“American? No, no you’re {insert identity statement here}.”

Everytime I hear that statement, I cringe. Our elders, who often emigrated from other countries, mean well. They are trying to preserve a culture important to them. They want to make sure that we know and celebrate the same traditions they do. They want to have something in common with us. All too often, though, they don’t realize that as Muslims growing up as a first generation in the United States, we have to manage multiple identities.

Identity. Sometimes we are born into it, other times we choose it. Most often, it is a complex mix of both (Tweet this). There are privileges that come with navigating multiple identities. We often end up learning things that afford us the skills that will get us further. However, most often, the most striking lesson is what it feels like to not belong completely to any one group.

We now have a generation that has grown up purely in a post 9/11 society. One that has been rife with anti-Muslim sentiment. Youth are dealing with a lot. Sure, aunties and uncles will say, “What are you talking about? You have a nice house, you drive a car and you’re going to college to become {insert professional degree here}.” The reality is many societal factors, including racism, Islamophobia, and classism, all pile on top of the complexity of identity (Tweet this). Am I Pakistani? American? Muslim? Or all three? Add to that the fact that some would say that being Muslim and American is impossible. Youth may not only have to grapple with making sense of the pieces of their identity but also what those pieces mean in the context of the larger society.

The concept of double consciousness is appropriate here. Introduced by W.E.B. Du Bois, double consciousness is how a person views themselves through the eyes of others (1903/1994). In the case of American Muslim youth, growing up in a society that views Muslims as a threat, oppressed, and unwanted, means that we have to grapple with the way society views us and the way we know ourselves to truly be; for example, people keep saying I am a bad person because I’m Muslim and that makes me feel sad or angry but I know that I am a good person and my faith is important to me (Tweet this). Having to manage this requires a lot of energy; energy that could be used into growing into our best selves. In a way, we are merely surviving instead of thriving.

Within group identity imposition is also a cause of much angst. How many Muslim medical doctors do we know? Expectations of the identity we are expected to take can have a toll on us as we grapple with who we are expected to be and who we really want to be. How many of us have had non-Muslims express concern or surprise of our Muslim identity? How do we cope with that? We may be torn between the desire to fit in or be understood and the desire to be closer to our faith. Even worse, some of us may experience discrimination because we are Muslim. At that point, depending on the severity of the act, we may face a question of survival.

In addition to the energy used in maintaining multiple identities, awareness of our identities and what they mean can impact our mental health as well. We are often exposed to traumatic material and that can have an affect on us, particularly if it relates to a piece of our identity. In a study I conducted on vicarious trauma (the trauma we may experience after being vicariously exposed) in American Muslims, nearly 1 in 3 American Muslim respondents had disruptions to how safe they felt and how safe they felt their loved ones were (Ashraf, 2015). Their responses reflected existential questioning, a sense of hurt and of not belonging. Clearly, things are not easy because we are in a more economically developed country.

What all this may cause is confusion, anxiety, and even depression (Tweet this). The way we choose to deal with it is unique to each person. Some folks may deny certain parts of their identity. Others may do everything in their power to be all things all the time. Still others may just retreat into a shell. For those who do learn to manage these identities, there still remains the need for great energy to do so.

As we consider what we can do to help, the first and perhaps most powerful thing that can be done is honoring that this process exists and it’s not as simple as saying ‘you’re {this} or {that}.’ Not making youth feel as if they are unfounded in feeling and thinking the way they are. Having honest conversations about identity and not sugar coating our existence about having it easier in the United States. Becoming is a complicated process and one that truly never ends and looks different for every person. At any given moment, we may be a different {me}. All together, those make up who we are. It takes time for youth to figure this out. They need time, space, and love to become.

 

Ashraf, A. (2015). Vicarious trauma and American Muslims: A mixed methods study.

Du Bois, W. E. B. (1903/1994). The Souls of Black Folk. Avenel, NJ: Gramercy Books.