Human: Part III

If you separate yourself from your accomplishments, titles, and possessions, then who are you really? At work, I am Ms. Naima, the math instructor. At school, I am an unfamiliar passerby on the campus of George Mason University. And on Instagram, I am Naima, the yogi, contemporary artist, and blogger. But if we tap into our subconscious mind and explore our inner selves– strengths, vulnerabilities, aspirations, fear– then we discover the aspects that truly define us. Apart from being an employee, a classmate, a community member, or otherwise, who are you? We make myriad assumptions about other people every day, an automatic process conducted by the subconscious mind.

As I stood in front of a college class for a presentation today, I couldn’t help but wonder about the gaps that my audience may have filled in their minds regarding who I am. I shouldn’t be concerned with directly influencing others’ perception of me; doing so is just as ineffective as beating a dead horse. But observing the nature of perception (of humans and the world around us) is intriguing because our thoughts are presumably flexible, and thus, subject to external influence. It is often that I spend the nights in quiet introspection, as I lay my thoughts on the floor of my mind and pretend to be an outsider. These thoughts are organized based on category: art, religion, culture, politics, academia, and more.

I challenge myself to consider the counter-view of my beliefs so that I may gain an awareness of diverse perspectives. Some may call this practice “walking in other people’s shoes.” My history professor and I call it “mental flexibility.” During this process, I observe the contours of my face and employ the imaginative part of my mind. I imagine myself as a single individual among billions of humans. These people do not have unique countenances– no unique race, religion, background, or character. We are truly a unified human race in this scenario (which only exists in the boundaries of my skull). We do not compare each other on the basis of financial status or ridicule unique gender identities (many of which were recently introduced by the millennial generation). We are mind, body, and spirit . We are one collective whole on this planet. We are not a dollar amount, a simulation of photoshopped magazine covers, or titles upon titles of resume-perfect accomplishments.

We are thoughts expressing themselves through character and action.

We are vulnerability– embraced by the self or not.

We are human.

Ever-Evolving Perceptions of the Self

Self-acceptance is crucial to developing a healthy perception of who we are. But throughout my pre-adolescent years (and even today), my self-perception often clashes with the ideas that other people form of who I am. The eighth grade, as I remember it, was a year when I was content with who I was. In my mind’s eye, I walk confidently past Ms. Lawhon’s pre-algebra class. I was (and still am) the girl who would strike up a conversation with anyone, crack a joke with the classmate sitting next to her, and a student who worked tirelessly to be successful in and out of the classroom. But through new phases of my life, such as the beginning of high school and the transition to college, I tend to question and form new perceptions of who I am.

One of the greatest challenges in developing a positive self-image was my decision to wear the Hijab. I remember walking into Information Systems class on the second day of freshman year and imagining the perception of my eighth grade-self fade away. Was I truly the bubbly girl with fluffy, black hair that complimented her smile? I could no longer see that image, as my head was now covered by a pashmina scarf. Perhaps defining myself by the way I looked was a bit destructive. But I was still the same person, wasn’t I? The only difference now was that I was in a new environment with students who looked far too grown for me to label them my “peers.” I shrunk nervously in my seat. I was intimidated because my once-shining self-perception was now a mirror through which I couldn’t see myself. Over several months, I found a solution that would take years to accomplish: to develop a self-image that complimented my wish to represent my faith well. But the greatest accomplishment I achieved on this seemingly-endless journey was giving myself the power to define myself the way I chose. I could no longer hear the voices of those whose religious stereotypes contradicted my self-perception. They can say whatever they want, but I will never give up, I thought.

Sometimes, as I run my fingers through my hair, I’ll imagine what it’d be like if I didn’t wear the Hijab. My side-swept bangs and thick layers were much too beautiful to cover up, weren’t they? Think again. Bullies pushed me to think more deeply about my commitment to my beliefs and the way I represented myself. The toughest part of this journey was digging deeper within myself to realize that there was more to me than what I looked like. There was character, a bright soul, and a compassionate heart that strives to treat all people fairly.

So as I walked through countless classroom doors during freshman year, I learned how to carry myself with more dignity. All of my strength, all of my pride, all of my honor was built on the idea that I—I had the power to define myself. Today, it’s vital to maintain self-acceptance and a clear perception of who I am, as I navigate the highs and lows of my college years.

A couple of days ago, I went to the pool in my burquini (modest bathing suit). I’ll admit, it did bother me that other people stared and may have been judging me. But I remind myself that anyone’s pre-conceived notions about who I am—because of my religion or ethnicity—is not worth worrying about. However, I do find it baffling that those who stereotype any minority group forget that underneath any religious attire is a human, a person who has accomplished countless feats throughout their lifetime, an individual who has friends and family who care about them.