Monday, September 22, 2008

Bigotry in Virginia, alive and well

So, I had a run-in with a bigot yesterday. Its one of those scenarios that is almost so generic you might think it destined for made-for-TV films (and its also very likely that's where the bigot in question got his lines from).

I was visiting my older brother and his family this weekend in northern Virginia- Fairfax to be exact. Incidentally, he's a cardiologist. We were toting our small army of children and babes to a local state park, and made a pit-stop at a Walmart for some trout worms and juice (an odd grocery list, I confess).

I'll also confess my brother's driving can be a bit frantic at times. I was trying to keep up as he sped into the parking lot, and next thing I know I'm at the receiving end of a voracious honk from a car to my right in a 4-way intersection. The car was a good distance away, and hadn't moved, but I suppose he wanted to make a point.

That was that, and we parked, waiting for my brother to retrieve the necessary items and come back. Just then, a stout white man of, oh, 45 years, walked by my car, giving me a very prominent middle finger and a very articulate "F*&* You" (and I thought the joke was you wouldn't make it far in Boston without a middle finger!).

Ok- fine, he's clearly upset, not yet making any connection, and I'm fasting, so I need to control my temper I thought, and I let it go.

I stood outside the car with an ancy Noor, while Yousuf took a nap in his car seat. Soon, my brother emerged from the Walmart, and lo and behold, behind him was the same man. He came up to me.

"Is there something bothering you with me, sir?" I beckoned.

"Yes, your driving-you nearly ran into my vehicle!!"

"I'm sorry-I was actually quite far away from your vehicle and it was my right of way"

"Free Palestine? Palestine's already free!!" he raged, gesturing to a bumper sticker on the back of my windshield as he began to walk away.

Clearly, my driving wasn't the only thing bothering him.

"I'm sorry?"

He then turned around and bellowed out "Why don't you go back to your country! "

"We live here, and I"ll have you know our values are probably more American than your's will ever be."

"Yeah right-" he muttered, continuing on his way.

At this point my brother, an American citizen, went up to confront him. The man came up within an inch of his face pointing and yelling something about his tax dollars, and how there was no occupation, and how we should all go back home. His blood began to boil and he looked about ready to swat my brother, who was explaining to him where his tax dollars were really going.

"I dare you to lay one finger on him" I said. "Go ahead. We'll press charges. Its called a hate crime, and you'll end up where you belong. You, sir, are a bigot. Go ahead and say what you just said on a loudspeaker to everyone in this parking lot if you weren't such a coward."

Mind you, we are in northern Virginia. During the ten minutes I stood in the parking lot alone, we were passed by Indians, Mexicans, Chinese, Arabs, and African-Americans. I wonder what he would have had to say about all of them.

A few people took a moment to glance at what was happening. But for the most part, they kept on their way. And that was what was really frightening- bringing to mind a social experiment was conducted and filmed for ABC news' "What Would You Do?" series about a racist cafe owner refusing to serve a Muslim woman (the incident was staged and repeat dozens of times on tape) on their February 26,2008 show.

Several people vocally supported the man in denying her service and telling her the things he did ("go back to where you came from"..."if you were really American, you wouldn't where a towel on your head"..."take your jihad out to the parking lot" etc. etc.), even giving him a thumbs up and saying they would do the same. Many opposed him, saying they were deeply offended and that he was disgusting. But the overwhelming majority stood by and did nothing.

And that is the scary part- you realize that maybe for every person angry and stupid enough to actually verbalize his racist thoughts, there must be 5 others who are thinking them.

Back to my story. Several other Muslims going shopping with their families emerged from their cars, asking if we needed help, calling him a racist and telling him to leave us alone. He soon backed off and was on his own cowardly way.

As I said, its sort of one of those incidents you anticipate (at least as a veiled Muslim woman; or even as a person of color and minority) your entire life. Shortly after September 11, I was was once called a terrorist by an elderly man in CVS in Cape Cod, who's daughter whisked him way, insisting he suffered from dementia. But for the most part, I usually excpect (and receive) the good in people-people accusing airport personnel of profiling me, for example, or asking if i need help, or just saying hello.

