I grew up around Muslims. In elementary school, my sister’s best friend was Muslim. I remember her and her mother wearing matching hijabs as she would drop her off and pick her up in the school day. When September 11th occurred, I was in 3rd grade. I don’t recall the anti-Islamic rhetoric having an effect on my interactions with those of the Islamic faith whether black, brown, or white. But that’s the thing about subliminal propaganda. It doesn’t grip you up in the moment. When done right, it slowly seeps through and creates a prejudice that doesn’t reveal itself until the masterminds give a call to action. That’s when it awakens.
My first stop after graduating from college was New York. I got a position in education and signed a lease for an apartment in Brooklyn. The school I worked at was located in Harlem. If anyone knows anything about the Harlem demographic, they know that there is a high Muslim population, which I thought nothing of. Priding myself on working towards equal rights for all, why would I?
Well, apparently I do think something of it. I realized that one-day, traveling to work. The two train arrived at my stop and I entered a middle car through the first door. The first person I see is a man, Middle Eastern in appearance, with a suitcase in front of him. There was no one sitting next to him so naturally I took the seat. It wasn’t thirty seconds later before I noticed that this man was sitting at an angle, deep in prayer. I thought to myself, “Oh he’s a muslim.”
Now, I must warn you, the following thoughts are rude, primitive and just crass but they were generated by my own mind. I must own them and take responsibility for them:
“Ohhhhh, what if he’s praying before he kills us all? If there is a bomb, how long will it take for me to get as far away as possible? I’m the closest one to him. I would definitely be dead. Would I be able to tackle him before he does anything? What would be the sign? What would he yell out before he did it? I haven’t talked to my mom today.”
Then, I realized, he’s just praying. This man is just, praying. I do know that the most committed Muslims pray five times a day. It was about 5:30 or so in the morning and he wasn’t missing his prayer for no subway ride. This man was practicing his faith with no shame, proud of whom he is, humble in his faith. That is not something I could say for every Christian (the religious background I come from) I know. I myself am embarrassed to pray over my food in public, at times. Who taught me to think like this? Thinking over this event, it hit me:
No matter how much I try to distance myself from the bigotry and prejudice of the United States, I am still a product of it. I’m prejudice. I have prejudice thoughts. This systematic racism is like the terrigen mist (x-men reference). It gets everyone. You can try to run but eventually, it sterilizes us all.
With having thoughts like the individuals I fight against, how could I continue on in the work that I do? Well, the difference is acknowledgement. I know that those feelings and thoughts are immersed in fear. When you are fearful, logic is blocked, progress is halted, and people are dehumanized. All of this is done for a false sense of security. Of all consequences of being prejudice, racist, etc., the biggest one is the loss of freedom. To be ruled by fear is to be chained by the mind. In order to be the agent of change I desire to be, I must free myself from the way my country has taught me to think.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t the first prejudice thought I have had. Even worse, I know it won’t be the last. But now that I know and I am aware of this dangerous flaw, I have all agency necessary to change it.