Thursday 6 June 2019

Bystanders’ silence can be devastating when facing bigotry

 Nazneen Uddin is a family physician based in Oakland.

I thought becoming a doctor would finally win me acceptance and serve as proof that being Muslim and American are not mutually exclusive. But throughout my medical career, I have repeatedly experienced bigotry met with a deafening silence and dangerous acceptance from bystanders.

“You’re not American, show me your passport” was a statement I would often hear from patients during medical school. I would explain that I was born and raised in Detroit, while my supervising physicians remained silent.

In medical residency, I learned that Islamophobia can be lethal. My co-resident lost her brother Deah Barakat, his newlywed wife, Yusor Abu-Salha, and his sister-in-law, Razan Abu-Salha, when they were murdered inside their North Carolina home by their neighbor.  This shook me to my core.

In them, I saw myself: American Muslims studying to become professionals while dedicating their free time to community service. It was a stark reality check that no place is safe, not a liberal college town, nor one’s own home. Law enforcement immediately reported the incident as a parking dispute, but many saw it as what it seemed to be — a hate crime.

A few months after this tragedy, as I walked into work, a fellow employee said, “She can’t be a terrorist, she has a badge on.” Once again, I heard a vacuous silence from the other staff.  This brought flashbacks to an incident in high school when a student shoved me into a locker yanking my headscarf while shouting, “You f–king terrorist.” The hallway full of students watched, as I cried my silent tears.

I have completed 12 years of medical training since then, yet in my first job as an attending physician, I was pushed by a patient during an examination. He shouted, “Get out of the room! You’re not a doctor, you’re Muslim!” The bedside nurse and family present just watched.

Considering these incidents, I wasn’t surprised by the silence from my social circle surrounding the atrocities at the two mosques in New Zealand that left 50 dead. Initially, I didn’t even cry because it felt like I had run out of tears.

Most of my friends have not reached out, and this has also been the experience of my Muslim peers. I was hurting, and I can assure you that your Muslim neighbors—though they continue to show up to work or smile—are hurting and scared. This extends to the many communities that are hurting as a result of bigotry, such as the Jewish community struck by a similar wave of pain after the synagogue shooting in Poway, California during Passover.

The effects of hate crimes bleed beyond the victims’ families; it trickles into the entire community. The loss of innocent lives should not just be a loss for those family members or that community, but should be a collective grief.

The common denominator in my personal experiences has been silence, which comes in many forms. Silence can be observing injustice and not saying anything. Silence can be being in a position of leadership and not fostering an environment of inclusion. While the effects of this silence can be devastating, something as small as a hug or a text, like one I received, “We stand with your community during this difficult time,” can counter it.

Allyship is not abstract. It means proactively humanizing people who have been excluded. It’s about showing up and supporting the alienated, even in the smallest ways. Victims of hate are too worn out from carrying the trauma and responsibility on their shoulders.

Use your skills, power and privilege to help demolish the rising tide of Islamophobia and bigotry across the nation. Let’s remember the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”


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