“Get out of here, you terrorist!”
I will never forget the look on my mom’s face when a police officer shouted these words at her, just days after 9/11 had happened. Little did I know, as a frightened 6-year-old, that this was just the beginning.
It was the start of feeling like an outsider in the only home that I’ve ever known. It was the start of extended security checks at the airport. It was the start of hearing people tell me that they were shocked that I could speak English so clearly and “without an accent.” It was the start of having to deal with strangers approaching me at the gas station just to tell me that I should be ashamed of being Muslim and that people “like me” weren’t welcome in America.
I am an American-born Indian Burmese Muslim woman, and when I walk into a room, my narrative is written for me before I’ve spoken a single word. Even if I’m just waiting in line at Peet’s Coffee, I’m all too aware that as soon as a stranger sees my headscarf, they immediately identify me as the “the Muslim girl.” And this identification comes with its own set of baggage: I am perceived as the “other” — sometimes as anti-American, or even a threat.
I’m not constantly aware of other people’s negative perceptions of me. But I still feel some lingering discomfort when I notice people looking at me longer than they might at the blond girl sitting beside me, because I often wonder if they’re staring at my headscarf.
It’s almost as though when other people see me, they write a story about me based only on my headscarf — the color of my skin, my gender and my status as a second-generation immigrant all become secondary. And this is before they even get to learn my name, my passions and my personal experiences — these characteristics become even less significant to people.
According to FiveThirtyEight, only one in four Americans over the age of 65 know a Muslim personally. This makes me feel like I have the responsibility to not only positively represent myself, but also the other 1.8 billion Muslims in the world.
When I speak, I feel obligated to prove my merit. Every single time I make eye contact with a stranger, I feel as though I need to smile and appear friendly. This is my way of attempting to send the message that I am screaming internally: “I am not that different from you — I am one of you.”
But this can be exhausting.
It wasn’t until my first week at UC Berkeley that I realized that I’m not alone in this feeling. When I took part in a discussion on race while doing icebreakers in Golden Bear Orientation, I discovered that my experience is part of a much larger story.
This could be the story of a Black man who sees the security guard eye him while he browses a store. Or perhaps it’s a story of the Jewish guy wearing a yarmulke who is ashamed for having to ask himself, “Is the waiter being rude because he’s having a bad day or because he’s racist?” It’s a story about our society writing the narratives of the “others” based on initial perceptions alone and treating people differently as a result.
I am both Muslim and American, and there is no conflict between these two identities. But when people write my narrative for me, they undermine me because they assume that I can’t be both. This doesn’t change my experience, but it can make me feel uncomfortable in a place where I’m supposed to be comfortable — and this is the detrimental impact of implicit biases.
When we write other people’s narratives for them, it’s because we have implicit biases about their appearances — whether that be their headscarf, the color of their skin or another physical characteristic. Regardless of our own experiences with race, every single one of us is capable of acting with prejudice.
Understanding race becomes much more feasible when we respectfully allow people to write their own narratives. When we appreciate that there is more than one story to be heard, we can progress toward a more cohesive society. A society where a confused 6-year-old, who barely can read full sentences, doesn’t have to find the word “terrorist” in the dictionary to try to understand why someone using that word had upset her mother so much.