To Understand The Rust Belt, We Need To See Beyond Whiteness

It’s strange to see the media turn its attention to places like my hometown in coal-country Pennsylvania and find that my experience there, as part of the non-white working class, is still invisible.

I grew up in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, a small city in a swing county in a swing state deep in the Rust Belt, the sort of demographic puzzle that voted to elect Barack Obama twice and then swung, dramatically, for Donald Trump. In the wake of the election, there’s been a steady stream of articles with headlines like “The Places That Made Trump President” or “The Humanity of Trump Voters” or “Welcome to Trumplandia” — not to mention books like the bestseller Hillbilly Elegy — that turn places like my hometown, which “broke” Republican after voting Democrat for decades, into political fetish objects. After years of obscurity, the Rust Belt I grew up in is suddenly at the center of conversations about the “white working class,” their crucial role in Trump’s victory, and their future under his presidency.

Seeing the name of my hometown in a dateline never fails to give me a queasy little thrill, like getting an update about an ex. But I’ve watched this phenomenon with increasing dismay as, over and over, the economic and cultural “crisis” in the small, post-industrial cities and towns that dot the Northeast and Midwest is presented as some exquisite torture felt only by white Americans. In this narrative, people of color — people like me — are whitewashed out of the story entirely.

I live in New York City now, and when people learn where I grew up, I always get the same politely bemused question: “How did your family end up there?” No one ever says why they’re asking, but I know it’s because of my olive skin and my curly hair and especially (I suspect) my possibly Muslim name. I’m Arab-American; my (Christian) Syrian grandparents were among the many Arabs who came to the Rust Belt, largely from Syria and Lebanon, in search of work in the first half of the 20th century.

Like most of my classmates growing up, I had grandparents on both sides who came to the area to work for the coal mining industry, which collapsed before I was born. And the deep economic insecurity that came out of that collapse, now at last in the news, was very much part of my upbringing. But I keep reading these news stories in hope of seeing glimpses of families like mine, keep hoping to hear the voices of people of color living in the Rust Belt, and I haven’t found them yet.

Too many pieces I’ve read about white working-class Trump voters take their claims of race neutrality at face value, without looking at how race, as well as gender and class and sexual orientation, works within those communities. Too many understand power and powerlessness as a simple case of an imbalance between the coastal elites versus the vast, undifferentiated, and powerless middle.

This kind of oversimplification only reinforces what President Obama called the “zero-sum game” of American prosperity in his farewell address to the nation this week. And Obama made the stakes of this all too clear: “If every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hard-working white middle class and undeserving minorities, then workers of all shades will be left fighting for scraps.”

Overlooking families like mine, making the mistake of believing (or suggesting) that people of color don’t share working- and middle-class struggles, only reinforces their political and economic marginality. And reading all these stories about my own “forgotten,” “unhappy” hometown, a place my family lived in for generations and which I’ve spent the past two decades trying to explain to my friends in New York, only makes me feel more invisible.

The mines were shuttered by the time my own parents were adults, and there was no nostalgia in my family for that brutal work. But getting by in Wilkes-Barre, especially without a college degree, was never easy. My father was a bartender, my mother a secretary. My parents met in the early ’70s when my mom applied for a second job as a cocktail waitress at his bar. She is white, from another predominant ethnic group in my hometown: Lithuanian and Polish Catholics. On my mom’s first night on the job, a customer tried to order a Tom Collins; my mother reached out her hand and said, “Johanna Siscavage, nice to meet you!” My mom’s knowledge of cocktail names never improved, and as my pushover father didn’t have the heart to fire her, he asked her to marry him instead.

I think of those years at the bar where they met, the only one my dad ever owned himself, as my parents’ golden age. The photos from that time are all shine: disco-ball ceilings and patent leather heels, my mother’s blonde Breck girl hair and my father’s white Travolta suits. But in 1977, the year they had me — their only child — my dad lost his bar. As the town's population shrank throughout my childhood, the bustling town square my parents remembered from the '50s and '60s gradually transformed into the strip of blood banks and pawn shops I knew in my teens. To grow up where I did, when I did, was to grow up feeling belated.

My parents were almost always worried about money, under- and unemployment a kind of constant tidal tug. My father, and by extension our family, lived largely off tips, so we could only be as successful as the town was. My dad would work at a bar or a restaurant that would make a go of it for a while before inevitably shutting down. I remember him coming home many nights, after hours on his feet, with just 30 or 40 dollars to show for it. Eventually he took a day job as a security guard while still bartending nights and weekends. And, as it does for a lot of working-class people, my father’s job took a physical toll.

