I’m hooked on your advice as well as comments from the Awkward Army. Now, I need your help.
Let me set the scene. I’ve lived in Dubai, New York, Hong Kong and a lot of other cool places. I love anime (inner geek), talking shit with my friends (very cool, very diverse), and can’t cook if my life depended on it. Pretty average girl (or I like to think of myself as rocking cool!).
But that’s not how everyone sees me. You see, I’m also Muslim. I love my faith, and totally respect everyone else’s beliefs. The thing is, over the years, I’ve been feeling an increasingly hostile attitude. I understand why. Really bad things have been happening. And the media has increasingly painted all Muslims as extremists, that as if we somehow all share this messed up perversion of our ideology. The media doesn’t mention that the victims of most of these terrorist attacks are Muslims, and we hate these $@&#* more than anyone.
I feel like I’m in a position to represent that we’re not all like that – just by being me. When I make friends, they get to know me. That the majority of Muslims are like me. There’s over a billion Muslims.. You never hear about them because there’s nothing to say. So I’m in no way the exception.
I thought that was the cool way to do things. Just be yourself, and at least the circle of people I’m with will see that we’re not like the media reports. If people have questions about what I believe or about the religion, I answer and clarify the wildly inaccurate picture media reports.
In my life, there’s always been questions. But lately, the talk is getting… scarier. Some of the comments from people I know (not directed at me), are crazy racist, and just plain crazy. I’m no shrinking violet, but I feel like confronting people head on won’t change their minds because I come out as defensive (which is often equated to guilty). At the same time, sitting by passively while people say things I thought ended with WWII… not so good either. Sitting on the sidelines back then was sooo not the way to go. Plus in a twisted way, I feel like I have a responsibility to be some sort of spokesperson, since no one ever hears the Muslim perspective (extremists don’t represent our beliefs, terrorism is a crime against humanity, and we’re just normal people – doctors, teachers, geeks, if you cut me do I not bleed normal..)
Down to the question. The other day I was surprised to overhear a colleague of mine, let’s call him John, say all Muslims are terrorists and should be monitored (by overhear I mean sitting two desks down as he had a loud discussion with neighbouring desks.. WTF). John is not alone in his thoughts. John is a cool guy, who has also known me for a while. So I was really surprised that’s what he thinks of me (since I am ONE OF THEM).
What should I do the next time I hear a friend of mine say something along the lines of what Donald Trump has been spouting? My usual response, asking them if they think of me that way (the only Muslim they know), they say OMG OFCOURSE NOT! YOU’RE MY FRIEND! BUT YOU’RE NOT LIKE THEM, YOU’RE NICE!! Is there a script you can suggest?
A cross between Mulan, Princess Jasmine, and Dragonball Z
I’ve been sitting on your letter for an embarrassingly long time because what “script” could I give you to “politely” win over people who want to police and erase your existence and who feel secure enough in those beliefs that they’ll talk about it casually at work in front of you? Sadly, our presidential candidate whose name rhymes with “dump” didn’t set all this hate in motion. My grampa was sending me missives about how we have to “round up all the Muslims and watch them” from the Rancid Old Man Internet 10+ years ago, and my impassioned rebuttals did nothing to stop it or change it. I am angry for you and sad for you and I don’t know what to tell you. The two strategies that come to my mind are 1) what you’re doing:
“Wow, John, you know I am Muslim, right? Is that what you think about me?”
And they say ofcoursenotyouremyfriendyourenotlikethemyourenice…
… and you say, “Well, of course I am nice, and my family are nice, and the 1 billion of us on the planet are also pretty nice, so, could you cool it with the anti-Muslim talk?”
“There are terrible people with vested interests in making us hate each other. Can we try not to do their work for them? I value your friendship, but I can’t hang if you are going to advocate taking away my human rights and the rights of people like me.”
And then you have to watch, in that moment and in all the ones to follow, to see if your friendship means anything to the person. Anything at all. Even if this person still thinks terrible, xenophobic things do they care enough about you to keep a lid on all of it around you, for form’s sake, if nothing else? Or will you now be subject to a torrent of ranting about “political correctness” and increased retaliation from them? Or, worse, find out they were speaking aloud on purpose in order to terrorize you?
