Turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, and cranberry sauce: the all-American meal. It was “Parents Weekend” at my high school. Hundreds of families crowded into the rec center, chatting cheerfully while enjoying the traditional Thanksgiving feast. I sat at a table with a few friends and their parents. One mom turned to me and asked, “So, dear, where are you from?”
At a boarding school that houses students from countless different countries, this question is very common, so, unfazed, I responded, “I’m from California.”
She gave me the same amused look an adult gives when a toddler misunderstands a basic inquiry.
“No, where are you from?”
My forehead creased, displaying my irritation that she was so reluctant to believe my honest reply. I knew what she was waiting for. She was expecting me to say I was from a foreign country. Only then would she believe me.
“I’m from California.”
Again, with the condescending look.
“Where do you come from? Your family?”
By this time, I was distinctly annoyed. I was at the point where I didn’t want to give her the answer she was looking for, even though it would have been as truthful as my first.
She continued to look at me expectantly. I relented.
“My dad is from Morocco.”
“Ah! That makes sense.” Her eyes flashed to the top of my head where my hijab was fastened.
She turned away, smiling. All was right in her world again. I made sense to her now. Like everyone else she’d been exposed to, presumably, I now fit the criteria of her preconceived notions of me.
Every little bit counts
This conversation is an example of a microaggression: a subtle or unintentional act of discrimination based on an assumption about a marginalized group of people. As a visibly Muslim young woman in America, I have been experiencing microaggressions before I even knew what they were.
Non-Muslim girls often remark on how “American” I look without my hijab and how much more beautiful I am without it; showing how limited their definition of beauty is. When I’m changing in the locker room and have my hair exposed, some people don’t even recognize me. So many people are unable to bring themselves to see past my scarf and naively conclude that it somehow makes me less American.
Since the inception
What people simply overlook (sometimes intentionally) is the fact that Muslims have been in this country since before it was founded. In fact, a few soldiers who served under General George Washington in the Continental Army were Muslims.
Many enslaved Africans practiced Islam, as well. Muslims have made valuable contributions to this country for centuries. So, as mind-blowing as it might be to some people, it is very possible for someone who happens to practice Islam to be American.
They could be like me: an American born into a Muslim family, or like my mother, who is from Missouri and chose to convert to Islam in her twenties. They could even be like my father, who is a Muslim from Morocco and simultaneously an American citizen.
The especially concerning part is that the stereotype of Muslims being foreigners is just the tip of the iceberg; there are far more hurtful and besmirching misconceptions imposed on those who practice Islam.
“Terrorist”, “extremist”, and “alien” are just a few examples of the labels regularly associated with Muslims. The truth about microaggressions is that though the intentions of the perpetrator are rarely sinister, they undoubtedly stem from underlying prejudices and stereotypes.
Often referred to as a “melting pot,” The United States is known to be home to people of varying races and ethnicities, therefore resulting in a unique and beautiful variety of physical appearances.
Yet, the image that comes to many people’s minds when they envision the archetype of a female American consists of a blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl with milky skin. When someone doesn’t fit that mold, they are automatically susceptible to being questioned about their background.
Re-defining what’s “American”
It is past time for us to re-define what is considered American. Though it may be a mundane and repetitive task, it is vital for Muslim Americans to patiently and subtly educate our compatriots and challenge the misconceptions that result in microaggressions.
We belong just as much as those questioning us. There’s room at the table for us all, and I hope that someday, sharing a holiday dinner with a Muslim American will be not be seen as an anomaly.
First published: March 2019