For several years, I worked next to a mosque. Its parking lot often overflowed on Fridays and religious holidays; on such days, my company’s owners permitted its congregants to park in the company parking lot.
Once, I saw women step out of a car and cover themselves for service. I smiled on my way into the office. They smiled back.
Many times, I walked by women already covered. I’d smile at each, if she looked at me; much more often than not, I’d see eyes wrinkling from smiles returned.
(Seeing mouths isn’t the most important thing to seeing smiles.)
After exchanging such smiles one afternoon, I remembered a conversation with a male friend years before and hundreds of miles away.
“You’re not supposed to look at them when they’re dressed like that!” he’d told me. I replied that I’d never heard such a thing, and that I’d keep greeting human beings as human beings.
I posted about the new smile and the old conversation on Facebook. “Please keep smiling,” one Muslim friend soon replied.
I committed to doing so.
A year ago, I saw a Muslim family on a plane and just about broke into a cold sweat.
I came to my senses soon enough. Warm smiles were exchanged that day, too.
When I returned home, I told my husband, “Fearmongering works!”
(I vow now not to let it.)
“Yep.” he replied. “That’s why they use it.”
Protesting at LAX last weekend, I saw many women wearing hijabs. In all the hubbub, I only spoke with two. I was tired and ineloquent as I greeted them with my two-year-old on my hip, but they were lovely.
“Ugh, I’m saying all the wrong things,” I mumbled a couple minutes into conversation. Both women, Sara and Hannah, said no, no, no; Hannah’s face was especially aglow with compassion that filled me with a sense of okay-ness.
Maybe I didn’t say the right words. Maybe there are no right words.
What I do know is that I said I’d keep smiling.
I meant it,
and I will.
Flying to Oregon recently, I saw a young mother wearing a hijab a few rows ahead of me and my children.
I felt wordless apprehension when my eyes landed on her husband: What if he’s one of them?! are the words I’d assign to such apprehension. What if he’s a terrorist?
I was horrified with myself the moment I realized what had happened. There was nothing in my environment that would reasonably lead me to conclude either the husband or wife were anything other than another family in transit, which meant I was judging them based on factors outside our immediate environment. I was judging them based not on their own acts or demeanor but an aspect of their appearance, evidencing implicit bias.
When we all prepared to deboard soon after, the family made its way toward the rear exit. I’d walked myself away from my unfounded suspicion, so that I was no longer paying attention to them. I was thinking of the trip and my boys and a million other joyful things.
I propped my toddler on my hip as I waited for my opening to enter the exit aisle. I vaguely noted Littler J was grinning, and so followed his eyes to the target of his grin: the Muslim family’s toddler, propped on Mom’s hip and grinning back at Littler J.
My focus quickly rolled away from toddler to mom. My eyes met hers and we burst into mirror smiles.
“Fearmongering works!” I reported when later recounting my initial apprehension to my husband. (“Yep.”)
I find hope in Littler J’s smile. I will do what I can to sustain that, so that as he grows
he sees not fearful, bias-inspired could-bes and acts instead on
what he does see: the joy and love actually present.
This post inspired in part by my just-younger sister’s MLK, Jr. Day post.
For more on my journey of facing my own implicit biases, this post is a good jump-off point.