How I found my way through small town America.

i’m so tired of these damn labels
small, narrow boxes,
scattered in the depths of your mind
no wonder they call it narrow-minded

you think people can be homogenized?
packaged neatly into something
you can fit
into one of your caskets?

may as well be a casket
because you are killing off
any sentiment of individuality
of originality, personality
when you give
someone that place in your brain

no one is just a box
no one is just a label
no one is that neat, that simple

and what are labels anyway,
just man-made constructs used to define,
to understand in one word
an entire kind

too scared to see the grey
so you separate into black and white

be wary
because one dot of white
in a field of black
makes grey

When I was younger, my hijab is what defined me, in every single way. Faith, morals, attitudes, diet — all aspects of my being were encapsulated by the piece of cloth I chose to wrap around my hair each morning.

Then came a point in my life where my views shifted, attitudes altered and now the last thing I wanted was for my whole being to come down to that very same scarf on my head. I vowed to never highlight my hijab struggles, to prevent the further perpetuation of the stereotypes we were often boiled down to. I wanted everyone to see the individual, to see the nuance, to transcend far beyond man-made, societally defined identifiers to a place where categorization was no longer relevant and love was the common medium by which we all bonded to each other and, by extension, to our Creator. (Note for readers: Ghalib, Shah, Rumi, Gibran, Iqbal — highly recommended for a drug-free high.)

And yet here I am. Why? Because labels are relevant and no one is above them. No matter how far you try to run away from the pesky little one-word qualifiers (and believe me when I say I’ve tried), society will place them on you and you will feel their burden, more or less, depending on your label and environment. My particular labels — woman, brown, Muslim — and my particular environment — post 9/11 rural Virginia — are probably in the top 5% of worst possible such combinations. Think ketchup and white rice level chaos. (Seriously, who does that?!)

I grew up in a small homogenous area in the western part of the state. For eight miserable years, I tried and failed — to fit in, find acceptance, form an identity. I knew something had to change. Hijab for me was that change, providing a means to self-acceptance. It allowed me to showcase my comfortability with my identity as a Muslim, to reject the need to conform, and to face head on the biases that I felt were present but not yet surfaced from those around me. And boy, did it do the trick! I transformed from the “geeky Mexican girl” to the “terrorist Arab chick” overnight (I will admit that there may or may not be some validity in one of those four adjectives.) People came to me with their questions, commentary, love, and hate, and before you know it, I became the spokesperson for Islam in Waynesboro, VA. Always on the defense, always waiting for the next misconception to clarify, I felt like the prototype for a Muslim Marvel character. And I went along with it, assuming this was the norm of being a Muslim American, two components of my identity that began feeling more and more mutually exclusive.

I’m not sure I can pinpoint this sentiment of exclusivity to one factor. The overt instances of discrimination were no fun. Hearing your parents discuss their frustration at being followed by cops for hours; watching men in suits dig through your trash at four in the morning with flashlights when you’re up for suhoor during Ramadan; having your little sister come home and tell you about the kid whose “dad told him not to talk to me because I have grey skin;” listening to your classmate talk about how horrible your religion is during the Islam unit in World History class; being called a terrorist time and time again… definitely not pleasant experiences. The political climate did not help either. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Abu Gharaib, Gitmo — to a 14 year old, still living in binaries, it was difficult not to take it personally.

And yet, I don’t think it’s the overt showcases of hatred or underlying political tones that really get to you — it’s the small things. It’s going to the grocery store and watching the cashier make friendly small talk with everyone in line until it’s your turn and suddenly even responding to a hello seems too difficult. It’s the man who holds out the door for everyone walking through except you. It’s being the only family not to get invited to the neighborhood barbecues. It’s getting invited to dinners only to be told about how much Jesus loves you and Christ is the only way to salvation. This thing called micro-aggression that people sometimes dismiss as “PC culture,” it is real, you guys. It eats away at you and it takes a psychological toll.

It makes you feel like you don’t belong, makes you lose trust to such an extent that you start feeling bias in situations where it isn’t present. You become paranoid and defensive. You become the very person you are most afraid of — the one that assumes, the one that falls back to tribalistic tendencies as a mode of self preservation, the stereotyper.

That is who I became during my Marvel debut back in Waynesboro, and it is it something I carried with me into college. That is, until negative experiences with individuals of my own faith and heritage forced me to completely reevaluate my understanding of the world. I realized that I was using superficial identifiers as shortcuts to find people that I could connect with, people that I shared values with. But these identifiers didn’t have the weight I was giving them because how I defined them was informed by my understanding of and associations with them; someone else could subscribe to the same identifiers with a completely different understanding of their implications. We are all products of our experiences and our truths are nothing but a glimpse of absolute Truth. There are no shortcuts to understanding individuals and finding those that can truly connect with and support you. People are complicated.

Since this epiphany of mine, I’ve continued to struggle with my understanding of identity and how it fits into my life but I do try my best not to limit my perceptions of those around me by their external markers. I hope you can do the same for me.




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