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Sara Al Mheiri: Playing the Race Card
November 21, 2014
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Last week, I wrote an article about the incredibly fortunate opportunity I was given to dress up as an actual geisha and walk through the traditional streets of Kyoto, Japan. Because of this, I was allowed to experience the hardships and delicacy of being a geisha, even if it was a mere fracture compared to what they endure. And then having the opportunity to come back to America and show my friends and colleagues the pictures and recount the experience was just as great as the experience itself.

However, from the moment I pull out my phone and let them scroll through the pictures, I am searching for that one look in their faces. Scrutinizing every pitch in their voice as they compliment me. Taking apart their words.

It wasn’t until last night that I realised how much I was doing this when my forced grin began to falter for a second. Where was my self-confidence? I had never been so excited for a moment like that in my life, so why was the aftermath ruining it?

Immediately after I posed that question to myself, did it start ringing it my head. The sentence “But you are brown and Arab” showed up. No, it burst out. All that anger that I had been harbouring without even realising reached its peak.

It’s not the racist comment that angered me; it’s how casually that woman in my group stated it, right before I went into the changing room. How she felt the need to point out.

Why is it that out of all the other women who also dressed up as geishas, I was the only one who was singled out? Because all the other women were Caucasian American women with small facial features?

I know my skin is too dark to be a geisha. I know my nose is a striking Arab nose and no Geisha would ever have a nose that large. I know all these things and I was okay with it; I just wanted to play pretend for those few hours. But the minute she voiced these concerns, they suddenly became highlighted.

Everyone looked at me in shocked silence, waiting for me to retaliate. But I didn’t, because who honestly has time to deal with such people. Instead, I held my head high and walked into the building proudly.

Yet deep inside, I felt like a grotesque dark monster with over exaggerated features. I placed a hand on my nose and it honestly never felt so big. And for that tiny split second, I wished I was white.

I love who I am and wouldn’t trade lives with anyone but it’s during those moments, those fleeting times when I am inflicted with these casually racist remarks that I actually reconsider plastic surgery.

I have technically already had plastic surgery. When I was eighteen, I started laser hair removal treatment for my arms and legs and to me that is on the spectrum of plastic surgery.

I didn’t need to have it. But for as long as I can remember, I was constantly being compared to my Caucasian, fair-haired classmates. Their arm hair was fair but just as thick. Were they ridiculed about it? No. Instead those remarks were passed onto me.

I look through my old school photos, and there I am, age 12, wearing a cardigan and visibly sweltering in the heat all because some boy casually commented that my hair wasn’t “nice and invisible like the other girls.” Once again, my features were placed on display because they weren’t what was considered the conventional pretty norm.

But as I said earlier, I wasn’t affected by what he said. It was how he said it. It was the equivalent of him stating that the sky was blue. My different features weren’t questionably ugly. They were ugly. Just as the woman had said that I was a brown Arab.

In any other context, it would have been a mere fact that would have been written in a short bio to describe me. But in this context, my skin colour and ethnicity was unattractive. That was the fact. There were no qualms about her judgment. She has already decided that when I walked outside in my geisha attire, I was going to look terrible.

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Sara Al Mheiri is a young Emirati woman who is currently living
in Boston, USA, where she is specialising in media studies with a
focus on women's studies. Sara is the ultimate nomad who flits
between countries observing new societies and their culture.

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