My ethnic heritage is from quite a few parts of Europe – England, Scotland, a little bit of Ireland, Germany, Poland, and if you consider Jewish an ethnicity, as many do, that figures prominently as well. You get the idea: I'm European-American. In more common terms, I'm white.
And I wear hijab. I think the sight of me is a little jarring. Some people start and then look away. Some people stare. Children always stare. Some people start asking me questions.
The one I probably hear most often is “Where are you from?” I know what they mean, but there's no simple way to answer the question, just as there's no right way for them to ask it. So I usually just answer, “New Jersey.”
“But where is your family from? “”New York State.”"Yes, but are they American?” Now that's tricky, using “American” in this case. Many immigrants have attained US citizenship and thus are “American.” But again, I know what they mean.
“Yes, my family is American.”
“But from where?” Finally we get to the heart of what they're asking, and I answer, “Oh, Europe – England, Scotland, Germany,” etc., just as I described above. “I'm a mutt!” I sometimes say with a smile. So we establish that I am indeed that rare creature whose numbers are growing - a white American Muslim.
Moving on from there, they explore how it could possibly be that someone with American citizenship whose ancestors came from Europe ended up with the hijab on her head.
“Is your husband Muslim?”
“But I became Muslim before I married him.” Oh.
Once I was at the mechanics' waiting for my car repairs to be done, and a woman sitting near me asked the above series of questions. She pursued it even further by asking about my religious background, and after hearing that whole story she seemed satisfied. But then she asked one more question.
“So are you the same religion as those people in Iraq? ” Now that I was unprepared to answer. I guess the answer is well, yes…but no. But that's a topic for another day.