As someone who clearly looks Pakistani (in other words, brown), I’ve experienced my fair share of racist remarks growing up.
I was, after all, the only “brown” person in school every year. Gorilla Arms had become my nickname for a while when I was in elementary school. Another time, my white classmate thought I was African and told me that if we lived in the time of slavery, he would gladly hide me and keep me safe. Much to my present-day disgust, I thanked him.
After 9/11 occurred (I was in 3rd grade at the time), things didn’t change all that much for me bullying-wise. Most of the bullying I went through still had to do with being brown and hairy. Maybe there were a few more remarks or threats here and there specifically about being a terrorist, some of them were even jokes from friends, but these didn’t affect me as much; I wasn’t a terrorist, so I didn’t see any reason to take offense. As far as I knew, terrorist attacks had nothing to do with me. Attacks on my religion didn’t feel like as direct of an attack on me as it did when kids commented on my appearance.
At least not at first.
It wasn’t until an incident high school that I felt differently.
A huge nerd in high school, I was a weekly attendee of Debate Club, in which every week we were given a topic and asked to choose sides. The topics were provided beforehand, so anyone who wanted to prepare was welcome to, but most of us showed up without preparing. The purpose was just for us to learn from one another.
And boy, did I learn.
One week, during my freshman year, the topic was Israel VS Palestine. Young and naive, I didn’t understand the conflict at all, and so I went to my elder brother for some background information. He, of course, shared everything he knew and thought with me.
I didn’t realize at the time that I was receiving only one perspective – his version seemed so obviously factual and correct to me that I went back to Debate Club ready to argue our (but really his) point of view in favor of Palestine, a place I didn’t know existed until a few days before.
I bring up this point in retrospect not because I have changed my views because I haven’t, but to highlight the fact that kids (and sadly many adults) hold a lot of very strong views simply based on what they are told (or what is implied) by the people they trust. In many ways, views are passed down from generation to generation. I chose the side I chose solely because of a) my brother said to, and b) I was Muslim, and the Palestinians were Muslim – in retrospect, these weren’t the right reasons.
Fortunately, as my story goes on to show, we have the capability to learn, change, and grow.
Needless to say, I wasn’t prepared for what happened next. Two girls of Israeli background had brought in a huge map of the world. They had notes written all over it, most of them containing seemingly violent quotes from the Quran, and pictures stapled to it showing graphic images of injured or killed Israelis, which was uncharacteristic of the low-key Debate Club atmosphere and very intimidating, to say the least. I remember wondering if they really knew what they were talking about, or if they had also, like me, just gone home and asked a parent or sibling to tell them the answer.
And the crux of their argument? I remember it word for word: “Muslims want to kill all the Jews.”
This immediately sounded to me like a very extreme thing to say. I piped up the first time they said it, feeling like I was being accused of something as serious as murder, or at least murderous intentions, and wanting to make sure I had heard them right. “Well, I’m Muslim. I don’t want to kill anyone.” Everyone looked at me, the one brown girl in a sea of white, and I suddenly wished I’d stayed silent.
“Well, you don’t, but Muslims do,” they replied. Just like that, I was seen as something other than who I was. I was used to this from my Muslim community – I was used to being seen as “less” Muslim for various superficial and mostly cultural reasons. But this was new. This was white kids in my school doing the same thing.
Was it because I didn’t wear a hijab? Was it because English was my first language? Was it because I talked to boys? Was it because I had known most of these kids since kindergarten? In other words, was it because I didn’t look, sound, or act the way my peers thought Muslims did? Was it…because I didn’t want to kill anyone? I’m still not sure.
Strangely enough, unlike the judgmental Muslim community, I think the two girls meant what they said as a compliment – my religious identity was evil, so to avoid insulting me, they had to strip me of it completely and place me somewhere above all the other Muslims. “Don’t worry,” they were saying. “It’s not you, it’s just everyone who believes in the thing you say you believe in!” In other words: “You’re not like other Muslims; you’re the exception.”
Almost no one took any issue with the statement that “Muslims want to kill all the Jews.” At the time, this shocked me. I was looking to my right and left, confused. Everyone on the Israel side began to nod and throw in their opinions supporting this awful statement, stating their other negative views towards Muslims and Islam. The more heated their attacks became, the more I began to tear up. The debate was slowly changing from “Israel vs Palestine” to “Should we hate Muslims? Yes or no?” And I couldn’t help but replace the word “Muslims” with my own name. I couldn’t speak. I kept thinking: “What did I do to deserve hate?” I kept asking myself: “How many other kids here at school feel this way?”
All of a sudden, one girl, a close friend of mine at the time, surprised me. Let’s say her name was Alex. She and I had several classes together, liked the same teachers, and ate lunch together; we liked the same Disney movies, and we made each other feel better when one of us got into a fight with our parents, which was often considering we were 15 at the time. Alex spoke up when it was our side’s turn and very passionately stood up for me – and for Muslims – in a way that I wasn’t able to for myself.
