SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2004        Personal Memory Ethnographies

Samia Salam

Third Degree

    When I was going into the first grade, my family and I moved to Yuma, Arizona from San Francisco, California.  Nothing against Yuma, but moving from San Francisco to a small city that is mainly agricultural was a dramatic culture shift.  I was used to a completely different atmosphere.  In San Francisco, no one batted an eye when I said that I was Hispanic even though part of me is Middle Eastern.  At this time in the late 1980s, San Francisco was much more culturally diverse than Arizona. 

    The first few years of school went by and I did not notice a difference between me and the other students in predominantly Hispanic Yuma.  The classroom walls were a crisp pastel yellow with the standard educational tools adorning the walls.  In addition to the usual bulletin board messages, our class during this time period had a “culturally diverse” theme displayed in the classroom.  However, the only culture represented was the Native American culture, which was portrayed by showing a person in full Native American garb (feathers and war paint).  In theory, the atmosphere was designed to motivate the students to learn and understand the concepts being taught in class.  The reason this picture has stayed in my head is because it is a “cut and dried” photograph of another culture.  A student would stereotypically assume the person in the photograph accurately represented all Native Americans. 

This classroom tendency to stereotype cultural identity became my own burden one day in the third grade, when a classmate brought to my attention my difference from the others.  Our class project was to discuss our family backgrounds and the origins of our names.  My name is Samia Salam.  While I was standing up in front of my class talking about my Hispanic culture, another student raised her hand and said that I was not Hispanic.  My response was to correct the other student and re-state that yes, I was Hispanic.  The other student, Irasema, was quite persistent in pointing out that I was not “truly” Hispanic because my last name was not Hernandez or Cardenas or something that “sounded Hispanic.”  At this age and due to my upbringing, I had never focused on the fact that my mother’s heritage was more ingrained into my life rather than my father’s.  My mother is Hispanic and my father is Middle Eastern.  I had never thought about my name being Middle Eastern and had never been singled out as being only Middle Eastern.  After class that day, I did what most kids would have done, I talked to my mom about the incident.  My mother said that we were Hispanic and Middle Eastern.  She told me that just because my last name was not “Hernandez” or “Cardenas” did not change the fact that I am part of the Hispanic heritage. 

Historically, the Hispanic culture has been portrayed through the media as a migrant group that came to the United States via the United States/Mexico border with ideas of opportunity.  Of course, lots of Hispanics were already living in the Southwest before the United States moved its border South and incorporated them.  The citizens of the United States have had a varied reaction to their presence, however, the Hispanic culture is generally not seen as a threat to national security.  From the anti-immigrant perspective, the Hispanic immigrants are seen as taking American jobs, changing the economy, and taking advantage of opportunities that should only be allowed to citizens.  The Middle Eastern culture has never been “well received” the by the Americans.  Historically, the media has portrayed Middle Easterners as a threat to the United States and see them as terrorists.  But the Middle Eastern culture has never been factored into the social fabric of America on the basis of people’s day-to-day activities.  Rather, the culture has only been associated with terrorist activities and negative incidents damaging to American society.

The reason this memory continues to remain in my mind is that one person was trying to tell me who I was based on one piece of information, my name.  This memory has taught me to never presume to know someone’s background based on their name, language or skin color.  In addition, Irasema’s tactic to make me understand that I was not a member of her cultural community was very divisive to both the Middle Eastern and the Hispanic cultures.  Granted we were in the third grade, but Irasema was unwilling to allow me to explain my ties to the Hispanic heritage or allow the subject to be put aside until after class.  In Irasema’s mind there were no other people of Hispanic decent besides those who matched her family’s history. 

