My heart is really aching, and I have to confess that it’s aching with sadness and also a low-grade anger. I was furious along with many others that on the other side of the country a young black man was killed because of what he was wearing (and even if the allegations are true that he hit his murderer and provoked him, I’m furious about the Stand Your Ground law in Florida and other states that can allow a fist fight to turn into a murder instead of simply a call to the police). I’m furious that one of the most gentle men I know, my co-pastor, gets harassed by police even though I would stake my life on him not doing anything to provoke it, simply because he’s a Black man who wears a hoodie. (And almost all of the African American members of my church, faithful and good people, have stories of unprovoked police harassment or other forms of harassment due solely to the color of their skin.)
But on the Saturday we were planning the “Wear A Hoodie to Church” service with skittles and iced tea on the altar the next day, a 32-year-old woman’s family was in the process of pulling the plug on her life support system. They were forced to let her go after she had been beaten with a tire iron on the prior Wednesday in her own home in San Diego. Next to her was a note that said something along the lines of “Go home, you terrorist.” She was found by her 17-year-old daughter, who remembered the family receiving a similar letter several weeks prior but ignoring it as a high school prank of some sort.
Shaima Alawadi came to this country as part of the flood of Shi’ia Muslims (and Christians) fleeing Iraq when Saddam Hussein began what some people refer to as a genocide against the non-Sunni Muslims in Iraq (starting with anyone who had supported the United States during the 1991 invasion). She was one of the lucky few who the United States took in (most ended up struggling to survive in Syria, Turkey, and any country that would let them in; the United States offered very few entries for the people fleeing the turmoil we had helped create) and arrived here in 1993. She got married and had five American-born children in this country. But she made a horrible mistake. She wore a hijab (headscarf), a way of practicing her faith.
And I know I will sound a bit histrionic when I say this, particularly as a Christian whose family origins are in India (and Scotland), but I’m outraged by two things: she was killed for being a Muslim, and there have been no mass rallies of outrage about this.
I want to admit that I am going to sound very childish right now, and I’m really open to being called out on this emotional reaction: if you’re a person on the margins, I bet I’ve shown up to support you. I work hard to stand in solidarity because of my privilege as a light-skinned, able-bodied, straight US citizen. If I don’t show up to support equality for others, then I am not really fostering up the America I believe in. So I want to know where your outrage is for my sister. And if you experience a fair amount of comfort in this country, how can you not be outraged that someone else would suffer this injustice?
I know: I’m not Arab, and I’m not Muslim. But something changed about my world as a South Asian American after 9/11.
I mourned with the rest of America when the towers fell, and I ached for the families who lost people in the towers.
But when people said “Now we are all Americans, no hyphens,” I knew it wasn’t true. And how I knew it wasn’t true was that when my colleague from my job in Washington, DC asked me if I was planning to fly from Akron where I was visiting family to San Francisco for an event we were hosting on September 15, I said, “I can try, but do you really think they’re going to let me on a plane with my name?” and she said, “Oh of course. We’ll have to do the event without you.” I knew it wasn’t true when just north of us they bombed a mosque in Cleveland. (The next day, my father wanted to make a deposit at his bank in Cleveland, and I said, “Seriously, I don’t want you driving into Cleveland after that bombing.” And my father joked, “I’ll make a tee shirt that says ‘I’m Hindu; we hate Muslims, too!’ so no one will hurt me!) I knew it wasn’t true because over the next year, violence against Sikhs (who have no connection to Islam but wear a headdress that some Americans confused with the headdress of Osama bin Laden) spiked by 3000%. The guy I was dating at the time, a pastor in San Diego who had heard reports in his community about Mexicans being beaten bloody because the assailants thought “they looked middle eastern” offered to make me a tee shirt that said, “I’m Scottish; HONEST!” (Obviously I was aware of discrimination towards South Asians before 9/11, but the game changed a LOT for us after that moment.)
Shaima Alawadi is my sister because America doesn’t know how to distinguish between us, even though people I love deeply tell me we are a post-racial society except insofar as I keep pointing out race. (I’m working on how to foster up healthy conversation about this subject, and Jay Smooth’s TED Talk on talking about race has been really helpful.)
And my sister was beaten to death. In her home. For her American-born daughter to find. Because she recognizably exhibited her faith.
I want a million hijab parade. I want a parade where Black and White and Latino and Asian and Indigenous folks stand with the Arab/South Asian contingent and say “You should also live without fear when you live by the rules of this country.” And I know that part of the challenge is that my whole community hasn’t been rolling out for the rest of you even if I try to (and try to encourage my community to).
I function in and embrace a 90% White denomination and work hard to articulate myself in ways that are accessible to that beloved community. And I stand actively and loudly in solidarity with many communities on the margins, with deep humility and an effort to learn how to be a better ally. And right now I’m saying, “It’s my sister’s turn. It’s my community’s turn. It’ll be complicated: my community is ambivalent about standing up for ourselves and careful not to be disrespectful of our hosts, and in our homelands we wouldn’t be one community, so we’re still learning how to support each other. Support us anyhow. Be outraged for us so we can learn how to articulate our own outrage. Teach us solidarity by offering it at a time when EVERYONE should be outraged.”