Two days ago, racism visited me again. Before it was while I was on vacation, while I was in a classroom, while I was in a club. This time racism is my neighbor. Racism met me on my front lawn.
For years, we’ve lived in this neighborhood. A suburb of Los Angeles, Woodland Hills is home to people of all backgrounds. What I’ve always loved about the San Fernando Valley is its color: you can literally find every ethnicity here. However, there are more Hispanics and Middle Easterners, and being Afghan, I felt my family fit into the multicultural fabric of the SFV.
But what I didn’t know was that racism was my neighbor. We’ve always had issues with the white family next to us. This mainly has to do with their behemoth of an RV that is not only illegally parked by using our driveway, but completely blocks out any sun into our home. One of the reasons my sister purchased this home for my parents was the sunlight that came in. It wasn’t ever really a big deal to me, but I understood why it frustrated my parents. Small arguments over time made it pretty awkward, and so I just knew not to really engage with these neighbors.
But our other neighbors we got along with. There’s an old Jewish woman two houses down; she can’t use a smartphone so I call her Ubers for her. There’s the cute Mexican kid across the street, he cries a little when he and my nephew cant stay out to play late at night. There’s Lisa and her cool-rock star husband, my mom told them they can pick the pomegranates off our tree anytime they want. We wave at each other every day. And of course there’s countless Persians on our block, they know my family well and have been over a couple times.
But the racists on the right? I didn’t know they were racist. I gave them the benefit of the doubt, even though they fit the stereotype: loud country music, American flags up everywhere, originally from Texas, with tattoos and pick-up trucks. Those things didn’t phase me, and even now I don’t want to project a message that anyone who sports those attributes are white hicks.
Two days ago, my father noticed cracks in our cement thanks to their heavy RV using our driveway. So he confronted our white neighbors. I looked through the window to see my mother and father, in a yelling match with Racist Husband and Wife. And so I went outside. And Neda came following me, barefoot, in her cute blue sundress and pigtail hair.
I kept quiet. If they’re talking about parking, I’m gonna let them talk. I’m just here to watch. I checked myself in my head; this was their fight, not mine to pick. But then it turned ugly. The following is what I remember of the dialogue:
Racist Wife: “This neighborhood was beautiful before all the foreigners moved in! All these lawns used to be so nice! Then all these outsider foreigners moved in and now the lawns have gone to shit!”
I was shocked. I couldn’t process it fast enough. I marched towards her.
“Excuse me? What does my parents nationality have to do with anything? What does it have to do with lawns?”
Racist Wife: “Ya I said it! I SAID IT! FOREIGNERS! ALL OF YOU! And you need to respect your elders!”
“Respect flew out the window the second you brought up our background. So what if were foreign? Unless you’re native American you can’t call us foreigners cuz you are too lady”
Racist Wife: “At least we were born here okay! Your parents werent born here!”
“Ya well I was and that’s my lawn too. We’re proud of being foreign. At least we know where we’re from. Unlike you, probably don’t even know which part of Europe your from so you project your ethnic insecurity on people who are proud of their roots. You’re disgusting. You’re a typical racist”.
Racist Wife: “Well, at least I didn’t say the N word!!”
I literally have absolutely no fucking clue why this dumb bitch brought that shit up. Was it her PC way of proving she’s not racist? So the N-word is like the ultimate threshold of what it means to be racist? No fucking clue. That was super weird. I literally had the most confused look on my face.
“What the flying fuck does that have to do with anything?”
That’s when Racist Husband knew shit got too crazy. He held his wife back, told her to get in the car. He kept screaming out, “Freedom of speech!” (typical white rebuttal). As they walked away I said,
“Ya, and my freedom of speech lets me point out that you nasty ass racists killed and raped native Americans for centuries and then pout your privilege out to other people and try to tell us wtf foreign means.”
And then they got in their car, flicked me off a couple times, and drove away.
The whole time, my princess Neda, ran from me to our neighbors, yelling, pleading, “Stop! Stop! No more fighting! Don’t say that, stop it!”
For the rest of the day, she hid under the covers and cried, while I shook and cried myself.
For my niece Neda:
One day when you’re older, you will realize how different we are. You will understand that people like us are not welcome here. You will notice that no matter how assimilated you are, they will still call you foreign. Sometimes they will call you even meaner names. Sometimes your name will not be Neda. It will be “towel-head”, “camel-jocky”, “sand-n*gger”, “terrorist”.
Neda, you were born here, your parents were educated here. But I’m sorry, this isn’t enough. I wish I could protect you from what they will call you. Being half Iranian and half Afghan means you will combat more stereotypes than I did.
You will grow up and go to American schools. You will learn American history and pledge to the flag every morning. You will work in American companies, and celebrate American holidays, you will forget Farsi and Pashto, and maybe you will marry an American man, but this will not be enough, I am sorry. You will pay American taxes and carry an American passport. Neda, this will not be enough.
You will face hostility, you will wonder if it’s because of your background. When people ask you “where you’re from”, you can’t say Los Angeles; Neda, that’s not what they mean. What they mean is, your hair is different, your eyes are darker, your name is foreign. What they mean is, what weird sandy place are your people from? Who are you really? Whose team are you on? Where does your allegiance lie? What do you think of 9/11? What do you think of this country? What do you think of these wars? Will you ever go back? Do you hate us?
My sweet Neda, my heart breaks because I know these encounters will happen. You are so lively and happy, I’m sorry one day your identity will be handed to you. My sweet Neda, you might be confused and hurt, but I want you to know that your identity is what you want it to be. Do not let these titles limit or define you. You’re magical and powerful, you wont be tied down because of these labels. You’re so magnificent, you can be all of these things at once. Don’t let them fool you: it is completely okay to be American and Iranian and Afghan and Muslim and an Angeleno and a girl and a brunette and whatever else they box you in as. You can be all of these things because you are just that special. And even though you were born here, you can be foreign too; a foreigner to hate, a foreigner to bigotry, a foreigner to small-minds. Being foreign is not dirty, my sweet Neda.
Neda, your parents come from two nations with rich histories. Do not let these people tell you otherwise. Your Iran is thousands of years old, with stories and accomplishments that absolutely sh*t on any American history. Your Afghanistan is home to the Graveyard of Empires, with some of the strongest people on earth. Do not let them say otherwise.
And if you are ever scared or confused, and you want to hide under the covers, that’s okay too. And if I am still around then, you can ask me how I dealt with it. I am yours and you are mine, my perfect princess. Even when you are not enough for them, you will be everything and more for me.