THE BLOG
02/26/2016 06:06 pm ET Updated Feb 26, 2017

Leaving the Bubble

Mehmed Zelkovic via Getty Images

My introduction to adulthood happened the day after I turned 18. I was standing at a food cart with two other hijab-wearing females and one of their brothers. As I decided between chicken or lamb, I heard yelling some distance away. I ignored it simply because I assumed it wasn't addressed at me.

It wasn't until later that I realized a group of men had been screaming "ISIL, ISIL!" at us. While I'd happily been paying for my food, a group of men had looked at me and my friends, decided to associate us with a group of people that had nothing to do with us, and then verbally harassed us because of it.

When I told them the story, my non-Muslim friends expressed their sympathies, but seemed almost surprised that I hadn't had this sort of experience before. Truth be told, I was somewhat surprised that I hadn't either. I'd worn a hijab since I was about thirteen, and in the five years I had worn it, I had never been subjected to any sort of racist experience even though I was quite clearly a Muslim.

I grew up in a homogenous environment of third-culture kids like myself, never dealing with any kind of intolerance. When I left for college, I worried more about facing racism, forgetting that my university was made up of a diverse group of well-educated students. In that environment, bigotry was virtually non-existent, a fact I was glad to find out.

When I had my second brush with discrimination a few months later, I was on a bus from the train station to my college campus. Winter break had just ended, and I was excited to see my friends again. I had just settled into my ratty bus seat when a man entered the bus, took one look at my headscarf and opened his mouth. "Someone here looks suspicious! Someone who was born outside this country! Don't you think it's strange that she's covering her head? She's carrying a suitcase and a backpack! She must have something to hide."

I sat there stunned, with a polite smile frozen on my face. He went on for what seemed like forever, addressing the entire bus. No one said anything. No one stopped him. No one really cared.

I panicked. Should I tell him that I was just as American as him? That I believed in democracy and freedom? That I rooted for the US during the Olympics? That I knew the national anthem and always tunelessly sang along? In the end, I looked at him and laughed, trying to make it seem like I didn't care, like he was so ridiculous he wasn't worth my response. I doubt that anyone on the bus bought my false confidence.

Later, I wondered how I could have expected anyone to defend me when I wasn't willing to defend myself. I rationalized, telling myself that I was keeping myself safe. But deep down, I knew that it had just been fear that prevented me from saying anything.

I know that I have been lucky. My brushes with the intolerant have been few and relatively mild. I know that other Muslims in America have had it worse than my friends and I have. But even if we have been lucky, Islamophobia still affects us.

When my one of my friend's parents asked her not to leave campus in the weeks following the tragic Paris attacks, it was because they'd heard reports of Muslim girls being harassed, and they wanted her to be safe. When my own father asked me to avoid confrontation in the weeks following the murder of three young Muslims in Chapel Hill, it was because he was afraid that it could happen to me.

Right now, I know I'm safe. My college campus is diverse and accepting, full of good people who look for commonalities instead of drawing arbitrary divisive lines. But just as I had to leave the safe bubble of my high school, and then the safe bubble of my hometown, I will one day have to leave the bubble that is my college campus.

In a world where a successful presidential candidate can run on a platform of xenophobia and fear, where an eighteen year old girl can be harassed on a bus in front of indifferent passengers, where my countrymen see people of my faith as a monolithic threat, I am afraid.

And I shouldn't have to be.