Assalaamu alaikum – peace be upon you all.
There is always talk about racism and discrimination, and these talks peak during election seasons when certain candidates use fear as a sword to strike fear into people (and thus encouraging them to vote). I’m not even talking about THIS election cycle, it happens during every one.
I was born into a solidly middle class, white, Christian family. If you go back a couple generations, my family faced some hardships. We came from Poland, and were Catholic. Poles were called dirty, filthy, and stupid Polaks* – earlier based on us being the latest set of immigrants, later because of Nazi propaganda. Catholics were also discriminated against throughout the history of the United States, although it was lessening and almost completely dissipated through the course of Pope John Paul II’s papacy.
Needless to say, I was raised without much thought about race and discrimination. I remember the first black family moving into our neighborhood when I was about 12 or 13. I remember seeing black families when my family went to our family parish (the same parish my family has been going to since they came to the U.S. in the very early 1900s), because it was in an old part of Detroit. I remember seeing the houses and wondering why someone would keep living there, when there were so many nice houses in the suburbs by me.
When I went to college, I was taking classes that introduced racism and discrimination to me in a very different light. I was taught about generational poverty, stemming from government policies of redlining, as well as business practices of blockbusting and restrictive housing covenants. These policies led to severe wealth and education gaps, which continue to wreak havoc on society today. This is also when I was beginning to learn about Islam, and how if practiced truly and faithfully (which it usually isn’t, astaghfirallah), there would be no racism and – while there could still be a wealth gap – there would be no severe poverty.
As I was learning about racism and discrimination in an objective, academic sense, I was also unknowingly preparing myself for a willing dive into a minority status.
When I began wearing hijab, I didn’t notice a big difference in people’s attitudes. I’d get a few stares (albeit mostly from Arab men), a middle finger every few months or so, or a couple college kids screaming obscenities out the window (although who knows if that was for any particular reason). I’ve later come to realize that I’ve actually entered a realm that I never knew existed.
I realize there is a big difference between an article of clothing and skin color, language barrier, or other forms of distinction that causes discrimination. It still exists, and we’re not in the Oppression Olympics here. I cannot say that my headscarf makes it the same as being black or Hispanic, but it does place me as a religious minority. I do get a taste of the racism due to people often mistaking me for an Arab. Without a doubt, the most frequent question I hear is: “Where are you from?”
I have a sense of humor, so I generally ask, “where do you think?” Simply to get people (Arab and non-Arab) responding Syria, Lebanon, or Jordan. Nobody guesses that I’m an Fifth-Generation-American-Born-From-Eastern-European-Ancestry.
I’ve also found myself on the defensive multiple times. The morning after ISIS attacked Paris, a patient walked directly up to me, looked me in the eye, and asked, “what do you think about Paris?” As if I would start singing and dancing right in front of her. My co-worker was sitting next to me observing, and the patient’s stare made it blatantly obvious that the question was only for the one wearing the scarf.
This 2016 election has myself, and many other American-born, converted Muslims questioning why our status as full-blooded Americans was erased the moment we said Shahada. We didn’t change our views, but now we are being made to feel as if we and our friends, spouses, and often our children are unwelcome in the land that we grew up to love. If that isn’t a form of discrimination, I’d love to know what is.