Does Systemic Oppression Really Exist?

I always comforted myself thinking those people were in the minority; to me the open-minded people far outweighed the bigots. Then, February 10 happened. For the first time in my life, my life had less value than a white life.
11/12/2015 12:20 pm ET Updated Nov 12, 2016
Columns in front of University of Missouri building in Columbia, Missouri, USA
Columns in front of University of Missouri building in Columbia, Missouri, USA

I am an Indian-American Muslim girl. Despite growing up as a racial and religious minority, I never believed systemic oppression existed.This is America, land of the free, home of the brave. We live in a nation where hard work leads to success. Our country is one that strives for justice and equality; we are all guaranteed the same rights under the law.

I never denied the existence of racism. Walking down the street, there always seems to be someone ready to yell out terrorist or n***** or slut. I never even denied the existence of extremists; people ready to hurt others based on difference in race, religion or sexual orientation. But I always comforted myself thinking those people were in the minority; to me the open-minded people far outweighed the bigots.

I spent my life acknowledging racism existed but knowing it was never something that truly held me back. Despite being a racial and religious minority, I am still American and I truly believed the vast majority of Americans were willing to embrace that.

Then, February 10 happened. Three Muslim students were brutally murdered in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Razan Abu-Salha. How could this happen? I was sure everyone would be outraged. I waited for the outpouring of anger, of sympathy; I waited for people to demand justice. For 16 hours, I listened to silence. For almost an entire day, mainstream media reported nothing. The incident only garnered attention after thousand of tweets and facebook posts by the Muslim community and their fellow minority communities. Death over a parking dispute, preliminary police investigations found. A parking dispute, news organization reported without hesitation. Never mind the parking spot in question was empty that day. Never mind the murderer, Craig Hicks frequently posted Islamophobic things on facebook in the time leading up to the incident. Never mind, the victims told friends and family they felt Hicks' hatred toward them in the days leading up to the incident. This is not a hate crime the news said. This is a parking dispute. Three innocent people murdered and their deaths were written off as a parking dispute.

For the first time in my life, my life had less value than a white life. Somehow, because of the color of my skin or my religion, my life meant less to Americans. Visibly Muslim and Indian, I was a walking target. Suddenly, the few extremists became just a little more real to me.

Soon after this incident, I started college, a little more aware of prejudice and a little more wary of bigots. I sat in my first 300 student lecture hall and looked around, only to realize I was the only girl wearing a headscarf and one of a few students of color. Class after class, I found the same to be true and I felt more aware of my diverse background than ever before. It didn't matter that my campus had a thriving Muslim Students Organization or that as I walked around campus, I saw other women wearing headscarves. In class, I was alone. I began to wonder- were there any other Muslims in my class? In my major? Were there any professors who looked even a little bit like me?

We say that our difference don't divide us, and I truly believe that. But we can't ignore that our differences make us... different. For some people, hopefully for most, it doesn't color the way we view each other. But differences in race, religion, and sexual orientation exist. And when there aren't many people around you who share those aspects of your life, you become all the more aware of those differences.

Over the next few months, I began to hear and see things. A Mizzou professor conducting a mock interview suggested to a student of color: "it might be a good idea to have a native English speaker look over your application." The professor did not seem to realize- English is my friend's first language and she is now attending a top five law school. A professor asked a student of Indian origin: "which village in India are you from?" The student was understandably confused. After all, she was raised in America and regardless, most people in India live in cities with paved roads and cars, not villages with mud huts and straw roofs. An interviewer asked a Muslim girl applying to the Mizzou School of Medicine: "how would you balance a career and a family," and "what would you say to a patient who didn't want someone with a headscarf as their doctor?"

I turned to these friends and asked- had anyone suggested diversity classes or diversity training for students and faculty? Could we have race forums? Could we get in contact with school administration to discuss policy changes and ways to address these issues? As it turns out, I suggested nothing new. Campus organizations already suggested diversity classes, race forms were held yet no real changes were made, people emailed administration for years to no avail, and student leaders had met with Mizzou officials but no real consideration was given to policy changes.

Finally, I understood. Systemic oppression is very real and very scary. It has the ability to hold back otherwise talented and ambitious students and shut down powerful and inspiring voices.
It isn't the racial slurs hurled out as I walk down the street that bother me. It isn't that people have a harder time empathizing with my tragedies. It isn't even people in authority making ignorant judgements based on appearances. It's feeling unsafe, alienated, and powerless within my own city, my own community.

I realize Muslims have only been the target of hate and bigotry for a decade or two. This is a new experience for us; Black Americans have been going through this for centuries. For so long, their murders were overlooked by the media and the public. The injustice they feel is embedded within the very fabric of our society; it has been present since America's inception. The oppression they face is much greater than the bigotry I face. It is a racism and oppression rooted in our culture, one that has been carried generation after generation

When #ConcernedStudent1950 began their protest, people started asking questions. "How could Jonathan Butler do this to MU?" "How could the football players and coaches put MU athletics at such risk?" What they ignored however, was the months, even years, preceding these protests spent sending emails, holding forums, setting up meetings. Despite their best efforts, no change was made. The questions to ask are "What drove Jonathan Butler to such desperation?" "Why do the football players feel the need to take such extreme measures?"

#ConcernedStudent1950 never created a racial divide, they created no "white vs. black" division. They are not asking anyone to apologize for being white, they only ask for the simple acknowledgment that being black in America comes with added difficulties. They want a campus that is equally safe and inclusive for all students.

Is what they are saying really so outrageous? Look at Mizzou; look at what happens in our campus when black students raise their voice, when they ask for equality. Do you really believe the university doesn't need to step in? Do you believe it is not their responsibility to create a more equal environment after black students receive terrorist threats for exercising their first amendment right to speech and to petition? Were any of the people engaging in hate speech-- the student who drew a swastika in feces or the men who called the MSA president a n***** or the people yelling slurs during LBC homecoming-- were any of them threatened?

If you do not believe you are racist but also do not support policy changes to end racism or increase diversity, ask yourself why. These protesters did nothing illegal; they used the means provided to them under the constitution to bring about change. They are examples of our democratic process in action.What about them angers you so much?