What A Muslim Looks Like
Several years ago, my mom told me about an incident in which one of my cousins and his friends were told, or more fittingly "yelled at," to "go back to their damn country." They were playing basketball in a local, empty outdoor court, when some white people drove by and started slinging slurs at them. Punches were thrown. Someone got hurt.
Photo by Maha Ahmed
When she told me, I remember wondering to myself whether this was only a petty classroom feud that had seeped out of school walls and into the neighborhood, whether it was an isolated incident.
My cousin and his friends weren't even old enough to drive at the time, but they did look like the post-9/11, media-curated image of terrorists I'd grown up seeing all around me --their skin was brown, and one of them wore a turban. They looked like me.
I remember being angry about what had happened to this group of boys precisely because they were a group of boys I had personal ties to, and not because of the deep-seeded racism and Islamophobia at play. Naturally, this anger subsided and was filed away into the deep recess of memories I would later develop that are similar, memories of graffiti left on friends' garage doors and jokes about the men in my family having ties to Al-Qaeda.
After all, this is Sugar Land and they were really only jokes. Nothing serious happens in Sugar Land, everyone always says. Nothing serious happens in Sugar Land, because it's just a suburb and it's not like the rest of the South. Here, going to a restaurant and seeing someone dressed in nonwestern clothing or speaking a language other than English is more a norm than an accepted anomaly. Here, especially in recent years, people who aren't Hindu take part in the annual Festival of Colors called Holi. Here, just last week, a local mosque held an iftar (breaking fast) dinner that Christians and Mormons attended.
So, yeah, my high school classmates and I had self-deprecating humor about our families and backgrounds, but there always seemed to be this unspoken disclaimer that no one should take anything seriously. In hindsight, I've come to recognize that it doesn't just take cultural difference, but conversations about those differences--serious conversations--to combat the type of insidious racism that eventually leads to what my cousin experienced.