I have been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be “myself.” This is something that I have been told all my life: “Be brave, be yourself!” “Don’t let anyone tell you who or how to be!” “Just be yourself!” That last one I heard the most. Whenever I would apply for jobs, prepare for presentations, or do anything that involved assessment from others, the advice I was always given was “Just be yourself!” Never mind that I literally had no clue who that person was, no way to let her manifest herself in my daily interactions, and no way of knowing who this true “self” is.
I have heard this kind of transcendentalist language for as long as I can remember. And for as long as I can remember, I have been reciting it to myself by way of self-love. And I think it has been working in many ways. Just recently I have started to come to terms with my intersecting identities, with the multi-faceted nature of my experience as a Muslim woman of color. This summer I travelled to Europe, traversing the grounds of four separate countries, three of which I had no linguistic knowledge. The blatant looks people gave me and my caramel colored skin reminded me of my different appearance, but for some reason I understood that whatever they were thinking had nothing to do with me. For some reason, on the metro in Prague, I was able to think to myself: You are brown. You are real. And you are okay.
When I returned from Europe this mentality slowly found its way into every aspect of my life. I found that I didn’t care whether people stared for a second too long at me. When I waited in line for coffee and was cut off by a stranger, it did not cross my mind that this might of happened because I am brown. None of these horrific toxic thoughts infiltrated my mind. I felt like I was finally becoming “free,” whatever that means. I felt that I could finally start being “myself,” that awkward, introverted, occasionally-loud, nerdy, bookish girl that I know I am in my heart. More importantly, I was starting to feel that I had a good idea of who I am, what I want, who I want to be, and who I want to surround myself with.
But there is another prevailing narrative that I have been thinking about even more now: code switching. All my life can be summed up in a few moments, each with me speaking in a different tone of voice, different language, or a different vernacular. If I presented these scenarios to myself—each with me code switching in a different manner—I wouldn’t recognize that girl. She too is different from me. But I have had to learn how to deftly, quickly, and smoothly change myself for those around me. I believe this is a skill that women of color in particular are forced to cultivate. It becomes about survival, about getting by. And in a country that pushes messages that promulgate thriving instead of surviving, how can I do the former, when I am too busy trying to succeed at the latter?
How can I be “myself” when I have to be what other people expect of me at any given point of time? If I refuse these societal expectations, then I too am bereft and my opportunities are limited. I also then become a representation of all women who are like me—in this case other Muslim brown girls. That’s the thing with racism and stereotyping: you stand for everyone looks like you. You are seen that way, therefore everyone who is like you physically must be just like you internally.
But then if I give in, I lose what I have discovered about myself. I have not been able to find a balance between code switching and authenticity. I wonder why no one has taught me how to find that equilibrium. My parents didn’t teach me anything: they just told me to work hard and I would succeed. In a country like theirs, where there is no such thing as race, there is no need to have a conversation about what my skin color will mean for me when I am being assessed. I have been taught how to participate in job interviews, how to carry myself in academic settings, but no one ever sat me down and told me that I would have to over-compensate for what others might merely acquire. I reflect on why that is and I have come to a few conclusions:
Many of the people who told me to be “myself” were white. In fact, all of them were. And I think there is a certain liberty that comes with being white and pursuing authenticity. The stakes aren’t as high, the repercussions are not as severe. There is an entire system of oppression that has been constructed to a white person’s benefit that has not been for me. Code switching is not a necessity for a white person in the way it is for me. Rather, it is simply a good idea in certain situations. Choosing not to partake in code switching for a white person will not warrant the negative consequences it will for me.
Secondly, my parents have internalized whiteness. So much so that they never thought to tell me that I am brown and that will mean I am other. They just thought that I could work hard like all my counterparts and I could then have the same opportunities. That, coupled with the fact that there is no such thing as race in Egypt, have resulted in my ill-preparedness for the reality that will face me as women of color.
Finally, as a woman of color, code switching is necessary. I cannot walk into all spaces as myself. I cannot choose the spaces that will suit me when an entire country has been built to my detriment; I must walk through life aware of when and how to change my behavior and mannerisms for others. It cannot be about me. It is a difficult and sad reality to acknowledge, but it is a truth I must live with—probably for the rest of my life. I have become more okay with the concept, but I have a long way to go before I am able to simultaneously code switch and maintain a sense of identity within myself.
What does it mean to code switch in a time when authenticity is the prevailing rhetoric? It means to lose yourself, over and over again every day. To then have to find yourself, over and over again—every day. This is the psychological and emotional struggle of many woman of color, myself being one of them. And it is draining. It is tiring. It is real.
by FATEMA ELBAKOURY