Out In The Open·Personal Essay

I'm Lebanese-Canadian but my white-passing appearance gives me a window into the racism of others

Toronto writer and journalist James Chaarani says his fair skin leads some people not to know he's a Muslim-raised Lebanese-Canadian. Sometimes he uses his "white-passing" ability to his advantage, but the privilege also comes with gaining painful access to unfiltered versions of racism.

James Chaarani says his fair skin leads some people not to know he's a Muslim-raised Lebanese-Canadian

James Chaarani says his ability to pass as white exposes him to Islamophobia and ethnic hatred. (Submitted by James Chaarani)

This essay was originally published on September 20, 2019.

James Chaarani, Special to CBC Radio

My name is James. And yes, that's my real name. 

Some people who know that I'm Lebanese-Canadian and was raised Muslim have questioned it. They think that I made it up to try to fit in, but I didn't. My mom called me James because she liked James Bond.

But to people who don't know my ethnic or religious background, I might look like a James. Because, I'm "white-passing"... which means that I'm so fair-skinned that many people think I'm white. And sometimes, this ability to disguise myself can come in handy.

I mean, North America has become a stressful place for families like mine.

Here in Canada, I fear the rise of Islamophobia that I see on full view right next door. In the United States, President Trump was able to pass a travel ban that mostly targetted Muslim majority countries. At a campaign rally this past July, some of his supporters chanted "Send her back!", referring to Muslim-American Democratic congresswoman Ilhan Omar.

As a kid of Muslim-Lebanese immigrants, I feel the need to conceal who I am when I'm crossing the U.S border. I even trim my beard, just in case it gives me away. It's not that I've done anything wrong. I just don't want to be hassled. And it's paid off: I can't remember the last time a border guard gave me any trouble. 

​ I know that it's a privilege to pass, because I don't face the sort of profiling or aggression that a person of colour with an Arabic name and accent might. But many of the benefits I experience can be unsettling too.- James Chaarani

I know that it's a privilege to pass, because I don't face the sort of profiling or aggression that a person of colour with an Arabic name and accent might. But many of the benefits I experience can be unsettling too. 

Since I'm so inconspicuous, it means I also get access to unfiltered versions of Islamophobia and ethnic hatred. I see and hear the subtle bigotry that some non-Arab people express amongst themselves, because they think I'm one of them.

I've had people confess their disdain of Arabs and Muslims as though it's natural to worry about people like me. I've also heard that we're violent, that we cause trouble; that stereotypes exist for a reason. And all of these things have been said right to my face... all because people assume that I'm white. 

But they don't realize that I'm exactly who they fear or fathom. 

I get the privilege of gazing into society's ugly face, and I get a behind-the-scenes look at what people are really thinking beyond the pleasantries and social etiquette that keeps a lot of this ignorance underground.

I used to have an Israeli-Canadian landlord who I really liked. He was a personable guy who felt like a close friend from the moment we met. And we'd always have long conversations together. One day while we were chatting at my place, and I can't remember why it came up, but he warned me that Muslims were troublemakers and dangerous. 

In that moment, I said nothing. 

But later in the conversation, he asked where my family was from. I told him: Lebanon, which seemed to embarrass him. Then he asked whether I was Christian or Muslim... and I lied. I said that I was a Christian. 

Usually, I speak out when I find myself in a situation like this. But it was one of the few times that I didn't. Maybe it was because I really liked him and didn't want to disturb our friendship. Or maybe I just wasn't in the mood to be confrontational. Calling people out can be so exhausting.

James Chaarani, pictured with his mother Amal, says some people who don't know he's a Muslim-raised Lebanese-Canadian read him as white. (Submitted by James Chaarani)

When I think about someone like my mom, whose name is Amal, I know that she wouldn't get away with this. Her name is ambiguous enough. And she's fair-skinned like me. But she wears a hijab, which obviously gives her away. Her life is so much different than mine. And I get to see when I'm around her.

Like, last winter, when my siblings, my mom and I all drove up to a cottage a few hours northwest of Toronto. Along the way, we stopped at a country kitchen for lunch. As we sat down, people turned, looked at us, and whispered amongst themselves. Some people stared for what seemed like the entire time. I could almost feel their eyes crawling on my skin. I figured we were getting this attention because of my mom's hijab. But I remember thinking, is this the first time that they've seen a hijabi? But this town was so close to Toronto, one of the most multicultural cities in the world!

As we were leaving the restaurant, I asked my mom if she was bothered by it. She laughed, and said she liked the attention. Apparently, it made her feel like a celebrity. I'm not quite sure if I believe her, but maybe that was just her way of dealing with it.

I know that if I'd gone to that restaurant alone, I probably would've enjoyed my fish and chips... and would have remembered it as a quaint little spot, rather than somewhere where I don't feel welcome.

James Chaarani (left) with members of his family (Submitted by James Chaarani)

When I'm by myself, the things I sometimes hear make me angry. How can ordinary people in my day-to-day life be so casual about their ignorance? This stuff also makes me afraid too, since we've seen where it can all lead to.

In Myanmar, Rohingya Muslims were abused, displaced and even killed. In Xinjiang, China they're forcing Muslims into re-education camps even if they committed no crime. 

I often wonder... could something like this happen in Canada? I know, I know – it might sound paranoid. But Japanese descendants in Canada were sent to internment camps in the 1940s and their property and businesses were sold. About 150,000 Inuit, Métis, and First Nations children were forced to attend federally-run residential schools. And approximately 6,000 of them died there. 

We live in a world where anything is possible. 

On one hand, I wish I didn't have to hear these things.That it would all go away. But it's not going anywhere, so... I guess I'm grateful for this privilege. I'd rather know what people around me are actually thinking, so I can gauge where society is at.

This insight has made me aware of the importance to "out" myself as a Muslim-born Lebanese-Canadian when I encounter these situations in public. Even when I don't, I still think it's important to make it known who and what I am. I hope that by doing so, I can help to destroy stereotypes about people like me and show that we're just like everybody else. 

Maybe I could've changed my landlord's mind had I spoken up, instead of him thinking that there's something wrong with Muslims. 

The next time I travel to the States, I still plan on trimming my beard... because really, would confronting bigotry at the border do anything other than give me a headache?

Although life, in general, would be easier for me if I always kept my beard trim and voice low, I think I owe it to my family and my community to speak up whenever I can... to not just be James, the "white" guy, but the James that I really am.

James Chaarani is a writer and journalist based in Toronto.

This story appears in the Out in the Open episode "Come to Pass".