Has anything changed?
“How’s it going? How’s your work environment? Has anything changed?”
“What do you mean? Why would anything change?”
I wasn’t going to acknowledge that I understood what he meant.
“Since the attacks. Since California. Since Paris.”
I sighed. I’ve been sighing a lot lately, and yet again, I let another one escape me.
“No,” I said, letting my teeth clench and grind. “My coworkers aren’t bigots. They’re actually a lot less racist than you are. They’re the ones who are fighting for—”
Dad cut me off right there, saying with more understanding and calm than I usually credit him for, “We say a lot of things, but we’ve never done anything to harm or offend anyone. You don’t know the kind of hatred people have in their hearts.”
The other day at work, one of my father’s colleagues said “Oh, there he is” as he approached. That colleague went on to continue his conversation with another, talking about the attacks in San Bernardino. “He didn’t say anything or do anything to hurt me, but what do you think he meant?” asked my father as he continued to eat his dinner. It took me a moment to respond, hurt by my father’s hurt. My father is not generous with his emotional expressions, but there he was, depositing the kind of raw pain I should have known he experiences. There he was, the guy who never finished high school, going on to flawlessly execute the socratic method to make me understand that racism is real and that I am not invincible.
Recently at work, our question of the week was to name our three favorite books (yes, my workplace is better than yours). One that I thought a lot about, but ultimately did not list, was The Diary of Anne Frank. I’m not one to reread or rewatch much of anything for pleasure, but I reread Frank’s diary over and over again as a preteen. I first read it in around the sixth grade, just over a year after the September 11th attacks. The terror that Frank was subjected to goes beyond the limits of my imagination, but the fear that she acknowledged to herself resonated with me. It still feels too soon to process 9/11 to many of us who call ourselves New Yorkers, but I recall the hazy confusion of those terrible first days giving way to outright terror. Our reality was vulnerability, always staying alert to the risk of another attack while trying to carry on with our everyday lives. More than an MTA trademark, our mantra became “If you see something, say something.” It didn’t take very long to realize that the something to be seen, that something that needed to be spoken about, was with the identity of myself, my family, and my community.
In the hallways and on the “cheese bus,” I briefly became Osama in my first few weeks of middle school. It wasn’t everyone — maybe just a few — but I remember some of those sneers better than I remember some of my teachers. It’s difficult for me to imagine anyone ever hating Osama Bin Laden more than I did in those days. People ask about a lot of firsts — your first pet, your first kiss, your first race — but they never ask about your first taste of racism, of othering, of exclusion. That was mine.
I can’t recall feeling different before 9/11. I grew up in Parkchester, a diverse and family-friendly working class New York City community. The races and ethnicities and religions were all there, but they were just there. I didn’t think much of them before the age of nine.
Islam, of course, is not a race. I know that. A single trip to a mosque in America can tell you that Muslims come in all of the shapes and colors that humans do. It’s undeniable, however, that we in America have a certain idea about what a Muslim looks like. As we put more and more pressure on that definition, those physical characteristics coagulate to represent a major division of humankind (Oxford).
I’m not exactly very religious, but I feel more like a Muslim than ever. I’ve begun to understand how my pork-powered friends who have barely ever step foot in a synagogue feel so rooted in their Jewish identity. It takes only so much persecution and discrimination before you feel an identity pulse through your veins. I’m not exactly very religious, but I’ve simply been racialized.
It’s with that in mind that I write this while waiting to pick my brother up at 9:45 PM from the Broadway show that his college class is taking a field trip to. While it’s easy to ignore my parents’ prescriptions on nearly everything, it feels just a little too hard to push back on this thing at this time. Their fear is irrational, as most fear is. It would be hypocritical, after all. Just hours after the San Bernardino attacks, I warned my mother — who is physically weakened by bone problems and the operations that addressed them — to stand far from the platform edge when she took the subway. Something about Don Lemon repeating the only thing he knew just hours after the attack — the name of Syed Rizwan Farook — over and over again on CNN told me to fear for my family.
Donald Trump has gone on the record calling for the closing of American borders to Muslims, the majority of American governors are saying that they do not welcome Syrian refugees, and somewhere out there, a middle schooler who is fascinated by the physical sciences is being called a terrorist. While I have convinced myself that Trump is trolling, his supporters are real and their emotions are real, and their consequences are real. This is a climate of fear and fascism.
Trump has said that “Where this hatred comes from and why we will have to determine.” Ignore the poor syntax for a second. While the hatred terrorists feel for this country is unacceptable, we know where and why it comes from. It is rooted precisely in the exclusionary rhetoric, regulation, and international relations that Trump and his political peers have promoted for decades. If we’re to tackle the radicalization of Westerners, we have to take down Trump and those who trumpet similar yet subtler views.
Elie Wiesel — yes, another Jew, I realize — warned against the perils of indifference and of silence. “Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented,” he reminded his readers. It is discouraging to see how few have taken heed. Though incomparable to the injustices of the Second World War, waves of unchecked Islamophobia bathe our country as most still sit silently. So many are eager to celebrate progress, so why are so few willing to address regress?