Shortly after the Iraq War started, a classmate came up to me on the playground and shouted, "Pick a side, terrorist." I had no idea what she meant at the time, but later learned that her father was currently serving in the American military in Iraq and she assumed that was where I was from. She was angry and heartbroken by her father's departure. Her words cut, but I never told anybody. I was only seven years old.
I grew up in a Persian household in Manhattan. Both my parents are Iranian and they raised me to take pride in my heritage. I was lucky enough to be part of a community of Iranian-Americans that taught me how incredible it was to be part of a culture with such a rich history, so full of life.
But after 9/11, I grew confused. 'Why did so many people look down on me?' I wondered. At first, I assumed it was just kids being naïve and cruel, but as I got older I started noticing similar but more subtle attitudes in adults as well. Sometimes it was a look of fear, other times an ignorant question. After war was declared in Iraq, people began asking my father why Islam was so violent. This blanket statement inaccurately stereotyped an entire religion -- never mind that my father isn't even Muslim.
I suffered the hurt of words, but many more experience even worse ramifications for other ignorance. In January 2009, a store clerk named Mohammed Al Hadi was murdered in Memphis. Later that day, another Middle Eastern store clerk was murdered nearby. These tragic deaths followed the murder of a Middle Eastern store clerk that took place in Memphis on New Year's Day. Following the murder, the store was set on fire by activists boycotting all Arab owned businesses.
During the cold war, anxiety about foreign people was mostly kept underground. As suburban culture emerged, the media created a picture of the ideal homogeneous environment: A white, middle-class family with a father that provides, a mother that takes care of the house and kids, and children that make wise cracks while still being moral. All the fear of "the other" produced a culture of resistance to all things that were perceived of as a strange of different. Anyone with a Russian or Cuban accent risked being ostracized and maligned by those who associated him or her with the enemy. Today, we see a similar situation with the Middle East. Fear has once again become hatred. Some American citizens believe that 9/11 confirmed that all Middle Easterners are dangerous and are bound to bring harm to America. Though they may be more subtle about it now than they were in years past, the sense of danger is still very much alive in the hearts of many Americans.
I attempted to bring these tensions to the surface. I stood on the corner of 86th and Lexington and asked 50 strangers one word they associated with the term "Middle East." Many people attempted to be politically correct, giving me answers such as "peace" or "freedom." However, one in five people said "war," and one in 10 replied "terrorist." I was shocked to see how honest people are when they know they will remain anonymous, how blunt they are when they are in a rush and how little they value a teenager's serious question. They assumed it was for a class report, when in fact, it is a reflection on my very life.
There are currently about 950,000 Middle Eastern American citizens living in this country. Their children don't deserve to be treated as enemies of a war they never even fought in. They should be treated with the same integrity and respect as any other American.
There is hope. This fall, TLC introduced a new show called "All-American Muslim." Although the show has met opposition for using 'propaganda to hide the radical intent of Muslims', award-winning filmmaker and third-generation Sikh American calls it a "daring project of depicting Muslim families as real people." Perhaps America needs more shows like this in order to make citizens more comfortable with the idea of peacefully coexisting with Middle Easterners.
So do a young proud American a favor: The next time you think about Middle Easterners, think of the amazing food or charitable personalities, not violence and brutality. Think of my grandmother reading Persian poetry and telling me stories of her childhood. Think of the children growing up in Middle Eastern homes in America right now, people that will hopefully become avid members of our community. Think of me.