Are you Muslim? An Essay on Diversity in America today


by Chandra Ganguly

As I write this, Trump has won the Republican nomination. A man openly extolling hate and separation and retribution and segregation has won a wide circle of support. It is a matter of great shame and concern. The world watches. 

I am standing in line at the Chicago airport waiting for coffee. I have missed a connecting flight and I am tired and disheveled. The lady behind the counter tells me, “I love your nose ring.” “O, thanks,” I say to her and touch it self-consciously. She then asks me, “Are you Muslim?” I look up at her startled. Invasion happens in many ways, some gentle and some pre-announced and as a woman of color in America, it happens frequently enough that I should be used to it — but I am not. I nod my head vaguely, not a yes, not a no. I take my coffee and I walk away from her.

There it was again, the question all Americans who are not white are asked, the question about origins, that tells you that you are here but you are not from here. I pass a newsstand. Donald Trump looks at me from the cover of almost every magazine. “I am not an outsider,” I think as I pass him by.

Feelings of being an outsider can stem from direct questions such as, “Where are you from?” (India, Morocco, Jamaica, Britain?) to the other kinds that reveal your ignorance of the immense varieties of coffee or leaves in a salad not available in the home country, “What type of coffee do you want?” (Macchiato, Cappuccino, Late, Americano?) “What do you want in your salad?” (Romaine, Lettuce, Arugula, Iceberg, Spinach?)

I remember pulling into a parking spot outside Costco, a spot I had been signaling for for a while. A car from the opposite side rushed in and took it. I leaned out the window. I yelled, “Hey there…” The driver, an aged Asian man, leaned out and yelled back, “Hey there. Go back to where you belong.” For years, I recounted the story to friends not just as a personal experience of racism but also one that reveals the deeper dilemma of belonging in America.

Xenophobia comes from the Greek xenos, meaning “strange” or “foreigner”, and phobos, meaning “fear”. Fear of strangeness is an unsatisfying definition for racism, for the cruelties that one class of people has inflicted over another and yet it would seem it is this very fear of what or in this case who we do not know or understand that leads to a willingness to persecute and even destroy when possible. From the Nazi treatment of Jews to the Indian caste system, from the Ku Klux Klan to the genocide in Rwanda, from slavery and treatment of Africans in America to apartheid to incidents of gentrification in cities like San Francisco where the local populations are being pushed out by more affluent, mostly white tech workers—we see it everywhere. The precise causes of racism are still debated by social scientists but many factors – such as the need to feel superior as displayed in play ground bullying, to feeling unworthy or undermined – can contribute to it.

In recent times, this fear of “foreigners” is reflected in the rise of Muslim phobia. One mosque defiled by feces, another by graffiti, death threats via email. Intolerance stemming from fear is like a rising crescendo — the treatment of black men by the police, let us ban the Muslims, we must deport the illegals…

When I think of violence in America, I think of guns. When I think of violence against Indians, I think of the grandfather assaulted by cops during his morning walk, of the Muslim cab driver shot to death, of the Sikh man killed because he was mistaken for a member of the Taliban. When I think of discrimination, I think of the young black men and boys shot by police. I think of shootings in schools and colleges, of violence and racism and bigotry and discrimination. I think of all the ideals and opportunities that make America every immigrant’s dream. I also think of myself brown and alone and shy when I first came here twelve years ago, of my children, colors of mocha and coffee, of the freedoms I dream for them in this land.

I am in downtown Palo Alto, writing in a coffee shop, when a lady pulls over on the street and begins to get her children out of the car. She is wearing a dark headscarf and is dressed in jeans and a jacket. She works efficiently to set up her stroller. I sit watching her. I wonder how she lives her difference in attire, which is a statement she makes about herself every day in this country where such a statement could be misconstrued. What does she feel in the current political scenario? Is a woman like her aware that she could be used as a symbol of the violence that extremists around the world are unleashing? I mark the confidence in her gait. She wears her headgear with pride, with pride in her difference. Several hours later, we find ourselves on opposite sides of the sidewalk waiting for the walk signal. Our eyes meet, we stare and then we smile as we pass each other by. We are part of the same text.