She spoke thoughtfully and compassionately. I remember feeling a wave of relief wash over me while she talked. The debate continued, of course. Nothing really changed; the two sides continued to argue with one another in the immature, uninformed way a group of high school freshman would be expected to argue. But I felt better knowing that someone who wasn’t even Muslim was arguing on my behalf. That was a new feeling.
It wasn’t Muslims against Non-Muslims, and that felt important to me. To this day, it’s still incredibly important to me that I avoid that dichotomy, because never has it been completely accurate in my experience. I ended up leaving the classroom about halfway through this debate. I was starting to cry from what I can only assume was the shock, and I decided to do that in the hallway away from all the other kids. No one wants to be seen crying in high school.
Little did I know I was about to feel even more embarrassed.
Post-debate, Alex found me in the hallway with my back up against the lockers, wiping the last of my tears off my face with the sleeves of my sweatshirt. She sat next to me, put a hand on my shoulder, and asked if I was okay. I told her I was, and I thanked her.
“You don’t have to thank me,” she said. “I know what it’s like to be hated just for being who you are. Don’t you remember the gay rights debate last month?”
I did remember – the focus had been gay marriage, and I had been on the side that was against gay marriage. I just stared at her, the wheels turning in my head a little too slowly. She took a deep breath.
“Yeah, so…I’m gay,” she told me. “I never told you, because I knew you were Muslim. I just didn’t know if you would be cool with it?” She looked a little anxious like she thought I was going to say something mean in response, and that’s what hurt me the most – that I had given her reasons to feel anxious around me.
To be honest, I didn’t really understand what it meant to be gay. I knew little to nothing and hadn’t thought about it all that much. I had chosen the side that was against gay marriage primarily because a) I was Muslim, so it seemed like the right thing to do considering I had never known a gay Muslim before, and b) because the anti-gay marriage side needed more people and (this is the worst part) I simply didn’t care enough about the topic to prefer either side. There was literally an entire group of people whose rights I didn’t once think or care about.
When Alex told me she was gay, the next thing I felt wasn’t surprise or judgment, it was shame. I had been in the gay rights debate the month before, and it had completely flown over my head that Alex was being treated the way I was just treated.
When I thought back, it was so clear that she had endured cruelty, but at the time, I didn’t even notice. Because it wasn’t me in the hot seat. It wasn’t my rights being debated in a dehumanizing way. I felt like such a big jerk, because for all I knew, she could have been crying in the hallway, and I definitely wasn’t there to see if she was okay. We were both victims of something, but until that day, I had felt like I was the only one.
I realized while getting to know Alex more that although we were both victims, there were stark differences between our experiences too; being Muslim was something I chose to be, whereas being gay wasn’t something she chose. I thought for a while it was similar to me and my skin color, which after all, I could not control, but I felt even that attempt to draw a parallel was flawed somehow.
I kept trying to do that; I kept trying to draw a parallel and assure myself that we were both the same because, somehow, that made it a little less uncomfortable for me to think about. But it never felt right, something felt amiss whenever I tried to relate. Why? Because we weren’t completely the same, we were different, and that was the thing I needed to learn: that it’s okay to be different.
I’m cringing as I recall a particular conversation in which I asked Alex: “I get that you didn’t like, choose this. But then…how did you become gay?” She responded with a question: “How did you become straight?” The truth was clear when I considered her completely fair question: neither of us became anything – it was just who we were.
Alex’s patience with me, which I wish she had never had to display in the first place, changed my life. Growing up, I was always taught how important it was to be Muslim, to be close to my Muslim community, and to have friends that helped me be a better Muslim.
But here’s the thing that I had to learn on my own: anyone, regardless of their race, gender, sexuality, or anything else, can be someone that makes you better. This is something that I truly hope other Muslims who are living outside of Muslim countries take to heart: there is honestly so much to learn if we don’t limit ourselves to people that necessarily believe what we believe. Because of people like Alex, I know how much more important it is to me that my friends are good people, not necessarily Muslim.
I apologized to Alex a few days after the debate club incident for having taken a stance against gay marriage without knowing anything and, more importantly, for not really caring enough to know. I realize now that what I should have apologized for was not seeing that the “gay population” we had been discussing in Debate Club was actually…well, made up of real people. I had been living in a complete bubble. In response to my apology, she was characteristically forgiving.
I don’t remember the name of the girls who led the anti-Muslim attack that day so many years ago, but I remember Alex. Knowing her increased my capacity for self-reflection and colored my perception of the world with compassion, not because she was gay or even though she was gay, simply because that’s the kind of person she happened to be. I only wish I had not taken so long to start thinking outside of myself.
I can only hope that more of us learn to do this sooner rather than later, because I honestly don’t know if there is anything more important.