I was in attendance at Wright's talk. I'd started his book, "The Looming Towers," about the U.S.-created conditions that led to the 9/11 attacks, a few days before I found out he'd be visiting Seattle. I got my book signed and when I asked for advice for an aspiring New Yorker writer, he offered me a short, sound soliloquy and told me "Eleanor, I'll look for your byline." I swooned.
What has stuck with me about that night, however, is an older white woman who interrupted my conversation with friends to tell us how much she admired our intellects (magically cultivated, somehow, in spite of our youth). She also felt compelled to tell us the story of a "very, very nice" Muslim family she befriended in her neighborhood.
This kind of comment, about the surprisingly kindness of a member of a minority group, is incredibly common. It is seen as accommodating. Those who speak these words believe themselves to be generous, making room for an "other." What these comments really reveal is an underlying prejudice and an unjust expectation that members of the "other" must prove themselves to be genuinely and unfailingly good.
This disconnect has been discussed ad nauseam, and yet it still doesn't seem to be enough: when a white person does something, it's seen as an individual's act; when a black or brown or Muslim person does something, it's decidedly representative of the whole race or ethnicity or religious tradition. Research says this is the result of an availability heuristic, where the brain makes shortcuts so when it sees something new, it grabs for the closest available connection, like the last thing it saw on Fox News, and links the two together, even if it is fallacious.
The thing is, this woman's opinion of Muslims should not be shaped by a nice individual on her street. It should be shaped by the understanding that Muslims are people, too, and there are more than a billion of them, some good and some bad. If her opinion of one-seventh of the world is so easily swayed, it is likely a new, mean Muslim neighbor would easily turn against her Muslim neighbors, old and new.
Additionally, each individual Muslim should have the right, just like white people do, to be good and bad, nice and mean, in turn, without fear of furthering the negative image of Islam in our Western world. To live with the burden of a billion must be brutal.
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