I want to share an experience I had yesterday with all of you. Right before I taught a yoga class, someone who does not know me at all began a conversation with me. She mentioned that she was a schoolteacher and that her job was stressful – I do not dispute that teachers have a difficult job and are generally underappreciated. Trying to empathize, I nodded and said “I’m sure. Where do you teach?” She said “I teach at a Southside Milwaukee school.”
A look of disgust then crept over her face and she said in a whisper “It’s mostly Burmese and Pakistani children.” She then leaned closer and hissed “Arabs are the worst. They’re worse than African Americans.” Stunned, all I could manage was “really?” She proceeded to tell me Arabs don’t care about their children at all and that they hate women. She continued, starting in on a specific child, whose father came into the school to ask why the child wasn’t being included on field trips and special events on Fridays. “And he’s a taxi driver,” She said knowingly, emphasizing his occupation as if that defined his worth as a human being, his intelligence, and his right to ask questions about his child’s education.
Because I was on the job, and just about to teach a class, I chose not to confront her. I chose not to tell this woman that I myself am Arab-American. I chose not to point out that if she ever bothered to speak to a cab driver while taking advantage of the quite necessary services they provide, she might be surprised to know that it is not uncommon for an immigrant who is a cab driver in America to have been an engineer or a professor in his or her country of origin, unable to continue practicing their profession because of linguistic, legal, financial, or professional licensure barriers in this country.
She might be surprised to know that this person probably left their country to escape war, and (or), perhaps more depressingly, to provide their children with more opportunities to succeed, not anticipating that they might in fact be doing the opposite in a country where racism is so deeply rooted and insidious that it might be stunting their child’s growth and success as early as fifth grade, where their fifth grade teacher had already made a decision that “Arabs are the worst,” and was therefore undoubtedly treating them as such, hurting their self-esteem, making them wish they were white, and doing more lifelong psychological damage that words can’t even convey.
She might be surprised to know that my Arab parents “hated women” so much that somehow, they raised four strong-willed, independent, and successful ones. She might be surprised to know that they brought us up to think so critically and to care so deeply about social injustices that at the age of 17, I chose to major in women’s studies at the University of Michigan. It might blow her mind to know that the essay that got me into law school was in fact about my Arab dad – how despite the fact that he always gave me a hard time about my major (not because he hated women, but because he didn’t know what kind of job I could get with that degree), he was one of the biggest feminists I’d ever met.
I didn’t say any of these things. Instead, I simply excused myself from the conversation to go teach my class. While I don’t doubt that there are humans that do exist (of all colors, cultures, and backgrounds) that don’t care about their children and that hate women (I’ve experienced plenty of the latter in my lifetime), it is unfair enough to paint an entire culture of people with one brush as you sit holed up in your house spewing hatred to like-minded people or plastering it all over your Facebook page. But when your responsibility—your JOB—is to help form these children in their formative years, help them realize their potential, help build them up, and you start off with this mindset – what chance do they have at success? How many more of your colleagues share your views? On what level are you damaging these children? Will they ever be able to recover? More disturbingly, how do you still have a job?
While this person is not my friend on Facebook, we have many mutual friends, so I don’t doubt that she will stumble across these things that went through my head as she insulted my heritage – my culture – the one I know to be rich with beauty, generosity, wonderful food, art, poetry, architecture, creativity, and most importantly, love. I would encourage her to take another look at her life’s work and re-approach it from that place of unconditional love that sits deep within all of us, that we are all capable of acting from, even if we lose sight of it from time to time.