This has not been the best week ever. Quite to the contrary, this has been a week in which many of us have had to come to terms with and process terrorist attacks in Paris, Beirut, Nigeria, Mali, and many other places the world over. All the while, news of shootings, gang violence, and police misconduct didn’t skip a beat in cities all across the United States either. Skinheads, racists, and heirs of the Ku Klux Klan reared their ugly heads at mosques, on Twitter, and even at Harvard Law School. The impact of recent earthquakes, rapidly changing weather patterns, violent storms, drought, and climate change raged on. New stories of sexual assault, domestic violence, and political corruption continued to surface.
Based on anecdotal observations alone, this week seems to have been ‘all too much’ for a lot of people. Many seem to be experiencing a widening sense of loss of control as it relates to world events and worrisome popular opinions. Safety and security have become loaded terms meaning very different things to different people. The idea of implementing a national ID card for Muslims has been mentioned by an American presidential candidate. Surveillance methods that make Big Brother seem wimpy are being pushed even by self-described liberal voices. There are people willing to strap explosives to their body and kill innocent civilians in public places. The news and its rapid pace is alarming, unnerving, and depressing.
As a direct consequence of being overwhelmed by the barrage of bad news, I’ve witnessed a desire in myself to disconnect from other people on a social level. Even social media, often a welcome respite for me in the midst of the everyday madness of a busy day full of professional and personal responsibilities, has been unbearable at times this week. It has been easier to immerse myself in work or a Netflix binge just to avoid my emotional state and feelings of being engulfed by all that is happening in the world.
This feeling isn’t entirely new. I know I’ve felt this way before in situations past. In realizing that, over the past few days I’ve put some thought into what it was that that helped me to surface during previous rough patches I’ve experienced. Usually, what helped most was getting a call from a friend who was especially good at saying, ‘Yes, but tell me what it feels like.”
Those words would give me permission to validate my feelings, which in turn allowed me to actually work through my anxieties and fears. It allowed me to sift through what was rational and what wasn’t. Most of all, it allowed me to feel heard and not so alone.
“Yes, but tell me what it feels like.”
From the subset of the American people that supports the irrational and xenophobic actions of over 30 governors refusing Syrian refugees to the resounding anxiety of Muslims in Western nations fearful of backlash and increasing discrimination, fear and panic have drawn a very large circle around the world we live in.
While I can’t speak to the discomposure of someone who is made apprehensive by the mere presence of anyone who looks Muslim, I can speak to my own anxieties as an American Muslim this week. These days simply looking Muslim comes with its own warning label: walk at your own risk; enter grocery stories at your own risk; watch a movie in a theater at your own risk. Someone might say something about my faith or tell my children that they don’t belong – that this place that they’ve called home all their lives is not in fact their home.
I’m well aware that this bigoted person that I’m nervous about is probably also just as nervous as I am to walk around these same public spaces. Like me, she probably assesses her own risk as it relates to my presence. Rationality isn’t quite operative for either of us here – fear is.
“Yes, but tell me what it feels like.”
For me, I’m feeling a lot of the same things I felt soon after 9/11. It’s disconcerting to feel the same way that I did fourteen years ago; to feel emotionally volatile. I’m not nearly the same person I used to be. I shouldn’t feel this way. I’m a mother now. Married twice. I have a real adult job. People report to me. I’m responsible for getting things done. I have bills to pay and I pay them. I’ve experienced massive challenges and setbacks in life. I’ve fallen apart, dusted myself off, and set forth on a path to recover belief and hope – multiple times. The rabbit hole I choose to wander down these days is a chase fueled by and for empathy – not anger. Understanding human behavior and our decision-making processes matters to me.
And yet, this week I have been scared. I have felt depressed. Even with all that I’ve experienced, I am experiencing many of the exact same emotions I did fourteen years ago.
“Yes, but tell me what it feels like.”
The afternoon after the planes crashed into the Twin Towers, I was clearly and visibly Muslim in a way I had never experienced before even as a woman who wore hijab.
Having just graduated from college, I was at the stage of my life where I was walking the line between hope for the future and youthful angst. Like many people, during college I had experimented with various identities, activist causes, and interests. I was the girl that went to dive bar punk shows in hijab, organized a campus-wide Anti-Oppression Week with the Muslim Students Association, and lived in an apartment that should have had a sign on the door saying ‘Culture Club’ with a signup list for crashing on the couch. I cared about my classes (some more than others) and was lucky enough to be mentored by a few of my favorite professors. I had studied abroad in Europe and loved it. I had also traveled to Pakistan on my own, the country my parents immigrated from, to do research for my senior thesis. Living on a Big Ten campus, I often hated football game days due to the antics of drunken frat boys on High Street but also found great satisfaction in seeing Michigan lose against the Buckeyes. In other words, my college experiences were very much of the American persuasion.
