On Judging Books by their Covers II

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I think it is part of human nature to put people inside boxes.  When we meet someone new, we try to rationalize who that individual is, where they are from and why they make/made the choices that they make.  I think it’s only natural that we try to make sense of what we are seeing, hearing and feeling.  I’ll admit that I am guilty of this as well, but, I do try to avoid doing this, really I am.

It was one thing to deal with in Egypt, or Qatar or Spain.  It’s a whole other thing to deal with this in the US of A.

Let me explain what I mean. When people find out that I speak Spanish, they automatically assume that I am Latin American, or grew up there, or am married to/involved with someone from the region. Some people even try to pronounce my name with a Spanish flair… Nope. Sorry, I’m just regular old black…

I’ve decided that this woman is of Hatian descent, and is a Santeria priestess. Her Eryka badu headwrap tipped me off!… smh… all of this is probably wrong but oh well…. boxes are more important

When they find out that I speak Arabic, it’s much the same.  The next questions /assumptions are that I am Arab, Muslim, or married to an Arab/Muslim, or was born/raised/spent several years in the Middle East or in an Arab community etc.

None of these assumptions are illogical, and they are all not necessarily incorrect in my case, but what a cat-and-mouse game!

There are two things that irk me about this. First of all, it’s the thought process, “Oh, you’re Arab, that’s why you know such a random language” or “Oh you must be Muslim to be interested in Arabic”  or the worse one “Oh, you’re involved with Arab guy and want to get to know his culture.”  How about I was interested in it for far less trite reasons.  It really can and does happen.

It’s also weird that people seem to look past the fact that people actually study languages in school to the point where they and become conversant or even fluent in them. Why is this reality such a strange concept for some people to wrap their heads around?

Perhaps, what is truly bothersome is not so much the assumptions themselves, but the way that people go about trying to reinforce them.  It’s like when someone can tell you are from another country, and instead of asking just asking you where you are from, they proceed to name countries one, by one: “Where are you from, Nigeria?”

No.

“Ghana?”

No.

“Kenya?”

No… after guess number three, I usually say, how about I just tell you so you don’t have to keep guessing… ha, ha.  Or better yet, why don’t you just ask me where I’m from.

I am going to assume that Laz Alonso is of Afro-Latino American decent. But seriously, it doesn’t really matter, the man is Gorgeous!!!!!!!!! (oh, and yeah, he’s a decent actor as well).

I think this last example differs somewhat from the language examples I gave previously, but the essence is the same.  Instead of trying to make sense of people by defining them, how about we just ask them about their convictions and how they define themselves?

People sometimes (well, most of the time) are put into boxes/categories, but asking can get you to the right filing cabinet more quickly… ha, ha…

Seriously, my story of how I became interested in the MENA region, and how I ended speaking Arabic is interesting.  Really it is.  It may not be as “exotic” as you may think, but it’s the truth, usually has nothing to do with why you thought I came to know x, y or z or experience a, b or c and um yeah, that counts for something, even these days, right?

As I stated above I am guilty of this too, assumptions are a part of life.  However, I usually keep them to myself.  Having people tell their own story, and break down the walls that I had built in my mind, stretching the mold, is always awesome.

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4 thoughts on “On Judging Books by their Covers II

  1. I truly enjoy and look forward to your “elucidated perspectives!” I’ve learned so, so much about the African influence in Arab-speaking countries via your blog. Thank you and keep blogging!

    By the way, Lazaro “Laz” Alonso is the son of Cuban immigrant parents. (A li’l FYI). 🙂

    • gazelledusahara

      Welcom John,

      Glad I could be of service 🙂 (although I don’t think my blog really touches on African influence on Arab countries per se)…. and thanks for the confirmation on Laz Alonso… he’s quickly becoming the new “man of my dreams…” ha, ha…

  2. KG

    Like you said, it’s human nature to want to define things and put them into neat little boxes, including people. And with your complex background and experiences, you’re harder to put into a box than most people! I guess you can’t stop people trying, but it is good for people to be reminded that others are more complicated than they might expect.

    It’s a bit odd that people would try to guess what country you’re from, instead of just asking. I think I’d have some snarky thoughts along the lines of, “You can name more than one African country! Great job!” Or, “Good for you, knowing that ‘Africa’ itself isn’t a country!”

    As far as people wondering why you’re fluent in such “random” languages, I think that’s because of the way foreign language education is approached in the U.S. Proficiency/fluency in a language other than English isn’t required for graduation from high school or many colleges. (And one could argue, proficiency in English is an iffy proposition as well. I’ve taught college students; it’s scary that many of them have trouble constructing one coherent sentence, and for most of them, English was their native, and only, language.) Anyway, because fluency in a foreign language isn’t a requirement, those who do become fluent often have an external reason for doing so, like the reasons you mentioned–a significant other from another country, etc. It’s not something a lot of Americans do, so there *must* be a reason!

    This reminds me of when my high school got a new Spanish teacher–who was Scottish. I went so far as to interview her for the school newspaper (under the premise of profiling new teachers) in order to try to figure out why someone from Scotland would be motivated to learn Spanish! Oh, boy. lol

    • gazelledusahara

      yeah, I try not to be sarcastic… because it goes over people’s heads the few times I’ve tried… ha, ha…

      I know the language programs are crappy, but it’s not unheard of and not impossibel to learn a new language… I can’t help but feel offended. Of course it depends on context, if its a native speaker that’s complimenting me (faceciously or otherwise) then that is different. But when it’s someone who just jumps to that conclusion, especially when they have no background in the language or just a little, and they seem unwilling to wrap their minds around me and my Arabic skills… then I just have to be offended, no?

      And I get that quite a bit… ha, ha…

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