How many of you feel like you've ever been a victim of racism in any way? Some people like to say we are beyond racism, even that there is no more racism, in this country. When I was a small child I believed that, and I wish it was true. But it isn't.
Some people wonder why I would talk about racism when my experience is predominantly with religious discrimination. Racism rears its ugly head and isn't always 100% distinguishable from other forms of hatred; the lines of hatred are very blurry indeed. It is complicated by the fact that many associate a particular race with a particular religion, in my case, Arabs with Islam.
I'd like to tell you a story that occurred recently in my life. My only child graduated Kindergarten at a diverse urban school which is predominantly attended by African American students. My husband and I were leaving after the event and some older children began to yell "Bin Laden! Hey bin Laden!" at us as we passed the playground. Racism. The playground monitor said absolutely nothing. These simple words weighed heavily on our minds for some time.
Let me tell you about myself and my family. I am white. In fact, I am very white. When people meet me, though, they assume that I am Arab, an immigrant, and of course a Muslim. My name is Emily, it's nice to meet you. I was born here in the heartland of Midwest America, I am a Muslim, and I wear a headscarf. When I take it off, I look just like everyone else, but I would rather look like me.
On my father's side of the family, my grandparents immigrated to the United States from Austria following World War II. That side of my family is primarily German and Catholic and most relatives are from Germanic countries or regions with Germanic pockets such as Croatia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Austria, etc., in Europe and Eastern Europe. My father was the first child born in this country. In that sense, I am only a second generation American.
On my mother's side of the family my ancestors were mostly Protestants from the United Kingdom, with cousins who hail from the royal families of England and Ireland, and also some members from European countries such as France, Sweden, and Poland. The first wave of those ancestors of mine arrived in this country on the Mayflower. The next wave arrived during the colonial era and lost their family fortune on a failed plantation.
My great-grandmother was Navajo, who adopted my grandmother, the daughter of a young unmarried girl pressured by family to give up her child.
So when people come up to me and say "go back home" or "go back to wherever you came from" I ask them...where? Austria? England? Ireland? Croatia? Or should I hitch a ride on the Mayflower to Saudi Arabia, where I have no family nor historical ties? No, I am home. America is my home. I was born here. No one has the right to tell me or anyone else to "go back home" in the land of immigrants, and how dare they suggest otherwise!
My husband was born in Pakistan. He is also a Muslim. Like me, he is often incorrectly assumed to be Arab. Unlike me, he might look like the "stereotypical" Muslim you see on the news...you know those guys...with brown skin, dark hair and a beard, angrily yelling, "Down with America!" But Pakistan is not an Arab country. Its inhabitants don't speak Arabic. Pakistan is in South Asia, predominantly a Muslim country, in which many tribes and cultures exist and hundreds of languages are spoken. My husband is fluent in several. His family migrated to Pakistan from India after the partition of those countries, another tragedy that stemmed from hate. My husband came to the United States not long ago, after we were married. If someone were to tell him to "go back home", would they also ask him to abandon his only child?
My family's story IS the American story, and yet that story can be so easily brushed away by just uttering, "bin Laden," as though there were no more to our identity than this mere name.
Had I not been wearing a headscarf...had my husband not had brown skin...would those children on the playground have taunted us with the name, "bin Laden"? I am appalled that such racism is perpetuated by children who have probably experienced more racism in their few short years than many of us will in our lifetimes, and far more than any human should ever experience at all. Racism is not just about black vs. white. It is about hate. Hate is hate, no matter what color or faith, and it is wrong. And I am here to tell you, all I ask, is that you not judge a book by its cover. Every life is a beautiful mosaic. Please give your fellow human-beings a chance. Love knows no borders.