I never believed that people at my high school would start to look at me as the Somali girl, and not Zamzam anymore. But that’s what happened when the Somali population at school more than tripled in five years. The classmates I’d known since fourth grade started grouping me with other Somalis instead of seeing me as an individual. And I started feeling like I had to choose where I belonged.
I was welcomed to St. Louis Park in fourth grade and grew up with majority of the kids in my class. Back then, I don’t think anyone noticed my race. My classmates only cared if I was up for a game of tag.
Back then, I only knew two other Somali students because not that many Somali families had moved to the suburbs. At school, I never joined just one group of people. I had African Americans friends as well as Somali friends. It made sense to talk to the people who shared my interests rather than sticking with people who shared my ethnic background.
This year, 68 students at my school say Somali is their primary language. Five years ago, there were only 18, and the small number meant that people seemed to mix more.
Now I enter the cafeteria and see all the Somali students sharing two long tables. On the other end of the cafeteria, the African-American students eat together. I’m not the only one who notices.
“The separation [is] everywhere,” said Rhondisha Washington, an African-American senior at St. Louis Park High school. “I can notice [it], especially at lunch time.”
Because I have friends in both groups, I can see how the separation leads to tensions.
When I go to meeting of Young Women of Divine Achievement, a group for African-American girls, I see girls speak openly about problems they face at home or with friends.
When one girl cried at a meeting, the other girls patted her and rubbed her back to comfort her. The girls are tight-knit and it shows.
At meetings of the Muslim Girls Support Group, the girls burst into chatter as the leaders try to begin a discussion. The leaders yell and the room quiets down. Since the group just began this year, the girls don’t have the same connection as the girls in YODA. And most Somali girls hold back their problems because it’s considered modest in Somali culture to keep family and other problems to yourself.
I feel pressure from both groups to choose one or the other. When I hang out with non-Somali students, some Somali girls accuse me of acting “white” or trying to be non-Somali. When I hang out with Somali friends, my African American friends say the same thing.
I don’t think I have to choose. I try not to judge a person because of the group they hang out with but because of who they are.
Standing in the middle, I see things in both groups I admire and things I question. Some Somali girls accuse teachers of discrimination when they get a D. I want to tell them: You’re not failing a class because the teacher is racist. It’s because you don’t show up and don’t do your work.
When African American students say they find the Somali students too demanding, I wonder if they find it hard to share resources or attention. Sometimes I wonder if they are a bit jealous because the Somali students show their culture by the way they talk, dress and think.
Jeremy Riehle is a social worker at my high school who coordinates the Muslim Student Association. He says he hasn’t witnessed an unusual amount of tension between African American and Somali students but has heard about some of the issues. He believes there’s an element of “you’re not one of us” attitude presented in both groups. And he believes we can make it better by talking to each other more.
Growing up in St. Louis Park, I never really classified myself as Somali. I didn’t know much about the culture except what my mother would tell me. I love my Somali background, but I still prefer to be called the Muslim girl rather than the Somali girl.
Now, as part of the Somali group at my school, I feel united with my family’s culture. But I still maintain my relationships with African Americans friends. And I’ll keep talking to everyone.