So about an hour ago, we were hanging out playing video games when we heard a loud banging on our front door. Normally we don't answer our door unless we're expecting someone because we get a lot of solicitors in our neighborhood, so at first we ignored it. The banging got louder and I went downstairs, feeling grumpy.
It was a guy who lives down the street, who was knocking to tell us that someone had crashed a car into our fence. Yikes! He also said, "Look, she's afraid," which confused me, but I got my phone and went outside.
When I saw her, I got it. Saira, the woman in the accident, is visibly Other - she is dark-skinned and she wears hijab. It turns out that she lives down the street from us. She was very shaken up - she's been driving 20 years and this is the first accident she's ever had. She was heading out to do some errands before a big trip - she and her husband are leaving tomorrow to make their pilgrimage to Mecca and then visit family in India. What happened was, she was stressed and distracted, her bag fell off the front seat, she reached to right it, she accidentally jerked the wheel, and bam, she jumped the curb and crashed into our fence.
I don't give a crap about our fence. It'll cost a pittance to repair, and it's old and should be replaced soon, anyway. Whatever. This is why we have insurance, right? Accidents happen. No big deal. We took pictures, exchanged information, all the standard stuff.
What upsets me is this: She was scared and shaken up by the car accident, but she was almost as frightened of me. Me. To a white person, I'm practically a fluffy bunny - blonde, blue-eyed, sweet-faced, smiling, open. Seriously, I get asked for directions in cities I'm just visiting. But to Saira, I was a potential abuser whose property she had damaged. Her hands were shaking and her voice unsteady when she told me that she wanted to be clear that she and her husband were leaving tomorrow and asked uncertainly, "Do you know what a pilgrimage is?"
I was calm, smiling, kept my voice low. I said one of my dearest friends from high school is Muslim, that I understood what a big deal it was to be making this journey, that I was glad for her that she was doing so. I joked with her about being the white girl at my friend's house, how her mom would give me the least spicy portion of unfamiliar foods and carefully explain what they were, amused at my game enthusiasm and happy to be sharing something important with her daughter's friend. I said that one of my sorority sisters from college is Muslim; we worked closely together on several big projects, and I'm happy that we remain friends. And while I related all this, I swear Saira's shoulders went down an inch and a half. Finally, she relaxed enough to smile.
That's what's making me want to weep. Because it's understandable that she was afraid
. She had never met me, we live in a neighborhood where many people are kind and accepting but some are terrifying when angered (most notably this guy
), and I had reason to be angry. She was right to fear for her safety until given reason to do otherwise. I've been in a few wrecks, and in car accidents involving white folks on both sides, there was rarely anger, yelling, and bad behavior; mostly there was contrition, businesslike conduct, annoyance at all the red tape, and maybe some joking about how much we all hate insurance companies. This is the first time I can recall in my entire life that someone has been afraid of me in such a situation. Right now, it's the only time I can recall someone being afraid of me, period. What if I hadn't had a story to tell about my Muslim friends? Would Saira's hands have stopped shaking?
Imagine that you've just crashed your car, you're standing in someone's front yard embarrassed and shaken, you have a to-do list a mile long before a five-week international trip and it just got longer because of this mess, you're worried about the money, and even though you're lucky and grateful to have escaped physical harm in the accident, on top of all that, you are also standing there afraid that what would be a civil interaction with someone who looks like you could escalate into violence because you look different from the so-called norm.
That's why the shit people talk about Muslims and immigrants matters. That's why I wasn't going to go to Wiscon unless MoonFail
was resolved and Elizabeth Moon's GoH status was rescinded. It matters in the everyday lives of real human beings. Civil society depends on the general presumption of goodwill, which means first we have to see each other as human. And when people talk about Muslims and immigrants as though they're all the same and all suspect, when they stick their noses in the air and talk about how grateful Muslims should be for the forbearance offered them by Real Americans (tm), what they're saying is that when they encounter a Muslim person, an immigrant, they don't see a complicated individual with many important characteristics; they just see a Muslim, an immigrant, an Other, one of Those People, someone Not Like Us. I will say it flat-out: that attitude is un-American. And what I mean by that is, it is contrary to the country I was raised to believe in, that I went into public policy and politics to serve, the one where everyone's freedom, equality, and humanity are genuine, protected, and precious.
I'm aware of this today because this happened, literally, in my front yard. What's happening in your front yard, in your neighborhood, in your city, in your country, today that your privilege lets you ignore?