PORTLAND – After making a zine about my family, I was particularly inspired by my collage of stills from a video of when my Grandpa’s cousin first came to America. Watching the way he interacted with JFK and other officials, in conjunction with the curiosity and excitement throughout the video, I couldn’t help but resonate with the feeling of looking at America from the ‘outsider’ perspective. Though I was born in Portland, like many first gen Americans, I’ve always felt like a foreigner in my own city and all throughout America. The duality of my identity became clear to me when I was young, everytime I’d leave my Libyan-filled home and enter white Portland. 

Classmates and teachers consistently asked “Where are you from?” and after responding with “Portland,” they would persist with the question “Where are you really from?”. As if the correct answer didn’t suffice their presumption of my brownness, I’d respond with “Libya”. They’d then nod with a face of approval, because that was the answer they were looking for. They didn’t want to know where I was born, they wanted to know my ethnicity. I’ve grown to hate that question, because it consistently reminded me that I didn’t belong or will never be like the rest of my peers even though I was born in the US like the rest of them. My name tended to spark this question because it didn’t fit the normalcy society prescribed to non-ethnic names. This feeling of being otherized even extended to discriminations I’ve experienced since pre-k in school environments, airports, and most public spaces.

Like many first-gens, I’m navigating two cultures simultaneously. I felt a pressure to be one or the other, but I soon realized that I was a blend of both. I felt too foreign for America but too American for the Arab diaspora. As I grow in understanding my heritage, I’m artistically inspired by concepts of movement and freedom within culture. A majority of my work explores my identity from my perspective, the ways in which Arabs are viewed from the western world, and revealing things about my community that are lesser-known/misrepresented. In exposing vulnerabilities within my life in the context of being First generation Arab-American, I hope to humanize my identity and reduce xenophobia.

As much as people didn’t see me as an American, I didn’t even feel wholeheartedly Libyan. I’m a cultural anomaly to my own community. I felt pressure from white peers to present myself as someone confident in their culture, when in reality the first gen experience is not as simple. The resentment I felt from discrimination helped me embrace my culture, and I find myself seeking refuge in it for inspiration and pride. I felt a growing disdain for the overall value prescribed to BIPOC for their closeness to whiteness, and recently found myself moving away from the feeling of wanting to be white.

These photos are a representation of my experience of being first gen American in Portland. I wore a traditional jalabiya dress on top of a western outfit to symbolize the embrace of both cultures, and the idea of being perceived as a foreigner despite my American origins. I took photos in tourist locations to look like a tourist in my own city. In the video of my relative entering the US, he himself visited tourist locations in Washington D.C. In recreating that piece to my own experience, I was living vicariously through him, but redefining my Senussi name. I received a lot of stares in the process, but that was expected from white Portland. It emphasized my point of the aversion American society has to BIPOC (Black, Indegenous, People of Colour) ethnic cultures simply because they don’t fit the image of whiteness. 

It felt fitting to show this project leading up to July 4th. A day that marks American pride, is beginning to lose its value to this generation in recent events. I never felt attached to that day because of how much I was made to feel “not-American”, and literally every oppressive system in this country makes me mad, so why celebrate that? 

I hope this sparks some perspective into the millions of immigrant families that run this country, but rarely receive recognition for doing so. And the millions of BIPOC first-gens grappling with oppressive systems and numerous identity crises. 

About Guest writer Tasneem Sarkez:

Tasneem Sarkez is a youth artist who works with a variety of media such as photography, video, mixed media, painting, and more. Her work centers on the experience of being Arab American, First-generation, and a Muslim female. Tasneem constantly incorporates aspects of her culture, family history, themes of nostalgia, diaspora and racism into her work. When not making work about her identity, she is making patterned designs and sketches that touch on similar themes of movement and culture. By engaging people with work about her identity, she is pushing to represent stories that are overlooked.