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"Being Afghan,
a Cultural Inquiry in the United States"

by Hossna Sadat, MA
San Diego, California

How many of you have you been asked, “Where are you from?” When asked this common question, Americans expect an answer like Afghanistan, as opposed to the city we live in or were raised. Many people may not even know the difference between asking someone where they are from; what their ethnicity is, to even guessing what their racial background might be, and whether they are naturalized citizens or not. Unlike my parent’s generation, many Afghan-Americans encounter situations in which they are repeatedly asked these series of questions. For Afghans who’ve immigrated to the United States as adolescents or were born and raised in America, with little or no memory of their ancestral homeland, this query poses a bicultural challenge.

On a very unusual job interview several years ago, I was asked a series of personal questions that violated the protection of the Equal Employment Opportunity guideline. As I was explaining my educational and career background, a member on the hiring panel suddenly interrupted me. The interviewer asked, “Where are you from originally?” My shrewd response was I am from San Diego, California. Then, I was asked, “where are your parents from?” At this point I knew where this conversation was going. “Kabul, Afghanistan.” I replied proudly. The persistence of discovering my background continued and I was asked if my family was religious and where our loyalties were regarding political affiliation. My experience at this interview panel brought me to a place of discomfort and personal discovery.

After politely complying, the interview shifted quickly from my professional expertise to my personal life. I interjected, “How are these questions related to my qualifications for this position?” Although I felt offended, when I was asked these irrelevant questions, I knew that cultural understanding and competency of Afghan Muslims was insufficient for the larger American community.

Like many of you, having to explain my cultural ethnicity, place of birth, the meaning of my Arabic first and last name, and where I am from has been a great challenge to explain to other non-Afghans or non-Muslim Americans. Most Afghans who live in North America, Europe, or Oceania may also know precisely what I mean by the need of over explanation. I do feel connected to my Afghan heritage and hope to cultivate the traditions passed to me onto my own children and grandchildren in order to keep our cultural legacy alive.

For Afghans who have lived abroad, returning to the homeland doesn’t necessarily mean an end to classification. To Afghans in the homeland, those returning from abroad are labeled “foreign Afghan” because of acting in ways that are seemingly more American or westernized than Afghan. This type of classifying people in society can lead to cultural segregation and internalized racism. Afghan society in the Diaspora and within Afghanistan have experienced centuries of societal annihilation because of this ongoing issue, which has created social tension and conflict. One way to end this enduring struggle is to empower ourselves to embrace each of our unique identities and point out similarities, rather than focusing on our differences and projecting negativity.

A slight accent and selected choice of words will distinguish people from one another. Though everyone’s experiences, perceptions and way of living vary, distinguishing ourselves along ethnic and tribal lines creates more problems as we try to assimilate ourselves in our host countries. A cultural spectrum, for example, can comprise the distinct cultural subgroups: Afghan, Afghan-American, and American. Yet, despite how our diverse ways of living are, we, Afghans, share some commonalities in our ability to thrive even under stressful conditions and to find resourceful ways to live a prosperous lifestyle: when our families are protected, seeking greater opportunities to purse higher educational and career advancement, and most importantly being linked to our cultural roots. As Tim Eigo writes, “For Afghan Americans, integration means earning enough to support their family, maintaining cultural and traditional beliefs, and experiencing some stability and satisfaction within the community.” (Afghan Americans, 2007)

Even with the many immigration waves of Afghans in America, the Afghan identity is still nonexistent in national survey assessments and measures. How many of you have filled out medical charts, immigration papers, and/or academic applications that inquire what race you identify yourself? One would assume that with the rise to prominence and greater visibility of the Afghan Diaspora, especially in the United States, that there would be inclusion of an option for being Afghan or at least Central Asian in government classifications. Instead, we are all lumped into the same category as Caucasian, similar to other countries that are culturally and/or geographically Middle Eastern. Being categorized Caucasian is very problematic for Afghans because coming from one of the poorest countries in the world, lacking in native fluency of English, ethnically different than the European ethnicity, and not benefiting from Anglo-White privileges, Afghans become marginalized. Many Afghans have to struggle against many barriers in order to gain acceptance into higher levels of education or land a lucrative job without their name and physical appearances serving as liabilities against them.

It’s imperative to unite everyone by creating a multicultural society that includes equality for all. In the United States, evidence-base research has proven that immigrants who have maintained their cultural roots are more likely to overcome vast societal challenges. For our parents and grandparents, living in the United States and in Europe has become an open-door privilege. Indeed there has been more living challenges in Afghanistan compared to the United States and Europe. For one, the educational system in Afghanistan still lacks resources for teaching and learning. Yet, the thirst for learning is still extensive around the under-developed country. Being able to achieve any objective in life is possible as long as there is passion in making a difference, being self-motivated and recognized along the way.

Asking people where they are from, when they have resided in the United States all their life, simply estranges them from being part of a geographical region. Instead, cultural inquiries can be asked in the appropriate timing and relative context; where first there is a structure of appreciation of world cultures. Having the Afghan identity included on statistical surveys will embrace Afghans in America in a greater light. Being nationally and internationally recognized in sectors of academia, politics, and entertainment are areas where cultural expansion begins. With President Barack Hussein Obama, there may be hope for multicultural understanding and acceptance of diverse racial and social identities. There is a need to generate a valuable “melting-pot society;” one that also accepts the culturally rich Afghan mosaic into the mix. Being the first and youngest Afghan female to serve as a college dean, in the United States, I share my experience in order to make a difference in the world. I encourage many Afghans to seek further and higher education, serve as a leader, become a remarkable parent and mentor, and advocate for the establishment of a category for Afghans, so that they can be globally renowned and rewarded for their existence in our developing international society.

Hossna Sadat is a Dean at San Diego Mesa College, School of Social/Behavioral Sciences & Multicultural Studies. She completed her dual Bachelors of Arts degrees in History and Political Science from the University of California, San Diego and her Masters of Arts degree in Education with emphasis in Multicultural Counseling and Social Justice from San Diego State University.

Published in In Motion Magazine August 25, 2009

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