Family photo courtesy of Ayesha Jamil

Do We Stay Silent, or Do We Stand Up?

Taking lessons from 35 years ago to combat hate today

by Ayesha Jamil

My mother has always cautioned me to be aware and careful of my surroundings as I travel. One day after another reminder I jokingly retorted, “Mom, who’s even going to look at me?”

“Me” is a five-foot tall Pakistani American who walks quickly and avoids eye contact. In my mind, I’m truly as trivial as a passerby can be.

Instead of laughing, my mom just looked at me, patted my scarf and said, “Ayesha, that thing on your head attracts attention.”

As a headscarf-wearing Muslim, I grew up hearing about hateful speech and crimes toward my community. It was something I was familiar with but, thankfully, not something I had ever experienced myself. Even though my mom cautioned me, I didn’t take her words to heart. That was until I learned of the attack in Portland, Oregon.

On May 26, 2017, two young women, one black and one with a headscarf, were approached by a known white supremacist who spewed hate speech at them on a commuter train. When three men stepped in to intervene, the attacker went on a stabbing rampage, killing two men and seriously injuring the third.

But this kind of hate is not new. Thirty five years ago this week, a Chinese American man named Vincent Chin was beaten with a baseball bat by two white autoworkers in Detroit. According to witnesses, the men yelled, “ It’s because of you little m — f — s that we’re out of work,” suggesting they blamed him — and targeted him for violence — because the auto industry in the U.S. was declining as Japan’s economy grew. Four days after the beating, Chin died.

After 9/11, our nation saw a marked increase in harassment, profiling, and violence against South Asians — regardless of the threat they actually posed or even their religious affiliation — in the anti-Muslim hysteria that followed the attacks. Just four days after 9/11, the owner of a gas station in Arizona, Balbir Singh Sodhi, was shot and killed by a man who shouted, “ I stand for America all the way” as he was handcuffed. Surely the gunman would not have known or cared that Mr. Sodhi was Sikh, not Muslim, and originated from India, not a country any of the attackers were from.

The knowledge that hate-fueled attacks are happening today, and that such similar episodes have happened before, can be discouraging. But each of us has a decision to make as we see hate towards Muslims, immigrants, and people of color: do we stay silent or do we stand up?

The Vincent Chin murder was especially significant because it caused many Asian Americans to truly understand that it did not matter whether they were Chinese American or Japanese American. In the face of hate, the specifics of our identities — immigrant or U.S.-born, country of origin, languages we speak — simply don’t matter. And as Portland tragically demonstrated, it’s not just targeted communities that are vulnerable to violence; all Americans are in danger when we allow hate to spread unchecked.

So how can an individual stand up to hate and harassment?

According to the Montgomery County Civil Rights Coalition, the key aspect to remember for bystanders is de-escalation. The focus on intervening is to help the victim. Rather than arguing or continuing a confrontation, you want to help dissolve the situation so the victim can feel safe again.

Yener’s comic strip instructions for bystanders witnessing anti-Muslim harassment.
Source: Marie-Shirine Yener/Tumblr

Artist Marie- Shrine Yener created an illustration to show how a bystander can challenge anti-Muslim harassment — without challenging the harasser.

However, every one of us should be aware of our capabilities and limitations. The purpose of intervening is not to put yourself in the line of danger. In emergencies, assess the scenario before acting with care so as not to escalate the situation. You may try to gather support from those around you before jumping into action.

Knowing strategies or even training for bystander intervention does not mean the world will necessarily be a safer place, particularly when so many continue to vilify entire communities. To counteract the hate, we all need to feel responsible when we see it, and we should all muster the courage to stand together for the kind of America we want — one where we stand up for each other, protect each other, and can rely on each other to defend us when we are needlessly targeted.

Before Portland, I was always comfortable traveling by myself. This attack shattered my confidence. But the recent rise in hateful speech and attacks throughout our nation has often been met with increased intersectional support, acceptance, and unity. And that reassures me.

The night that Vincent Chin was attacked, the situation escalated and a life was lost. In Portland, an effort was made to stop the harassment, but it unfortunately was not enough to prevent violence and loss. We all need to stand together to make the difference so many Americans want to see.

There is significance in numbers. The more people who take a stand against hatred, the more likely we are to stop the loss of those whose fight ended bravely. We are stronger than the few who act violently. Let’s start living up to our ideals, together.

Ayesha Jamil is a rising fourth-year student at the University of Georgia and an intern with Advancing Justice | AAJC.