“One ever feels his twoness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” – W.E.B. Du Bois
Being the child of first-generation immigrants’ can feel like a schizophrenic exercise. 13.3 million Europeans live their lives as cultural Frankensteins, a crude stitching of two cultures, two languages and two ways of life. We may belong to this place, a place where our parents crossed oceans and continents to get to, yet a part of our hearts is adrift elsewhere, in lands with familiarly forgotten scents and sounds. Although that land that we have been told belongs to us it is so far away from our day-to-day reality. It can be a challenging and often isolating experience. One that requires us to constantly negotiate our sense of self and identity.
Within this experience lies a phenomenon aptly coined by the sociologist Du Bois, known as ‘Double Consciousness’. It is a sensation of being caught between two worlds, one’s rich cultural heritage and the overpowering influence of the society we reside in. This results in a fractured sense of self, a disconnection from one’s true identity, and a lack of appreciation for one’s distinct experiences and perspectives. It is a feeling of detachment and isolation, an ongoing struggle with divided loyalties and a search for a sense of belonging between two places. This dichotomy remains an ongoing reality for many today.
For many 2nd generations of Arabs growing up after the tragedy of 9/11, their daily life consisted of both a stiff process of assimilation and also a time of heightened suspicion. According to a report by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, Muslim communities in Europe face significant levels of discrimination and harassment, with incidents of Islamophobia on the rise. The report found that almost 1 in 3 Muslim respondents surveyed had experienced discrimination in the previous year, and over half reported feeling excluded from mainstream society. The same report also revealed that Muslim women were disproportionately affected by discrimination, with higher rates of harassment and violence. In addition, a study by the Open Society Foundations found that young Muslims in Europe face higher levels of unemployment and poverty compared to non-Muslim peers, with some countries reporting unemployment rates as high as 40% for Muslim youth. These statistics illustrate the fragmented sense of identity for Arab-Europeans, where they must navigate the complexities of both their own cultural and religious identity, as well as the dominant European culture. This experience of double consciousness can lead to feelings of alienation and marginalization and may have negative effects on mental health and well-being.
Instead of seeing this disconnect as a disability, one should see it as a source of resilience. The amalgamation of our western privilege and our cultural perspectives given to us through both the beauty and turmoil of looking different can help us give back to those who suffer needlessly. We can adjust the scales and return the privilege stolen from our cultural homelands. Privilege ripped away from the eyes of mourning mothers and the hearts of the overworked and underpaid. Privilege ravished from virgin ancestral soil, that now resembles the craters of the moon, the absence of the abundance that once was.
For others, however, this disparity between the comforts of our lives and the deprived lives of relatives back home can induce deep greed based on the fear of loss–the fear of losing the opportunities given to us by the selfless work of our parents. Through rationalizations and justifications, we hoard more and more, terrified by the looming reality of chance. The absurd chance that, unlike our families, you have the choice to be greedy. On visits back home, the beggars and street vendors lining the square are seen as a nuisance, an eyesore in the road. You tell yourself that you are being bothered by their pitches, yet it is they who day in and day out must face the street whilst you sleep comfortably. It is they who are bothered when passers-by strip them of their humanity with a sneer. It is they who are bothered when the street is responsible for feeding and educating their family. We must understand our place in the world as creatures of abundance in a world of the deprived and make the active choice to care for the humanity of every person we see.
Within our twoness, we have a single choice, to take more or give back. Fear and conformity can skin us of our duty, replacing it with a silk suit and a 12th-floor office, only to return home to wallow in needless comforts like pigs in shit. Yet if our souls have the strength to resist ruinous comforts, our positions of privilege can become rivers of reciprocation. The gifts of privilege and perspective are the keys to helping those in the developing world. Turning the blood, sweat, and tears wept for our future into a tree that uplifts us all. This can be done in our ways. We can give back by telling the inconceivable stories of our fathers and mothers that left their homes in search of the success that keeps entire families afloat. We can give back by battling
the unfounded ideas fed to the masses on spoons of ignorance and deceit. We can dedicate our lives to every man and woman exploited in the name of a bureaucrat’s profit. We give back by sacrifice. Live your life as a deep well full of vigilant empathy and selfless servitude so that future generations may quench their thirst and past generations may look into the water and see their reflection and smile.