Yesterday, I sat in a full Global Studies class were every child was born in 2002, 2003, 2004…none were born before the events that make this day infamous. None have the memories that I or the teacher have. For me it put the passage of time into perspective and as the teacher shared his memories of that day, I felt something else a— need to explain.
It was the first time I can recall being in a room with children who identify as Arabic and/or Muslim as the events of that day were relayed. It made me feel uncomfortable.
A few days ago my husband was asking me how I grew up thinking about black and brown bodies and in what ways I perhaps had racist ideas. I recalled some of my earliest memories of the fascination I had with people whose skin tones were darker than my own. Of Hispanic girls in colorful dresses doing a folk dance; of a dark-skinned boy in the grade below me who I thought was African American at the time, but later learned was adopted from India; and about how us white kids at school would claim some long ago Native heritage (most of it, like in my case, was largely false). I conceded to him that perhaps my worldview was painted by a Colonial mindset and that like many white people I viewed other ethnicities and cultures as one might view animals in the zoo. If I am honest, it is something I still struggle with. The worst confession was telling my husband about how my step-sister and I would joke with mock nervousness at anyone wearing a headscarf when we flew after 9/11.
The problem with this should be obvious and it showed our ignorance in a few ways. For one, we were giving into the anti-Muslim hysteria that was sweaping the nation at that time. For another it showed our lack of knowledge of Islam as well as the differing Sikh religion. Looking back, I am quite sure a Sikh man was the object of our ignorant wondering glances and giggles.
To be fair, it was a scary time and we were silly teens who grew up in a very mono-cultural area. For all our privilege and family vacations abroad, we knew very little of the world outside rural Oregon.
When I sat in that classroom, I thought of all this. How, as a teen, would I have reacted to fellow students wearing hijabs? Even if I gave no outside hints, what feelings might I have harbored inside? What fears and prejudices?
Even as we have made gains towards understanding since that time, it also feels we’ve more recently taken some very big steps backwards. For instance: the harassment of two girls with covered heads on the MAX and the murders that followed here in Portland, the banning of peoples from Muslim countries, the mass shooting at a Wisconsin Sikh temple. I am sure there have been more in the recent years I have forgotten or never knew; likely a million little incidents of hate throughout the years.
Here’s why I felt uncomfortable in that high school global studies class: I feel the need to apologize to those Muslim and Arab students, but also all those who’ve come after. We have let the legacy of hate linger on. We still are ignorant of the differences between religions, beliefs and what makes a terrorist. We seperate too much, we assume too much based on skin tone. I also am sorry to the forgotten victims. As I watched Jon Stewart speak so eloquently and impassioned to Congress months back, I had no idea that 9/11 first responders were still fighting so tirelessly; that 9/11 was still an ever present reality for them.
There was so much to learn in the wake of 9/11; so much for us to understand about ourselves. Did we learn well? Do we understand better? I suppose only future generations will be able to tell as they look back, as they write our history.
For now though, we can press forward and try to right some of the wrongs, admit our collective guilt, stop forgetting the sacrifices and let hate die. It’s a huge job, but it’s worth all our effort.