To grow up where I did, when I did, was to grow up feeling belated.

My dad was 40 when I was born. Determined to see me into adulthood, he quit social smoking and took up long-distance running, quickly assuming the faint smugness that anyone who runs 10 miles before the rest of his family wakes up seems to emit. His plan largely worked: He wasn’t diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer until I was safely in college. His doctor told us it was the second-hand smoke that did it, of course, from all his years of bartending. In the end, the job my father was so proud of, because he could wear a tie and not come home dirty, was no less deadly than years breathing coal dust in a mine.

My dad’s relationship with race was cagey at best. In many ways, he was terribly proud to be Arab-American, and he associated it with the qualities he valued most in himself: the ingrained sense of hospitality that made him such a natural bartender, his easy warmth, his own particular definition of work ethic. My dad got us through hard times by being the king of the side hustle. He was never not selling something — gold watches, imitation Cabbage Patch kids, fake Fendi purses — usually from the trunk of his car. He referred to this business as “Habib Industries,” and I was occasionally enlisted as an employee. When I was in the third grade, an insatiable craze for Mardi Gras beads hit my elementary school. My dad bought packs of beads wholesale, which I’d then sell at recess at a markup that was still a bargain compared to Claire’s Boutique. I got to keep all the profits, until the school principal shut me down.

When I eventually made it to Barnard, my father used his visits to New York as an opportunity to buy imitation designer handbags on Canal Street, where I’d meet him and my mother to haul enormous contractor bags of pleather purses into his magical car trunk. He loved the back and forth of bargaining for a good price, the delight of finding the right good for the right customer. In his mind, we were a family of resourceful Levantine merchants. He also had a deep respect for people who wouldn’t accept the sticker price on anything he tried to sell. A few years after his death, I took a trip to Morocco, the sort of hippie-luxe vacation my father would never have dared to imagine for either of us. My first time shopping in a souk, I felt him everywhere.

Yet my father was quick to distance himself from any kind of politicized Arab-American identity. He never talked politics outside of the home, saying it was bad for business, which in Wilkes-Barre it surely was. Especially after September 11, when bar customers started to tell him exactly where we should bomb those sand niggers back to, my father kept his head down and his mouth shut. Every time the US went to war with the Middle East, he was the first person on the block to tie a yellow ribbon on the door. We were already so economically vulnerable. Why put a target on our backs?

My white mom, on the other hand, seemed to know instinctively that being part of an Arab-American family, raising an Arab-American daughter, had a political aspect. When she married my father, she invested herself in learning about his heritage with the zeal of the converted. She took conversational Arabic lessons so she could talk to my grandparents more easily and record their family stories. She had my Syrian grandmother teach her all her beloved recipes to ensure they’d be passed on. She learned to dance the dabke, the traditional circle dance performed at every Syrian wedding. My father was long dead by the time I got married, so she led the dabke circle at mine. It was also my mother who called the owner of a local department store to complain when they sold an “Arab boy” Halloween costume one year, shown on a mannequin smeared with dirt and carrying a plastic pig, and threatened to organize a boycott unless it was immediately removed. And it was my mother who never let a racial slur slide, whether it was directed at me or anyone else, no matter their identification.

My mother was never taught anything about “allyship,” but I think she intuited its responsibilities and stakes. She also knew her blue-eyed, blonde beauty made her less vulnerable. I see now that my mother’s embrace of an Arab-American identity was in part to make sure that I’d also value that part of myself. I think she recognized — consciously or not — that it wouldn’t always be easy.

I’m lucky to say that my experience of blatant racism, growing up, was on the relatively tolerable end of that intolerable continuum. I also didn’t have to carry the double-wide target of being Arab and Muslim, since our family is Christian. But I can’t remember ever not feeling like a racial outsider, and that sense only intensified as I got older.

I’m using the term “race” knowing full well that the experience of Arabs has long defied easy racial box-ticking, perhaps the only shared gripe of both neo-Nazis and Arab-Americans. In fact it was this very ambiguity, one that seemed to continually unsettle the people around me, that amplified my own sense of otherness. I had the occasional “sand nigger” and “camel jockey” thrown my way, particularly at the doughnut shop where I was a waitress in high school. But I usually heard those slurs only after the question that was the constant refrain of my youth, most often put to me by total strangers: “What are you?”

Sometimes the question was framed as multiple-choice (“Are you white, or what?”). Sometimes I tried to sidestep by answering that I was American, though this was never, ever sufficient. When I told people who asked that I was from Wilkes-Barre, “But where originally?” would inevitably follow. Sometimes people would break down my own ambiguous features in front of me: “Where did you get that hair from?” And more than once, I was asked a question that it shames me to even repeat: “Why do you have those nigger lips?”

