When I first started working as a radiation therapist, I could sense that my coworkers were uncomfortable around me. They were polite enough, but it felt as if they were holding back, tip-toeing around my brown skin and the hijab on my head.
After about two weeks, they started opening up with me. I was my usual, social, normal self and they got more comfortable with me. I made a lot of jokes, especially about them being white and I think they were taken aback that I was so honest and funny. That’s when one of the women I worked with said something that shocked me and made me question everything I thought I knew.
“You know, I’ve never met a Muslim before.”
In this day and age, with Muslims all over the world and a major part of American society, how was it that she had never met a Muslim? I realized that all she knew about Muslims was probably what she saw on mainstream media, which often isn’t very positive. I was so sure that I was making a difference as a Muslim by sharing posts on Facebook and writing articles on social media, and yet my coworkers didn’t know a thing about Muslims.
I started to question that even though there are a million people sitting in front of a screen, clicking away to share their opinions on social media, are they really changing people’s minds? Or are we just speaking to like-minded people?
With all the racism and discrimination so in our faces nowadays, I think we need human connection to change people’s minds. We need to turn off the screens, if only for a little while, and go meet our neighbors or talk to the stranger in the grocery store.
Layla F. Saad, an activist and author, would say that this shouldn’t be the burden of people of color and minorities to educate white people and that is true. She has created an amazing workbook called Me and White Supremacy, which is a “personal anti-racism tool for people holding white privilege to begin to examine and dismantle their complicity in the oppressive system of white supremacy” and it’s a workbook that all white people should consider reading.
However, after my realization that maybe I wasn’t educating as many people as I thought online, I decided to make real connections outside of the internet. Not everyone will be able to do this task and that’s understandable. But if you are comfortable and willing to have those conversations, not just for the education of others, but also for the chance to benefit your own community, then it is worth making those connections.
After my encounter at work, instead of going home and writing a post about how I was being misunderstood by white people, I simply talked to my coworkers. I told them they could ask me anything if they had questions and they had a lot!
Are you allowed to shave?
Umm yeah! Brown people are way hairier than you guys, so I don’t have a choice. And why stop at shaving? Laser hair removal all the way!
Can your husband see your hair?
Girl! How do you think I put him under this love spell?
Why do you cover your hair?
Because God said so.
After a real conversation with people who didn’t know much about Muslims, they were so much more open to talking about things and their fear of “offending” me was gone. I was able to joke about things but still give them the information they needed and it helped us to become friends. The next day, my coworker told another, “You can talk about whatever. She’s totally normal!”
It sucks that I had to prove my normalcy and humanity in the first place, and not everyone will be open to doing this because, honestly, it is offensive. But I am open to a real connection because I am cognizant of the fact that as a light brown, able-bodied, heterosexual, cisgender person, there may be times that I have unknowingly had preconceived notions about other minorities and no matter how well-intentioned, I could have easily treated someone unfairly or forgotten my privilege. So I wanted to give people who had never met Muslims the benefit of the doubt before I decided they were ill-intentioned. Moreover, if my openness has the possibility to help other minorities, I am willing to try.
So I want to encourage those who are able to talk to people who don’t think like them, who don’t look like them and who are outside of their in-group. Talk to strangers, strike up a conversation at the mall or just smile at someone. Say hello to the person sitting next to you on the airplane or make a new friend at the gym. It leaves a lasting and positive impression, and will likely do more than a tweet.
With the country so divided and a president who fuels that division, there is a huge movement to change where society is headed right now. And though we use social media to make a difference and contribute, sometimes what we need is to go back to the basics.