Soon after 9/11, my American-ness came into question in a way that it never should have. To put it briefly, I became a plaintiff in an ACLU racial profiling case, the first of its kind in the country. My story was everywhere, on The Today Show, the national nightly news, and covered by international media outlets. Bigoted perceptions and reactions to my case flooded my Hotmail inbox and the comments sections of media articles covering my case. As this was before the era of Facebook and Twitter, the experience of being heavily trolled on the Internet was also new to me. I felt isolated, I felt alone, and I didn’t feel safe in places that once felt like home.
In the many years since, I’ve worked through the challenges of post-traumatic stress caused directly by that experience. Despite that, this week has been nothing less than worrisome and stressful. Maybe because I’m now a parent or someone who has a different perch in my own community now, I spent a lot of time this week worrying about the depths of human darkness and how easy it can be for some people to hurt others when they’re acting out of fear or a perceived loss of control.
While I might have spent a lot of time feeling anxious this week, my more rational self knows better. I know it is a choice to let fear and anxiety filter my interactions or my intake of information. I am not the same girl I was fourteen years ago. Fear and anxiety are issues to be worked through, issues that can be overcome with verifiable information, maturity, empathy, and a willingness to take the risk to push them to the side when necessary.
“Yes, but tell me what it feels like.”
Violence is anything but new in the world I’ve come to know. Here in certain parts of Chicago, the stains of violence permeate entire neighborhoods, including the one I live in. The violence comes by way of shootings, gang networks as intricate as a spider’s web, in homes, on playgrounds, and in parks.
Some of it takes a more systemic tone. Our city’s infrastructure violates the South and West sides of this city every single day: the impacts of dirty, potholed streets, boarded-up windows, failing schools, modern day segregation, police misconduct, and mass incarceration are felt on every single block in these parts of the city. Every night when darkness descends, the likelihood that gunshots will be fired is high. My neighbors know that. I know that. On most nights, the sound of sirens sift in and out of dreams all across the South and West sides of this city.
And yet, I feel safer here than any other place in this city, in this country. This is my neighborhood. This is my home. I choose to live here and not elsewhere. Why? Because in the midst of the madness, there’s a wisdom I find here that I haven’t found in all the other places I’ve lived in the Midwest, including tony, privileged suburbs with safe streets and good schools.
There’s absolutely no sanity to be found in romanticizing poverty and racism. There is no idealizing the lack of choice about housing options, schools, or clean and safe streets in these neighborhoods. But in that darkness of one kind, a certain light also emerges. Many of my neighbors on this side of the city understand the roots of violence, the effects of violence, that sometimes no one is spared no matter how good you are, how well behaved you are, or how ‘American’ you really are. There is a broader and more mature understanding of what it takes to work through feelings of anxiety and fear. Here there is no other choice.
I see signs of resilience and strength in the everyday exchanges I’ve had with people here in my South Side neighborhood. In my conversations with neighbors down the block, at the grocery store with its depressing produce section, walking along this side of the Lake that many others fear to tread, I’ve come to find that many people have learned something about life, human behavior, and how to respond to feelings of loss of control.
From these conversations and observations, I’ve learned that panic and isolation gets us nowhere. Sitting with people and talking it all out, on the other hand, does get you somewhere – maybe not far, but at least a little further along.
Building trust has less to do with time invested in a relationship and more to do with meaningful interactions and a careful exchange of vulnerabilities. You can know a coworker for years yet have very little trust or camaraderie built between the two of you. Unless you’ve exchanged something vulnerable about yourself, listened and taken in vulnerable information from this other person, and then extended empathy both ways, it’s hard to say that trust has been built.
The hopeful side of all of this is that we also know that trust can be built up between complete strangers in mere moments given the right conditions. Countless studies show that face-to-face interactions allow our brains to absorb new information in a completely different way. If you want others to know what it feels like to be Muslim in America right now, talk to people face-to-face at the grocery store, at lunch with a colleague, or while hosting a dinner for your neighbors. But don’t just stop at casual hellos and pleasantries: share what it feels like to be you. Ask them what it feels like to be them.
Add it all up and sharing our stories of what it feels like can change the way people see the other. Trust, empathy, and social resilience are built one conversation and one story at a time. It may feel insignificant and small, but it might be the best way you and I have to replace fear and anxiety with better, more rational decision-making. And, if nothing else, it might be the best way to get ourselves to surface in a week like this past one.
Samar Kaukab is an altM columnist and Advisory Board member.