But when something like this does happen, I suppose the shock value is still so high that you never quite know how to respond. And you sit there stewing for a while, wondering how human beings can be so unabashedly vile-especially in this day and age, to one another.

Someone suggested I should have told him to crawl back to the rate hole he emerged from, in respose to his asking me to go back home (I also imagined that if everyone in this country was asked to go back "to where they came from" there wouldn't be anyone left, except maybe the native americans).

That might have been satisfying. Another part of me wished I had just told him that it was Ramadan and that I would pray extra hard for God to bless him with a kinder spirit and a more tolerant soul, so his next victim would be spared a similar, if not worse, fate. Ameen to that.


Blogger melissa6 said...

the worst thing about reading is that it didn't surprise me........

8:06 PM  
Blogger ياسمين حميد said...

I know the feeling of wishing afterwards that I'd said this or that...
Yes, the worst part about it are the bystanders who do or say nothing, that's why
الساكت عن الحق شيطان أخرس

8:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yuck, sorry. My husband's family is from China, and I'm just dreading the first overt racist comment that my young son will understand...

Like you said, it's pretty crazy in America, where >99% of the population didn't come from here anyway! The "I was here first" mentality is so irrational and juvenile.

9:01 PM  
Blogger mink said...

I wonder if it occurred to him that his tax dollars were actively preventing you from going back to your country.

Well done for standing up for yourself. Three years ago I was attacked in London - pushed against my door as I was about to enter home, by someone who had an issue with the way I parked my bicycle. He shouted at me "this is England" (he noticed my accent, though I don't think he knew or cared where exactly I came from) but I was too shocked to respond.

11:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm so sorry you had to put up with that. That's so vile. And you're right - for every one person who says something, there are five people thinking it. And that's really disheartening.

8:28 AM  
Blogger Steve said...

Unfortunately such ignorance and lazy attitudes are global.

I wouldn't assume someone's silence necessarily indicates ascent or agreement though. Sadly, most of us are too timid to break ranks and confront things, even if we disagree with them.

3:03 PM  
Blogger Kara said...

So sorry you had to go through that, hopefully Yosuf was still asleep! I applaud you for the way you handled yourself. Even while fasting, I am sure that must have been difficult. I always tell my husband that it is always the bigger man (or woman in this case :) who makes the bigger impact.

8:36 PM  
Blogger Miss Froy said...

I once spoke up when a drunk man was racially abusing a young girl on my bus home from work. After she got off the bus he turned on me and said the most vile things you could say to a woman...and nobody said a word...
It was a terrifying experience and really makes me think twice about putting myself forward. I pray that if it ever happens again i'll do the same but.... Like a previous commenter says, silence doesn't necessarily indicate agreement, just fear and (especially here in the UK) embarrassment at making a scene. How sad.

9:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"If everyone in this country was asked to go back "to where they came from" there wouldn't be anyone left, except maybe the native americans"

That is exactly what they should be teaching at a school!

5:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am saddened to read of your incident. I am deeply sorry. I can but hope that a new administration which strives for fairness to all will turn the tide in this country of such overt racism. Republicans seem to know no other method but the injection of fear masking racism, and we are hopeful that Obama will change that horrid pattern. Best to you and your family.

8:22 PM  
Blogger Onia said...

i'm sorry that you had to go through such a terrible incident. i know what it's like,and i feel sorry for the nieve and ignorant people who disrespect minorities. They have the audacity to call minorities criminals and terrorists, but what about people who are not minorites. no matter who you are or where you from,there's always one person from each race that does something stupid and yet the rest of the world blames that specific group for someone else's mistake. it's rediculous! why can' t we all just get along, why is there so much hate in this world. My nephew who is italian,black,and hispanic when he was born and til this day still looks exactly like my brother, but alot of people cant seem to look pass his white skin, they look at us all weird when like why are those black ppl with that white baby. they stare and whisper, like they dnt have a life. its like they look at him diff. i mean get over it this is the 21st century. dis one guy told my brother to get a dna test b/c my nephew was to white to be his son! they never once looked at his feature, but yet again just his skin. my brother was ready to literally hurt that guy, he was felt so much anger, but thanks to my mothers great ways she solved the situation. i just want to let u know that its hard for all minorities out here and the only thing u can do i stand tall nd walk proud.