At a workshop and Q & A led by a prominent African American gay poet, I listen keenly to his stories of growing up as the odd kid who was an outcast both for his color and his sexual preferences. I have read his poetry, his interviews, his essays. I appreciate his strength, his voice unafraid and unwilling to be apologetic for his difference, a voice that speaks of past injustices. I listen and I identify.

Difference is in the air that we breathe, we the minority populations. I raise my hand hesitantly during his Q and A, hesitant because I am still shy of my voice. I tell the poet, “I want to ask you about the experience of being different. I have often felt when I have to tried to make connections that there is still this sense of us as separate entities among the differentiated, as in: “we the African-Americans,” “we the Latinos,” “You don’t know what that is like, you don’t have that shared history, we cannot have this conversation.” I am wondering if you have any ideas as to how we can bridge that gap and about your own experience with this?” The poet looks at me and he asks me to “listen.” That is the gist of his reply to me. “Listen because that is what people need, to be able to speak and to have others listen. Let there be the safe space.”

In his gentle advice, I feel some of the same rejection I did in the Costco parking lot. To be asked to “listen” when I want to speak, holds for me the unspoken command to stay silent. And silence, for me, has been my story of social and personal oppression in America. History matters. In my case, the kind and probably wise advice to “listen” was received with dejection because of my history of having to listen too much, because of my history of being misunderstood when I spoke, of feeling myself silenced by the difference I lived and felt every day.

During the course of writing this piece, I started to speak with the people I met from different backgrounds, hoping to gain some insight into these issues of racism and discrimination and in particular the Trump phenomenon. I was in a bank in downtown Palo Alto where I live, being helped by a personal banker and we started to talk about racism and about this piece that I am writing. She was African-American and she told me that all the things that I had heard about racism were true. That this branch of the bank where she works used to have a few African-American tellers behind the counter and because some high-profile customers did not want to served by them, these African-American women were slowly replaced by other more “acceptable” faces and colors. My face must have registered the shock I felt, because she continued, “I know it is shocking but racism exists. If you write about it, please write about what happened here.” After I left the bank, I stood for a while on the sidewalk and I wondered again what it is that white people see when they see me. Do they see the color before they see anything else? And what do they decide about a person based on their perception of that color or a head scarf?

Riding a taxi a few days later, I began a conversation about Trump with the driver – a young African-American man. He spoke about going to university and how his friends from Europe would ask him why he didn’t have dreadlocks and why he didn’t “yo” at them and why he didn’t wear his pants low. He said that this is what they expected of a “black” man because that is what they had watched on television. The young driver blamed the media for the “mess we are in today.” He said that he had a customer who told him that he and his wife were going to vote for Trump and he remembers looking back at him, at this white man sitting in the back of his cab, and wondering whether that man could be a possible threat to his own safety.

But an assumption about race and racial allegiances is a complex layered experience. A couple of years ago, I was driving to work, one arm in a sling due to an accident, when I was pulled over for not stopping at a stop sign. The officer who pulled me over was African American. She stood next to my open window and told me sternly that I hadn’t stopped. “But I did,” I told her. She looked at me, I saw her jaws tighten as she wrote me a ticket, “Go to court and contest that if you like.” I looked sadly at her and said, “I have three kids and a full time job. I won’t have the time to go to court.” As she walked away from my car, I caught myself thinking that surely she should have understood me… A second later, I realized that my thought was based on the assumption of cultural – in this case “color”- empathy.

America, I had hoped, would be a post-racist country. The media before I moved to America more than a decade ago did not highlight as it does today the injustices against its minorities. Yes, its history of slavery was well known, but in India, what was more talked about then was the superior life-style that working in America afforded to its immigrants. The statistics about African-American lives reveal a social disparity that is impossible to ignore. African-Americans are nearly three times as likely as whites to be poor, six times more likely to be incarcerated, only half as likely to graduate from college. White households on an average make thirteen times as much as black households. The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that one in three African American men will go to prison at some point in his life. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, one in every 15 African American men is incarcerated, as opposed to only one in every 106 white men. According to F.B.I. statistics, an African-American is killed by a white police officer roughly every three and a half days.