In middle school, I became obsessed with counting how often I was asked these things, keeping a tally in my diary. Part of this was wanting to have proof to show my parents what was happening out there, in the place we all called home. But I could never pin my father down or get him to discuss it with me, to tell me if he’d ever experienced the same things.

“They’re just ignorant,” he'd say. “And you’re better than them.”

My mom’s usual response was just as frustrating in its mom-ish limitations. She always fell back on the same bewildered explanation: “They want to figure out why you’re so pretty.” Knowing how I was seen by my classmates, that answer filled me with blind rage. Now it just breaks my heart.

And yet I knew I had it easier than the people around me who, unlike me, didn’t have the good fortune to get lumped into the white and straight pile at least half of the time. Everyone I could see in a position of any real power was a white, heterosexual man: the mayor; the school principals; the head of the juvenile detention facility (where we were taken on a high school field trip and allowed to gawk at young black boys, not even afforded the dignity of a private toilet, spending their youth behind bars); the head of the wastewater treatment plant (another school field trip, where we were encouraged to apply for jobs someday and girls were reassured, I kid you not, that there were positions for us as secretaries).

No one was ever allowed to forget the steep price of falling outside of the norm.

In the hierarchies of my high school, a mirror of our town, I knew that the black kids had it worse than I did. They were often tracked into inferior academic classes, and even further outside the dating pool or school leadership, unless they were athletically gifted. There were no openly gay kids in my school, but there was one girl who was viciously and relentlessly targeted as a “dyke” because she once inadvertently admitted to masturbating. No one was ever allowed to forget the steep price of falling outside of the norm. Looking back, I know this fear of exclusion was at the heart of my father’s refusal to talk about race, to answer the same question put to me time and time again: “Are you white, or what?”

This silence around race pervaded so many of my most intimate relationships. My best friend in high school was Korean, the only Asian guy in our class. We were each other’s dates to every prom and semi-formal. Who else would have taken us? We never spoke to each other openly about race, but I see now that it was woven into our bond as outsiders in the place we grew up — and in our shared drive to leave it behind, which we both eventually did. I just wish we had had the language back then, and the courage, to talk about it.

How many bright kids of color living in the Rust Belt today are currently hatching their escape plans? Another question I get asked a lot at lunch, when people hear about my family and where I grew up, is how I managed to “get out.” And I know that a big reason I got out is because I was never really allowed in.

Today, my former classmates and neighbors in Wilkes-Barre are the muses of coastal cultural elites' political analysis, while, by many an outsider’s reckoning, I am one of the coastal cultural elite. And both for my work and my own solace since the election, I keep up my increasingly masochistic readings of books and articles about places like my hometown, to see people who remind me a bit of myself or my family, or to hear something about the place where I grew up besides the same old story about angry white people.

It’s hard to be elegiac about a world that treated you with ambivalence at best.

I want to read about outsiders among those supposed outsiders, about those who sit on the sidelines of the economic sidelines we now love to refer to. I want to hear from someone writing from the inside, but without the overlay of elegy or romanticism or nostalgia that almost always comes with it. Given my experiences, I don’t share those sentiments. It’s hard to be elegiac about a world that treated you with ambivalence at best.

As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie put it, “When we reject a single story, when we realize there is never a single story about any place, we gain a kind of paradise.” And as someone who believes deeply in the power of writing to help us reimagine our world, I still have hope that telling these stories could change how Rust Belt communities, and Americans, see themselves.

I was always a voracious reader, for the reason so many young people are: I read to find versions of myself and to imagine other ways the world might be. When I was a teenager, I saw myself in the stifled heroines of Victorian novels, convinced I was Wilkes-Barre’s reincarnation of Eustacia Vye or Maggie Tulliver, caught in a doomed but valiant struggle against provincial prejudices and social structures far bigger than me. And I imagined myself someday living in a version of New York something like the one in Mary McCarthy’s The Group, teeming with smart, interesting people arguing about important things.

Even though none of these characters looked like me or had names like mine, they gave me comfort in isolation and helped me find a path out of it. But I never read any stories about a place actually like Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, about someone just like me belonging in a town just like mine, because I couldn’t find them. And 20 years later, escape achieved, I’m still looking.

Alia Hanna Habib is an agent at McCormick Literary.

Want more of the best in cultural criticism, literary arts, and personal essays? Sign up for BuzzFeed Reader’s newsletter!

If you can't see the signup box above, just go here to sign up for BuzzFeed Reader's newsletter!

Topics in this article

Skip to footer