11:14 PM  
Blogger Jocelyn said...

What a disgusting man. As I grow older, and I am only in my mid-thirties, I find less tolerance for such behaviour.
What shocks me and scares me are the people that did nothing. That is what this country has come to. Where's the fight and the acceptance?!
Originally from Northern Virginia myself, I have seen businesses that were boycotted out of business because the owners were dark skinned and accused of being terrorists. The ignorance lies in the fact that some of the owners were Indian and Buddhists! Far from the "stereotype" that our media conjured. Nevertheless, how does one try and convince such ignorance to be tolerant and accepting of others? It's simply a lack of education. To say, I almost feel sorry for such people, is too simple.
You and your family are beautiful and have given more to this country and others than such a simple minded man in the Walmart parking lot.

5:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

the way i approach many injustices like this is with the thought "it is what it is..." with the world being as complicated as it is and us having so little control over it, the best we can do is to try to keep such negative thoughts from infecting our own behavior, thoughts and spirits.

peace be with you!

8:33 PM  
Blogger Jundi said...

u know i grew up in ksa and i attended a school where the overwhelming majority of students were american and the teachers were all american .. anyway i remember one incident in 4th grade where this one american kid got mad at me cuz i tackled him pretty hard during football so he says ur not even supposed to be here u stupid arab i.e. as an arab i dont belong in an american school .. and i remember being baffled ino dude look whos talking ..

2:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm sorry that happened to you. He was way off base. Rude, small-minded people are everywhere. Some of them are racist. Some of them are offended because them behavior or habits of others is not what they approve of. My biracial nephew has had no end of grief from such people. My brother-in-law made some racist remark at my mother-in-law's house one holiday-and I called him on it. If he was at my house, I'd have insisted he apologize or leave. Heck, I've even had run-ins with such folks while bicycling. Once, my husband & I were riding our new tandem bike over a short bridge (it crosses over railroad tracks) when our chain slipped off. We were as far to the side as we could be trying to get the chain back on. A local painter's business van passed us & the worker in the passenger seat yelled an obscenity at us. We won't be hiring them to do any painting on our house.

10:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

really sorry for you, i get the same thing for being a religious jew and know how it feels.

i take issue with Jundi's comment referring to another kid in his class as this "American kid", what does that make him? the question is how does he view himself in contrast to the other kids, how American does he see himself?

3:30 PM  
Blogger Angelina said...

I always feel such shame for my race when I hear these kinds of stories. I haven't ever been in such a situation where I have had the option of stepping in to help someone being racially slurred and intimidated and I like to think I'll do for someone in that situation what I would hope someone would do for me in the same. I did dissolve a twenty year friendship because this friend came into my home and made foul comments about people of other races.

The people who have previously been referred to as "minorities" in this country are becoming less and less so. There is going to come a time when bigots are going to have to deal with what it feels like to become the minority.

I don't understand why so many Americans have such fear for all people from the middle east, with special fear and loathing for anyone of the Islamic faith.

Perhaps it would be good to know that some people, like myself, see veiled Muslim women and think how beautiful they are and how interesting their stories must be and if I didn't feel shy I would walk up and say "I don't know who you are but I would very much like to find out."

Your writing gives an amazing window through which to know your story.

5:30 AM  
Blogger iWondertoo said...

Dearest Laila,
I was so fascinated by meeting you a couple of years ago when we drove together from NC to VA. I am currently in grad school at GWU and taking a class on multiculturalism. I thought of you and the things we talked about and how similar our paths are in this world.
I think that people like this man have simply forgotten what it is like to be human and how to connect to others who want nothing but to be accepted and respected.
Your post gives me courage to believe that I should speak up when I see something like that happening. I think many times we wonder if the person in the receiving end of racism wouldn't feel even more embarassed if someone else gets involved. In a way it is ignorant to think that way. But are posts such as yours that erase that ignorance. You are a brave woman. And I have been blessed with the opportunity to having crossed paths with you in this life.

