Imam Khalid Latif is blogging his reflections during the month of Ramadan for the third year in a row, featured daily on HuffPost Religion. For a complete record of his previous posts, click over to the Islamic Center at New York University or visit his author page, and to follow along with the rest of his reflections, sign up for an author email alert above, visit his Facebook page or follow him on Twitter.
Some of my students and I were getting food at a street cart near our Islamic Center at NYU when a middle-aged woman started to push her way through our group. She seemingly didn't think she had to wait in line.
As she shouldered her way through our group, she said "Excuse me, excuse me. Please move out of the way. Don't you speak English?"
When she got to the front of the line and saw me, bearded and with my head covered as I normally am, she answered her own question. "Oh, I guess you don't speak English. Tell me, how does one say 'excuse me' where you are from."
I responded, "We say 'Excuse me.'"
She said, "No, the place where you family lives. How do they say it there?"
I responded again, "We are from New Jersey. And we say excuse me."
"All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over a black, nor a black has any superiority over a white- except by consciousness and good action." ~ The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him.
Last night, a not-guilty verdict was reached in the case involving George Zimmerman and his killing of Trayvon Martin. As many were upset by this verdict, and in my opinion justifiably so, some commentators felt that those who were upset were too focused on race and not the facts pursuant of justice. I think it's difficult to separate the two.
It's a foolish notion to think that the society we live in doesn't treat individuals differently based off of the way that they look, the color of their skin, their race, ethnicity, or culture of origin. Beyond simple acts of ignorance that take place such as with the woman who thought I couldn't speak English, policies established by governmental, corporate, and at times non-profit entities definitely lend towards the existence of institutionalized racism. Systems are built that produce inequitable realities. The most alarming part is society on a whole starts to become indifferent towards the existence of that inequity. We see injustice and abuse of basic rights taking place in front of our eyes, but somehow are not compelled to do anything about it. In our individual capacity, as well as the institutional capacity that some of us might bring to the table, we can start to remedy some of this.
Oday Aboushi, drafted this year as a lineman for the New York Jets, was unnecessarily targeted and profiled by FrontPageMag.com recently because of his Palestinian-American heritage. Interestingly enough he, like most minorities in America, has to have his American-ness qualified by a hyphen of some kind.
In response to these comments, the Jets issued a statement in support of diversity in their corporation, but more importantly, Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League challenged the accusations, stating that they were unfounded and baseless. His being Palestinian should not automatically give room to assume that he is something that he is not. Still, there were those who could not see beyond their pre-conceived ideas and notions and they made their assessment through the intolerant and intellectually-lazy lens of racism.
For those who would dismiss my claims, saying I as a Muslim can't be victim to racism because Islam is not a race, you should know that Islam has been racialized for quite some time. Muslims are placed all together into one giant, homogenous monolith. We are placed in the minds of many as being from someplace else, miles away and made for the past, and unfortunate policies exist that render the treatment of Muslims as being different from the treatment of others.
I, like all Americans, have a U.S. passport which grants me a social contract to be treated similarly as my fellow citizens. The unfortunate reality is that is not the case. For quite some time, flying internationally and returning back to my country became quite an issue. I would be detained for 4 to 6 hours at a time, taking into a detention room filled with minorities. Even at times when I would travel on behalf of the US State Department, I would get stopped. It got to a point where I wouldn't even reach the customs line, but instead two TSA workers would be waiting for me at the door of the plane as an announcement would go up saying having passports ready for random checking. Essentially, I was the random check. When my passport was found, I would be escorted away, everyone else would be told they could put their passports away -- "random checking" was over.
As I went through questioning and my belongings were searched, my State Department documents embossed with our nation's seal, or my NYPD credentials and badge would be found. I was once asked, "Why are we stopping you?" After a few weekends of being stopped in a row, I asked a TSA worker who had now seen me repeatedly why he thought I was being stopped. His response: "You are young, male and Muslim and those three things don't go so well together these days." Not so different from the way many young black men would be treated. My beard and skull-cap, your hooded sweatshirt, these are the criteria used to justify the way we are treated. How then can it not be about race?
What makes us ignore these realities is usually the unconscious benefit that we derive from the mistreatment of others. If a store clerk is following around a young black or latino kid in a store, then they aren't following you around. If a law enforcement agent is told to look out for the "urban, street thug" or the "Arabic-Sounding Name or Dress", then they aren't looking for and harassing you. It's a privileged class that is able to walk down the street without having a second glance made in their direction and isn't by default assumed guilty until proven innocent. And it is a select majority that is soon to be a minority that is able to simply call themselves American.
What is the solution? People of good conscience need to stand and speak in defense of those who are not able to stand and speak for themselves. Denying racism exists comes from a place of privilege. There are different Americas, black, white and otherwise and we should not become individuals who are oblivious to the experiences of others simply because they are not our own. We have abolished slavery in our nation but still remain slaves to ourselves. This modern-day bondage causes us to become submissive to our own minds and captivates our hearts from reaching their full potential of understanding, empathy and compassion simply because we cannot look beyond our own experiences and acknowledge the experiences of others.
Take the time to interact, build relationships, and learn from those who are different from you. When you see any type of injustice, take steps to remedy it. And at the very least, take a moment every day to reflect on your own biases and stereotypes. We all have them and need to start breaking them down so that we can in turn break down the barriers that separate us as nation on a whole.