Option 2) seems to be “document the crap out of these comments and see if your workplace rules and the laws about ‘hostile workplaces’ will offer you any protection.” That immediately makes John your lifetime enemy and possibly you lose your job or have to leave it and get branded “difficult” and have a hard time finding a new one. Sounds fun.
You can combine the two strategies, like, start with the personal appeal and see if it works, and then if it doesn’t work appeal to authority so that you can have safety where you work, but what if the people in authority are not on your side?
Hateful, violent people test the waters by making cruel “jokes” and other comments to see how others react. They think that everyone secretly thinks just like they do. Your coworkers and your supervisor should be helping you when “John” gets going. “John, really? This is what we’re talking about?” “Wow, that’s offensive, please stop.” “Shocked silence” on their part (if shock is what’s fueling their silence) isn’t the same as resistance. Maybe one thing you could do is to ask people who you know don’t share John’s views to do some of the speaking up and take the pressure off you.
Just know, if you fail, it wasn’t because you used the wrong script or because you aren’t cool and wonderful or human enough.
-and now a brief interlude about historical/current events-
In 1998 I went to Ukraine on a work trip and one of my colleagues took me to an underground gay club there. Private sexual behavior between adults was technically legal in Ukraine after 1991, but any public expression could be classified as “pornographic” and LGBTQ-people in Ukraine were (and are) subject to extreme monitoring and violence by law enforcement and by hate-groups. Queer folks also face(d) employment discrimination, threats of blackmail, the fear of being outed & disowned by family, and as a result many choose to hide their orientation in public. That’s where the clubs came in – no fixed address, renting out halls here and there, this week’s or month’s location spread by word-of-mouth. The one I went to was in an old Soviet “Peoples’ Palace” covered in Socialist Realist murals of burly farm and factory workers sexily riding tractors (perfection, tbh). Each man came to the club with a woman as a date. Once inside, the women grabbed drinks and sat together out of the way at a cluster of tables – playing cards, talking among themselves, sometimes even knitting or doing embroidery while the men danced. If the police or local brownshirt assholes (or both) showed up, a certain folk song would play as a signal, at which time we women were to grab either our dates or the nearest man and immediately start dancing (“Look officer, it’s just our boring folkdance club!”) like lives depended on it. Because maybe they did.
In the meantime, the men danced, packing weeks or months of living into a few moments on the dance floor, dancing like their lives depended on having this space to be free and beautiful and sexual and human. (Because maybe they did).
Letter Writer, your story and the memory of beautiful humans dancing with each other under the shadow of violence are part of the same story. Homophobic slaughter of Latinx club patrons this weekend in Orlando and knee-jerk Islamophobia about the perpetrator are two awful tastes that are bringing all the worst people together. The question for me today isn’t how you can speak up better for your own humanity because you’re already doing that the best you can and you already deserve safety and freedom from hate. The question for me is: How do we who are not the immediate targets of hate because of our identity [create a shield of defensive folk dancers][summon Dumbledore’s Army][push back this tide of normalized bigotry, homophobia, xenophobia]?
Some of it (but not all of it) is about voting and writing and calling elected representatives and pulling the levers of government however we can. Some of it is about protesting – brave people literally putting their bodies and lives on the line for themselves and others in the name of justice and safety. A LOT of it is about organizing. Maybe it’s about running for office ourselves (though don’t read the comments if you follow that link and you like cogent discussion).
Some of it is about speaking up to the people we know when we see something wrong. “Wow, John, really? You think that’s an appropriate work conversation? I’m surprised at you.” “Dad, that opinion is really scary – you can’t be serious.” Take away the fig leaf that “everybody” agrees with these ideas.
Some of it about making art. (And love is love is love is love is love is love is LOVE). And knowing history. And correcting facts – “Refugees are FLEEING terrorism, not causing it.” “Transgender people using bathrooms are not a threat to others, seriously, stop, that is not the point of these bills.” “LET PEOPLE PEE AND POOP IN PEACE, OMG.”
What else is it? How do we protect each other from hate? How do we make it so that everyone is free to dance?