3:14 PM  
Blogger Laila said...

Natalia- what a touching comment, thank you so much for taking the time to read my blog and leave the comment, I am always amazed how we can touch other people's lives without ever realizing it! Be well-

1:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Laila, I was raised in Tacoma, Washington. Thou there were incidents like this, it appeared as if it was "a few bad eggs" but after I'd moved to Washington County, Minnesota... [which is almost completely white].

I'm not surprised that this had happened to you. Here, I'd met a number of people that are so ignorant that they believe in that whole "boogie man" "the Evil Muslims are going to come get us" stereotype and claim that they know everything about the Qur'an, thou having never bothered to read it and find out what's inside.


4:37 AM  
Blogger Rosa said...

Yes, sadly it is not a surprise...

Here is a website you may be interested in, it was launched in the US in response to the Obsession DVD and the recent bigotry and prejudice that surfaced in the media during the US presidential campaign. Check it out: - there are people from all faiths standing up against what is happening.

2:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Laila, it is terrible to read that several families saw what was happening and passed by, and that the support you got was limited to other Muslims. I am sorry you had to experience this. I have never actually seen anything like this, and I hope I never do. It sounds like you were brave and paid him much more courtesy than he deserved.

10:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your experience is unfortunately, a part of this life. I am not muslim, but I do have very high modesty standards, I do not cut my hair nor do I wear the awful revealing apparel that so many people in America wear. I cover my body to respect myself and others. That is how America started out but our culture has somehow become so coarse and ugly. You must have been so afraid. Probably that poor man was also afraid of you and your culture which seems strange and frightening to him. That is why he wants you to leave. Fear... Fear that you will try to import your traditions and strange to us ways here.

God is love and he loves all the peoples of the world. In every single part of the world. But, ugly, nasty, hateful behavior is not exclusive to Americans. I had a very spiteful and angry Arab instructor while I was in college he persecuted me to such an extent that I had to drop his class. It was because I was a woman and he didn't think women should be educated. I was so shaken and glad to be rid of him.

Perhaps in their souls these ugly men share a father - LUCIFER. Ugly comes in all shades and colors.

In love for all mankind.

11:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Though this is an old post, I couldn't help myself but comment on this many of the others that posted on this post, am deeply sorry and disappointed in what many Americans offer to people who aren't white.

I am a Latina American living and studying in Vermont. There have been times where I haven't felt safe in this country because of the racism that comes about. Because of this, this is so hard to read from other peoples' experiences. I feel for you especially because of all the other events in your life that you are going through at this moment in time--And I'm impressed at how you reacted.

To this day, I still receive racist acts towards me, for example, I cannot even meet my boyfriends' grandparents because I am a person of color--people never change!!

Looking at a post of yours from 2.7.05, you were talking about Yousuf as a baby and how he slept next to you every night--how "Americans encourage independence at a very young age where as in the Middle East, parents are accustomed to sleeping by their baby's side." At first I found this so interesting because that makes it seem that many Americans do not contain any compassion, even to their children. Reading this post and understanding how that man treated you, I see how for many Americans, too much compassion is lacking.

Thank you for your time. I commend you for staying so calm. Good luck with everything.


7:46 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Hi Laila,

I am a Student at an American University, and I am taking a class called "Gender in the Middle East." As part of a class assignment, I chose to read your blog. I have read it from the beginning and I plan to read it until it's end. I admire how you tackle complex political issues, while still having such a strong focus on your family and children. (who are ADORABLE by the way)I chose to respond to this particular entry, because it struck a chord with me. I am sad to say that I know people who have that same mentality, and I think that it is important that people stand up against it.

I look forward to continuing to read your blog.

5:32 AM  

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