, knitting, history, vintage events, and old-fashioned ways to welcome people into your life and make a home comfortable. She also has an international twist on a lot of her posts because she realized that “vintage” usually focuses on just Western countries, and thinks that needs to change. You can find her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.