“I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background”
-Zora Neale Hurston
Trigger Warning: Racism, Verbal Abuse/ Harassment
On Friday April 21, 2017, I experienced an event that made me reframe myself as an black attendee of a predominantly white institution. I had to redefine myself, because on this day at approximately 1:30 pm I parked in the Hearnes Center Parking Lot and I was verbally harassed on the basis of my blackness and my expression of my culture. I was wearing my headscarf as I usually do, but it was ignorantly mistaken for a religious scarf. I was assigned to park in the Hearnes Center at the beginning of the semester and that is where my permit applies. All semester I have felt relatively safe parking here, but after the incident of being called out of my name and antagonized I haven’t felt the same. On this particular day, the Hearnes Center had been the location of pedestrian parking for families and individuals attending the Futures Farmers of America event held in the athletics building. The following incident, therefore, was not involving attendees of the University of Missouri, rather common folk visiting the University, a residence of the Columbia community I suppose.
I’ve been at this University for 3 years and I’ve never experienced racism so blatantly. I was gathering my things out of the backseat of my car and I overhear 2 white men with slight accents. I hear their country accent from 2 cars away and turn to see them peering through their tinted windows slightly rolled down. I feel them staring at my appearance and suddenly a terrible feeling develops in my stomach.
I had my hair wrapped in a beautiful bright blue head scarf. The edges of my hair were smoothed and laid down and I had felt very confident about my appearance before I left the house, but what they say to me next, formed me into a spectacle to them because they try to engage me, “What are you Jewish with that piece of cloth on your head?” They laugh to themselves. I don’t respond. I keep my eyes down. I have work on campus at the student center and I’m supposed to be catching the next bus.
They talk to each other about me “What is she–a sand nigger!” The two burst into laughter making a show of me for passengers in the back of the van.
“These niggers are terrorist!” I hear one of them say.
This racial slur is derogatory for multiple reasons that I honestly shouldn’t even have to explain.
I closed the door to my car and walked behind the van the two men were in.
I took out my phone and photographed their license plate. There were younger voices coming from the back of the van that giggled while I was being antagonized. But while I stood there, phone in hand, a hush fell over the van and the people were intimidated by my boldness.
Obviously I had been misidentified as muslim, jewish, and then middle eastern. I’m black and obviously black but they got it wrong. If they wanted to say anything derogatory nigg*r would have been just fine. It’s almost as if the two men couldn’t help but show their hate for multiple minorities through using a token element of my cultural identity–the head scarf– as an entry way to tear me down. I’ve written a blog post on desforpres.wordpress.com about headscarf previously. It can be found here *Wrapped Life: Why I Wear Headscarves * if you’re wondering my reasons for wearing a head scarf, although my motives do not impact the harmfulness of these people’s actions.
I’ve been deeply saddened by the islamophobic and anti-black words said to me and the most unsettling fact is that I’m not even muslim, but because of the ignorance and lack of cultural awareness these white men attributed my headwear as exclusive to only Middle Eastern women. Mind you, the head scarf I was wearing didn’t look anything comparable to a hijab, a burka, or gele. It was tied into a low bun, instead. The word “sand nigger” both erased my identity as a black woman by making me into a foreigner; while also making a spectacle of my blackness through the usage of the word “nigger”.
These people obviously had little to no cultural awareness and they lacked knowledge of my intellect and underestimated my ability because I did some research and the license plate literally says Fayette School District Car 3. So whoever thought that was okay to try to demean me in the presence of children, within the context of a school sponsored trip picked on the wrong ni…
While I didn’t report this to the police because of a deep sense of distrust that I have because of prior and reoccurring racially motivated incidents on my campus, I did take action by reporting this event to a great majority of my peers as well as by filing a report with the Title IX Office under Civil Rights with the University. My aim is to inform and educate at this point.
Racism is not new, but the revamped cousin of racism is xenophobia based on foreign-ness. Black people speak english, eat American food, were born here, yet because of our skin color will never be able to assimilate to White America. However, foreigners can in some ways blend in by shedding their distinct cultural customs and capitalize off their greater proximity to whiteness than blacks have. As a black woman who experienced hate speech freshly a few days ago, I considered trying to assimilate by stopping my donning of my scarves, even if they were truly beautiful. All of my friends I talked to, told me not to change on account of someone else’s ignorance, and I agree. I shouldn’t change. I shouldn’t assimilate. I should continue on and wear my headscarves even more proudly as a symbol of my heritage and my pride in my identity.
While I’d like to sulk about this recent event, I’m oddly calm because I know that this event serves as an opportunity to shape me into a stronger and redefined woman. As a black woman, I’ve made it my part-time hustle to transact pain into something more beautiful than the dirt and grime of the inspiring incident. You can expect me to cope through writing a poem about this. You can expect me to continue to stand in solidarity with foreigners, immigrants, as well as Muslims and Jews who are undergoing persecution on account of their spiritual identities.
I pray that because I didn’t respond, because I bridled my tongue my actions speak louder than the message I preach with my keyboard, that Love always wins. The racism I encountered on the 21st of April cannot break me and can only solidify the strength and power with in me. I win and the haters lose. I am fabulous and not defined by those who not only cannot beat me, but who cannot join me. They were small town farmers who likely aren’t educated on social issues or even current events. These individuals didn’t even know what a hijab was, so how can I attach anything they say to my spirit? How can I let them weigh me down? How are they relevant to me? An educated soon to be graduating Senior at the University Majoring in English? Where do these common folk compare to me?
I was very troubled at the time of the incident simply because of the pure ignorance and hate. I was angry because I knew that the expectation was for me to walk away. I regret the fact that oppressed individuals always are tasked to not act, but really all this could be avoided if racists just minded their business. But in retrospect, walking away was my only valid option because these ignorant people literally aren’t worth my time and energy. I couldn’t let negativity drain me. I won because I saved my energy and conserved my energy to do something more positive and constructive than physical violence. Physical violence is destructive but educating and exposure are constructive.
I plan to share this story with as many people as possible to raise awareness about islamophobia, anti-blackness, and anti-semitism at large, but especially, where they find themselves on the University of Missouri’s campus.
Understand that racism still exists and is alive and well, but only because black people still exist. Black people are still here, after years of dehumanization, colonization, ethnic cleansing, gentrification, the war on drugs, the prison industrial complex and mass incarceration. We Still Lit even after these violences that have and still do threaten our lives. So while I was called a nigger because of my appearance, I was only antagonized because I’m a ni**a that’s still here, and I’m sure those two white individuals could NOT stand the thought of me not even acknowledging their presence. They couldn’t stand the thought of me, an educated black woman, attending a higher educational institution. Living good and eating better.
They probably were just bitter that I have access to knowledge and hosts of resources , more than they do.
Or maybe they were just upset that I had the nerve to be black and embrace it at the same time by covering my hair and proudly expressing the african tradition of headdress.
They can’t kill us.
Not even with their words.
I think I did the right thing.