Minorities in America today are stereotyped by their histories and contributions to the economy even as diversity is at the same time becoming a key word across the social landscape. In the New York Times front page news this morning, I see an article titled, “Schools Strive for Premium blend of Diversity,” that begins with the question, “How white is too white?” And on BBC, this week there was a story titled, “Get Ethics with our Ethnics. So you’re arranging a corporate conference: you’ve found the perfect venue, sent invitations and booked a panel of industry experts. Just one problem. They’re all white men. Fear not, the Rent-A-Minority website has everything you need. From “intellectual black guys” to “cheerful women of color”, the site promises an unthreatening and under-represented minority guest in a few clicks.” It is a joke, a spoof on the current need for diversity yet underlying the joke is a serious question, “How do we become a more inclusive and tolerant society without resorting to stereotypes?”

America is still battling to reconcile itself to its histories of discrimination – #Oscarssowhite and Beyonce’s performance during the Super bowl half time illustrate this as do headlines such as these, “Beyoncé’s Formation reclaims black America’s narrative from the margins,” in The Guardian (UK) and “This is a Black Space: give us the space to be heard.” in the Guardian (US). We feel the push and pull between the oppressions of the past and how they are replayed in new forms in a world that is still more open than ever to discussing difference and discrimination.

Diversity is a wonderful thing, it is a terrible thing. I live it every day and sometimes I am ashamed of it and at other times I hope it will provide me with a boost up in my ambitions, and sometimes I just wish it didn’t matter, that someone would just see me without needing to give me the concession, advantage or disadvantage, of difference. Ever since I have started this conversation, both with myself and with the people I meet every day. I have been feeling more hopeful about “us” – the people coming together to become a single united front against discrimination. The stories people share with me about struggle and finding place and about dealing with discrimination, about struggle are the same across the board, across colors, ages and sexes.

As I write this, Trump has won the Republican nomination. A man openly extolling hate and separation and retribution and segregation has won a wide circle of support. It is a matter of great shame and concern. The world watches. For some, the question is, “Will the future give us more opportunities towards equality and happiness?” For others, the question will be, “Can we let go of our fears to accept those who cross our paths as equals?” And for the rest the world watching, the question will be, “Can America finally overcome its past to become the true land of the free, or will a man who speaks of banning Muslims, building walls and loving the ‘uneducated’ be its highest representative?”

I am always a splash of brown against white. Can any one man be free if others are enslaved? Yes, it is true that all lives matter, but slavery is part of the history that still lives in the discriminations. To deny the past would mean to not be able to breathe in the present. To live in the past, discounting the slow laborious steps towards equality, would mean that people still lived in anger and hopelessness.

I think of Trump’s supporters as the “new” people as described by Ta-Nehisi Coates in his book Between the World and Me, “Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the pre-eminence, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible — this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.”

I came to America as an immigrant twelve years ago. In these twelve years I have learnt to speak up without fear. As Trump continues to sweep the elections, I look around me and am afraid again. It is a new fear though. Does that man reading a paper who looks up at me support Trump? Does that old lady who just left my workspace without thanking me for my services want to build a wall? It cannot be a coincidence that a man who extolls hate has so many supporters. Every day, I have conversations with my husband, with friends, with family about moving away from this country. Every day I worry about bringing my children up in a country where racism and bigotry are almost back in fashion. I tire of being watchful and wary. I am tired of feeling alone and vulnerable, of being misunderstood and labeled. I want to belong to America, but America is still not done with racism. Until the country can resolve its histories of genocide and racism, we the people cannot come together. I am just one voice and you are one and you are one and you are one and all these ones will not be sufficient until it comes together like a force of nature, a tidal wave, a tsunami that cannot be beaten back by any amount of sticks, guns or walls. But this may be a long long time. Until then people like me might have to move on to other countries or should we learn to be silent? Yet, I am too am American, as are my daughters. These girls, the colors of coffee and earth, this is their country too and we all want to live here with dignity. No matter where we go, we will carry with us our color and racial differences, and so as along as we believe in our identities as Americans, fractured as they maybe by our origins and histories, perhaps the answer lies not in fleeing but in believing. Affirming with Ta-Nehisi Coates, writing to his son that, “this is your country, that this is your world, that this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it.” And so when I think about who I am, I think that, “Je suis Charlie Hebdo, Je suis Bruxelles, Black Lives Matter, I am American and yes, I am also Muslim.”

Chandra Ganguly lives in Palo Alto, California.She writes about the clash of cultures, loss of identities and the search for meaning.She is a pursuing her MFA in writing at Bennington College.