Turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and stuffing: the all-American meal. It was Family Weekend, and hundreds of families sat together in Smith Center, talking, eating, and enjoying each other’s company. As I savored the familiar and homey meal, the mother of a classmate turned to me smiling, and posed perhaps the most typical question asked of me: “Where are you from?”
“I’m from California,” I responded.
She smiled at me, as an adult would smile at a small child who misunderstood a question, and responded, “But, where are you from?”
“I’m from California.”
Her expression of utter confusion left me in no doubt of her preconceived notions of me. She clearly did not believe I was really American because of the way I dressed. She turned away flustered and hurriedly struck up a conversation with the person sitting beside her. I sat there, nonplussed. I thought to myself, if she assumed I was a foreigner and wouldn’t believe me if I responded otherwise, why even ask? What answer would she have been satisfied with?
It’s not that I have a problem with someone asking me where I am from; it is a very common question at boarding schools. However, if I answer and am immediately disbelieved and re-questioned, it becomes a belittling experience. This conversation is a classic example of a microaggression: a subtle or unintentional act of discrimination based on an assumption of a marginalized group of people. As a hijab-wearing young woman in America, I have been experiencing microaggressions before I even knew what they were.
What so many people overlook is the fact that Muslims have been in this country since before it was founded. For example, at least two soldiers who served under General George Washington in the Continental Army were Muslim. Many enslaved Africans practiced Islam as well. Muslims have made valuable contributions to this country for centuries. So, as mind-blowing as it might be to some people, it is very possible for someone who happens to practice Islam to be American. They could be like me, an American born into a Muslim family, or like my mother, who is from Missouri and chose to convert to Islam in her twenties, or like my father, who is a Muslim from Morocco and also an American citizen.
Unfortunately, the stereotype of Muslims being foreigners is just the tip of the iceberg; there are far more hurtful and besmirching misconceptions. “Terrorist,” “extremist,” and “alien” are just a few examples of the labels regularly associated with Muslims. The thing about microaggressions is that while the intentions of the perpetrator are rarely sinister, they still stem from underlying prejudices and stereotypes. So when you say, “Wow, you speak really good English for a Muslim,” (which has been said to my mother several times), you likely mean it as a compliment, but it comes off as very offensive. Microaggressions like these make the victim feel removed and alienated from the rest of the community.
If you’d rather cling to your assumptions without being challenged, don’t ask. Better yet, ask and accept the answer given. Most importantly, learn to identify and correct your own prejudices and stereotypes.
Leila El Alam is a Junior from Andover, Mass.