When push comes to shove, when it comes right down to it, when you see something bad or wrong happening around you, would you say something about it? If you saw someone being bullied or saw someone being hurt by another person, what would you do?
I used to think that I would, without hesitation, stand up for any injustice that I witnessed. I was so sure of it. I’m a good person, I pick up litter when I see it, I open doors for other people, I let cars in when they’re merging into my lane, I donate every year to Salvation Army, I give food to the homeless, and I volunteered at an animal welfare organization for 10 years. So, yeah, I believed when put to the test, I would do the right thing. One warm spring day in 2009, my belief was put to the test. And I failed.
It was an unusually beautiful, sunny day for spring in the Midwest. I took a break from my busy workday to get out in the sun and take a quick walk. Basking in the warmth of the sunshine, I felt pretty good. I grabbed a quick sandwich, and then headed back to my office.
As I was walking, I noticed an African American women in a pretty spring suit with a deep pink jacket walking a few feet ahead of me, and a few feet ahead of her was an Indian woman in a beautiful yellow sari walking with her daughter, who looked to be about four years old. Nothing unusual about that. I noticed them both because of the bright colors. I smiled thinking, people are ready for spring.
My peaceful thoughts were interrupted by a harsh sound, some yelling. My brain couldn’t quite comprehend what was happening. The woman in the pink jacket seemed to be yelling something – was it to me or to the woman in the sari? At first, I couldn’t quite make out what she was saying but then she got louder. “Dirty Muslim, get out of my country.” I froze. I instantly felt my blood drain and I got a chill. Did I hear her correctly? Did she really say that? Is she talking to me? Does she know?
No, she was talking to the woman in the yellow sari, the Hindu woman in the sari. Pink jacket yelled out again, “I’m talking to you. Don’t ignore me, you dirty Muslim. Get out of my country.” I wanted to throw up. I couldn’t believe these words were actually being said. I couldn’t believe that someone could be so filled with hate for someone she didn’t even know. I didn’t know what to do. I reached inside my purse for my cell phone, thinking, should I call the police?
Yellow sari turned around, scared and nervous but laughing slightly to cover up her fear and said, “Oh, no, not Muslim, am Hindu. Not Muslim.” I could hear the fear in her voice, practically pleading, anything but Muslim. Pink jacket responded, “Don’t lie, you’re a Muslim.” Yellow sari quickened her pace and kept walking ahead. I followed both of them. Yellow sari crossed the street and went straight. Thankfully, pink jacket turned left, the same way I was headed. The danger had passed.
I watched as pink jacket walked into her building, two buildings from mine. I continued to my building, stopped, and cried. I felt a huge release of tension I didn’t know I was holding the whole time. I felt relief, and, I’m not proud to say, I thought to myself, thank god, that wasn’t me.
Quickly, I wiped my tears and went to my office cubicle but I was still shaking. My friend saw me and asked if I was ok. “No,” I told her, “I’m not. I just witnessed something horrible.”
I told her what happened. She tried to tell me it was ok, but the shock was starting to wear off and I got more upset. “I did nothing,” I said. “I did absolutely nothing. I let it happen. I didn’t say a word, I didn’t step in.” And the worst part, this lady, this woman full of hate for someone or something she didn’t know or understand, had no clue that the Muslim was the one walking right behind her.
(Image of woman found here.)
Author’s Note: This essay wasn’t an easy one for me to write, and it took me awhile to post it. While I hope that I have learned something from my experience, and while I hope that the next time (and there will be a next time), I will speak up, I will do something, I don’t actually know if I will. That’s the bare and ugly truth. I like to think that I will do or say something. Because hate, racism, ignorance isn’t removed from us—these experiences are not just something we hear on the news. It happens everywhere on a daily basis, especially in these fearful times right now. So now, just as much if not more than before, we need compassion, we need to speak up, I need to act with my invincible heart, and I need to use my voice. Whether I want to or not, I can no longer be silent.