Since its September 11th, and the world is what it is, I’ve been thinking about an experience I had in the days immediately following the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. That fall I had the immense privilege to be studying abroad in Mysore, India. I took classes in the mornings and most afternoons I had free to work and explore the city. On the day I’ve been thinking about, my roommate and I had gone to a cafe in town to have tea and sweets in the afternoon. I did my best to wear culturally appropriate clothing and to fit in, although, as a five-foot-nine-inch tall, fat, blonde, white woman, I could really only be graded on effort. I did not fit in. And, it wasn’t uncommon for women, complete strangers, to approach me and tell me I was wearing some piece of clothing wrong, and then to re-dress me in the streets. I have an intense aversion to having my physical boundaries crossed, but, for some reason, I always felt very grateful for these experiences. I wanted to get it right and I was happy for the help. So, on this particular day, while we waited for a table, I was not surprised when two Muslim women approached us and said hello. It was a brief conversation. After exchanging greetings, one of them asked if my roommate and I were American. We answered in the affirmative. And, she said, “I am so very sorry for the tragedy that happened in your country. But, now you know how we feel.”
All I could think of at the time is, “We don’t.” It occurs to me, now, that what I have taken as a comment about empathy and understanding, may not have been. It may have just been a statement about the pain caused by our foreign policy.
I’ve been thinking a lot about listening, and how the world is full of voices who are describing what they see and what they feel. They are explaining, sometimes over and over again, how actions and policies and ideas have hurt them. And, listening to those voices and thinking about how my actions, or inaction, is contributing to hurting other people. It is especially upsetting if I don’t intend for the hurt. It’s taken me a really long time to come to the understanding that when someone points out how an (in)action of mine was hurtful to them, that even if the conversation is upsetting to me that they aren’t hurting me, they’re doing me a service by giving me a way to help make the world better.
I think about that day a lot, honestly. I think about it whenever someone like me, white or middle class or educated, calls for empathy or compassion in a discourse. Yes, I want to be understood. Yes, I want to be treated softly and compassionately. But, more and more, I think it is my job to provide as much of that as possible to others (and to myself). And, while I still don’t think I understand what it feels like to be a Muslim woman in a post-9/11 world, I do think I can make room for those voices, and listen, and keep trying my best understand what I am hearing.
Here are some (not necessarily Muslim) voices I’ve been listening to lately:
How to Survive the End of the World: Autumn Brown and adrienne maree brown talk about survival and Octavia Butler and I have learned so much from this podcast and I have been so touched by many of their episodes.
Boom! Lawyered: Jessica Mason Pieklo and Imani Gandy talk about justice issues. It is really great to hear legal things from legal experts.
Thirst Aid Kit: Bim Adewunmi and Nichole Perkins talk about women’s desire and their show is great and sometimes a little sexy.
Desi Geek Girls: Swapna Krishna and Preeti Chhibber are two nerds (who happen to be Indian and ladies) and they talk pop culture. My sister got me addicted to this podcast.
Pod Save the People: DeRay Mckesson’s discussion of headlines with Brittany Packnett and Sam Sinyangwe, and Clint Smith at the beginning of every show always brings my attention to something important I’ve missed or provides me with a different perspective and I am so, so grateful for that.