I have a running list of jackass comments. It is a list that doth overfloweth.
It is an Arya Stark inspired list that I like to think I will magically find in one hand on the Day of Judgment — with popcorn in another. When the angels begin setting up the public stage for divine justice, they will come by to collect that list. They will look at the list with the most angelic side-eye of side-eyes, shake their heads, and say, “Oh, honey, that’s not even half of them. Here, have some more good deeds with your popcorn and the best seats — on the house.”
Last month, I sat with a friendly colleague who wanted to discuss dissertation writing, public speaking, and job marketing. Because of some of our shared identities, the discussion of our professional development led to a discussion about our very human responses to physical and psychological violence in what are considered ostensibly professional or liberal spaces. I recognized he was seeking inspiration and support when he referred to a story I once shared. He praised my courage.
I was uncomfortable with his praise. I wanted to acknowledge his pain by recognizing the spectrum of our very human responses to psychic violence — how they vary from fight to flight, to freezing, to stressing for days as you wish you could say/do the brilliant witty thing you now have had the time to come up with, to an immediate “What the fuck was that?” — all of which I have also experienced.
He wanted to know how to get through it; I shared a few awful experiences that I have not forgotten but buried in the dark recesses of my mind.
And my mind went something like this:
Like that time, in broad daylight near the Barnard gates, when a white adult male belligerently walked up to me and my friend — two good looking adult women who happen to be doctoral students at two different institutions and who happen to wear headscarves — screaming “YOU’LL BURN IN HELL! YOU!” or something like that.
I didn’t even flinch because I just didn’t register what he was saying as content. For me, it was background noise. As I focused on my immediate conversation, a third beautiful doctoral student who happens to have dark curly hair and whose big eyes looked like she’d seen a monster instinctively pulled us away to physically shield us. It was only when she said, “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry…” to us, the two women in hijab standing with her, that I began to think the man’s anger was directed toward us.
And sure, there’s the liars who make up a story in order to hide something OR because they crave social media fame AND/OR they are battling a severe mental illness. I’ve been pretty on the money at picking those out over the years because, after all, I’m an artist and good at identifying a bad performance. And some of my best friends are cynics. I could list the lies here, but why give them more attention?
And then there’s the more insidious, humiliating, said in polite, educated company and no one does anything useful to defend and stand up for you kind of thing. The soft Islamophobia kind of speech that is meant to discredit, insult, trouble, and disenfranchise you while reasserting systemic hierarchy and casting suspicion in the audience around you that you cannot ever be their equal – intellectually, politically, socially, economically.
It is the kind of comment that hides behind expertise, status, cultural capital. It is the kind of comment expressed to make a distinction lest onlookers assume sameness based on shared identities.
And here is where my Arya Stark inspired list is useful. Without naming names, I will offer a basic sketch of the scene and speaker. Take the following examples:
You know, if you were a real Muslim, you’d have to cut my head off.
This statement was expressed and upheld by three people of color. The speaker was a black man accompanied by a Latino man and a young ambiguously brown woman evangelizing at the Pembroke Lakes Mall after my mother and I got really good deals on some dress shirts at Macy’s. Even though their voices would be considered from the political right, I have included this here because many people walked right past us even when I’m sure they could hear our increasingly irritated and raised voices without intervening.
She might look conservative, but she’s actually very open-minded.
You should probably not go around talking like that or people will think you belong to ISIS.
The second and third statements were expressed by a tenured male professor of Middle Eastern studies. The former was said in an introduction of me to other academics. The latter was said when I used the term ahl al-bayt to describe the namesakes of historical tombs in Cairo, Egypt.
So where are your al-Qaeda friends?
Your bio is confusing. Are you a Bengali American or a Muslim American? You obviously can’t be both.
The fourth and fifth statements were expressed by two Bengali men. The fourth was said “as a joke” by an upper-class Bangladeshi academic from Dhaka. We barely knew each other. The fifth was asked of me by a West Bengali audience member during a question and answer session at Princeton University. From the context and the way he framed his question, it was clear that his particular version of Bengali Nationalism – with possible Hindu Nationalist investment that could only be revealed in a longer conversation – was shining through.
It must be nice to have someone take care of you and not have to worry about applying for fellowships and grants.
The sixth comes from the realm of racist sexism said by a white Muslim male aspiring to be among a cadre of intellectuals who either don’t realize what it means to invoke a person’s marital status in a professional context — or simply don’t care.
Why are you even here? This is an event about culture, not religion.
The seventh statement was made by a middle-aged Turkish woman at a student-led celebration of the different continents represented by students at a university campus. She stopped by the “Islam in Europe” exhibit to express her disdain to two undergrads who volunteered to set up the exhibit.
And one of the most charming (i.e. the worst) to date:
Isn’t saying ‘hijabi’ the same thing as saying ‘n*gg*r’?
This final statement was expressed by an Iranian academic after a CUNY event. It’s a particularly revealing statement regarding the ways in which U.S. racism gets (mis)appropriated in other countries by the upper and/or more mobile classes who envision themselves as progressives. I will explore the layers of class politics, anti-blackness, and Islamophobia embedded in that comment in another post.
I imagine, if I left the statements above as is without giving further context, many who see themselves as liberal or further left might immediately racialize the speakers above as white. I also imagine it’s uncomfortable to unpack that impulse given the race/ethnicity/gender/age/class of the speakers but what it most likely will lead to is that old black wisdom from Zora Neale Hurston —
“All skinfolk ain’t kinfolk.”
In the meantime, here are two websites developed by several academics that you can explore:
Although it is not perfect, the projects offer a place to report jackasses and maps out the data collected by those who report. Or feel free to leave gems from your own Arya Stark inspired list in the comments. Enjoy.