Last night I watched ABC’s production of “What would you do?” The first portion of the show examined people’s reaction to “anti-Muslim bias.” Says ABC, “ABC’s production crew outfitted The Czech Stop, a bustling roadside bakery north of Waco, Texas, with hidden cameras and two actors. One played a female customer wearing a traditional Muslim head scarf, or hijab. The other acted as a sales clerk who refused to serve her and spouted common anti-Muslim and anti-Arab slurs.” The actor uttered some of the most offensive and racist comments a person could hear. Meanwhile, the cameras were waiting to gauge the reaction of customers who entering the bakery. Read about it here
In the end the reactions were mixed. Some people did nothing, some people agreed with the sales clerk and others defended the actress/Muslim woman. According to ABC more than half of the reactions were as follows:
“Even though people seemed to have strong opinions on either side, more than half of the bystanders did or said absolutely nothing.”
Anyhow, while I’m happy ABC chose to take up this topic something disturbed me during the entire time I watched it. I kept waiting for people to identify the discrimination the actress/Muslim woman faced and the apathetic responses to the discrimination as racist. It never happened. ABC chose to label the treatment as “anti-Muslim bias” or “Islamophobia.” (And don’t get me wrong here; plenty of Muslims label such behavior as ‘Islamophobic’). I personally think when we use terms like that we’re somehow softening (and taking the sting out of) very racist actions and words. We’re creating a distance between something people of color experience in their daily lives (racism) and replacing it with a term that describes discrimination against a specific group of people. Not only do terms like “anti-Muslim bias” or “Islamophobia” isolate Muslims from the larger anti-racism movements, they don’t prick at the moral consciousness of the average American in the way that terms like “racist”, “racism” or “bigot” do. (After all, it is no longer socially acceptable to be overtly racist).
ABC had a golden opportunity to address racism when they discussed how some people choose to define who is American and who is not.
“Jack Dovidio, a social psychologist at Yale University, said these men [racist men in several hidden camera scenes] seemed to define “American” based on the way people look. They connected with the sales clerk and considered our female actor an outsider. “When we as Americans feel threatened from the outside, we’re going to define ourselves in very rigid fashions,” Dovidio said. “Either you’re with me, and if you’re not really one of me, then you must be somebody else who’s against me.”
As an African-American, I am all too familiar with racism. I know what it looks like, I know how it feels, and I know how to spot it in its smallest and simplest forms. The only thing I find surprising about the current climate of racism directed towards Muslims is how open people are about it and how socially acceptable it is. But then again, why should I be surprised? It only confirms what I have always known and what some people have been unwilling to accept or see- racism is alive and well in America…
But alhamdulillah, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. There were people who entered The Czech Stop who were viciously opposed to the mistreatment of ABC’s actress/Muslim woman. Some of them walked out, telling the clerk they would no longer patronize the bakery. Others stood there and argued on behalf of the actress/Muslim woman. I’m happy to know that there are people out there who will speak up when they see an injustice taking place. They gave me (the cynic) hope.
I’m curious to hear what some of you think. Are we doing a disservice to ourselves by labeling discrimination we face as Islamophobic rather than racist? Why or why not?