In the days leading up to and during Eid Al Adha:
- a Brooklyn woman allegedly attacked two Muslim women pushing strollers, trying to rip off their hijabs while yelling, “Get the fuck out of America, bitches;”
- a man in Manhattan set a woman wearing a hijab on fire;* and
- mosques have been vandalized and torched.
This is not an exhaustive list of the deplorable actions Muslims have experienced recently in my country. Most incidents are too subtle or common to make the news. They are drops in the daily bucket of bigotry dumped on minorities because of their race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, abilities, or other characteristics. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Speak Up (2015) includes many instances of everyday bigotry drawn from real-life experiences. Here are just a few (quoted from SPLC’s publication):
- On the sidewalk, [a gay man] passes a man who tells a female companion, loudly, “There were fags all over the place. I felt like killing them.”
- A Colorado woman uses a wheelchair. She is boarding a plane with her husband when the flight attendant says, to the husband, “Will she need help being seated?” The husband told the flight attendant to ask his wife.
- A white woman is in a doctor’s waiting room when she notices a Muslim woman wearing a hijab being ignored by the receptionist at the front counter.
- [A child] wrapped a towel around her head and said she wanted to be a terrorist for Halloween — “like that man down the street.” [A Sikh].
- An African American minister is pulled over while driving home from Sunday service, in full view of many of his parishioners. He is forced to complete a field sobriety test. When he asks why he has been pulled over, he is told simply, “You swerved.”
It’s the 21st Century. Why are people still treated differently based on their race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, physical abilities, or other characteristics associated with their identity? What can we do about it?
In Another Shift? We’ll Know For Sure in November, I noted research suggesting that higher levels of familiarity with Islam are associated with a reduction in a person’s susceptibility to fear-mongering about Muslims. However, higher levels of familiarity with racial, ethnic, and religious minorities isn’t easy to achieve in a country as segregated as mine is.
That’s where books that feature the authentic experiences of people from diverse backgrounds could help. Literature cannot take the place of real-life interactions, but books that feature people of color and other minorities break down stereotypes and build empathy. While the people who commit the most egregious acts of bigotry probably don’t read much, these books could encourage silent witnesses to finally take a stand.
For example, Sofia Khan is Not Obliged is a funny and heartwarming novel that gives readers an opportunity to see the world through a British Muslim woman’s eyes. For those who don’t know what it’s like to be targeted because of their race or religion or other characteristic, it might help to see what Sofia contends with on her commute to work:
Before the doors [of the train] closed I made a run for it, accidentally bumping into a man who was walking towards me. Accidentally. I heard him mumble something… As I stepped into the (non-air-conditioned) crammed carriage, the word finally penetrated my commute-fogged brain. I turned around, mouth open in delayed realisation. Terrorist? Me? What the actual fuck!… No one heard him. Everyone just carried on reading their papers, listening to their iPods as if someone hadn’t just pulled normality from under my feet and smacked my head against some bizarre reality.
Maybe no one heard him or maybe they pretended not to hear, which is especially likely if the bystanders didn’t know what to do when someone utters such hateful speech in public. I’m not entirely sure how I would have responded either, but I’m thinking about it.
For ideas on how to counter daily acts of bigotry, take a look at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s publication (here’s the abridged version; the full version is linked above). More people need to be prepared to speak up.
*The police have not labeled this act of violence a hate crime, saying that men matching the description of the suspects threatened other women who were not Muslim.
**Thank you to Eclectic Scribe for discussing these issues with me.