In opposition to my third grader’s point of view, I now can also understand how Irasema felt.  My presentation was completely foreign to her and to an eight years old, the information I provided could not be true.  Irasema felt so much pride in what she understood to be her heritage she needed to contradict my presentation.  She did not understand the cultural influences that I had experienced with my family while growing up, she only knew about her own experiences. Irasema also felt that her family had gone through a lot of negative treatment in the forms of discrimination, inequality, and feelings of inadequacy.  Irasema’s parents were farmworkers and she was not treated as an equal compared to the other students because of her family’s employment and situations relating to the occupation.  If this situation were to take place today, I think that Irasema might realize that her point of view about the Hispanic culture was very short-sighted and limited to her own family’s experience at this time (3rd grade).  She did not take into consideration what other people besides these with names like “Cardenas” or “Hernandez” had gone through in their lives.

    After many hours of reflection about this incident, I realize that Irasema was not solely responsible for this confrontation in front of the class.  There are many situations and persons that had factored into how Irasema processed information relating to culture.  In addition to family and friends, I also think that the way in which the class was learning about culture was not effective.  I think the class was looking at culture from a very narrow perspective.  The cultural diversity lesson was taught in a “box-checking atmosphere.”  The student was classified as one culture or the other culture – Native American, African American, etc.  Even though the class demographics were not very diverse, the representation of the diversity through the photo of the Native American hanging on the wall did not offer a broad enough perspective for students to understand diversity.  There may have been one other student who named more than one cultural influence in their family’s heritage, but for the most part, the students in the class associated with only one background.

My double ethnicity is a large part of who I am today.  I have had difficult situations with people in both cultures, Hispanic and Middle Eastern.  For example, there have been awkward silences when talking to people of Middle Eastern decent.  Some of these people are shocked that I associate with my mother’s decent rather than my father’s.  This is an outrageous perspective to Middle Eastern culture, because the man is more dominant than the woman.  The same problem has arisen when discussing the male/female roles with people in the Hispanic culture.  There are more differences than similarities between these two cultures.  The Middle Eastern culture presently draws more attention on a national level. 

In a post 9/11 world, the Middle Eastern culture is constantly under scrutiny.  I may not agree with some of the traditional customs of the culture, however, I do understand that my family is represented under the category.  The discrimination against persons of Middle Eastern decent has increased dramatically post 9/11.  Ethnicity is a less casual matter now for persons of Middle Eastern decent.  According to various surveys, most people who board a plane take into consideration the passengers, and are specifically wary of those of Middle Eastern decent.  In addition, the American culture does not understand that there are many countries in the Middle East that did not have a part in the 9/11 attacks.  There are too many cultures in the Middle Eastern states to combine under either “Arab” or “terrorist.”  Yet, these two terms have become synonymous. 

For example, Balbir Singh Sohdi was killed in the Phoenix area after 9/11 because he appeared to be Middle Eastern and wore a turban.  Balbir had not done anything to the perpetrator and furthermore he was a Sikh, not a Muslim Arab as the shooter presumed.  Balbir was killed because of hate, which in my opinion stemmed from the shooter’s/murderer’s lack of understanding of other cultures and possibly his unwillingness to understand other cultures.    This murder was classified as a hate crime and involved racial profiling.  The perpetrator sought out Balbir because of his appearance.  According to Salah D. Hassan in his article "Arabs, Race, and Post-September 11th National Security State,”  “hatred, suspicion, and unequal treatment of Arabs by the justice system is more significantly tied to the perception that they [Arabs] are foreign enemies of the United States”  (Middle East Report 224, 2002, p. 18).  The individual who killed Balbir did not know anything about him.  The action was based upon an assumption that Balbir stood for Anti-America.  Obviously, this situation was more traumatic than my third grade presentation incident.  However, the similarity comes into focus by the divisive nature of the action and the discriminatory basis behind the action. 

America is supposed to be a mixture of many cultures coming together and forming an accepting community.  In most cases, this co-habitation across cultural borderlands is successful, however there are exceptions as with the murder of Balbir.  My incident took place at a time when violence in the classroom due to culture clashes was not likely.  But there was a subtle violence in the challenge to my identity, to suggest I was an Other.  Presently, times are different and cultural differences need to be discussed before situations get out of hand.   

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