It was a chilly weekend winter morning in 2003, and for some reason, I chose to deviate from my routine of a kid on Saturday morning to watch cartoons and instead went outside to play. It was an urban neighborhood that my family lived in at the time, and there was a small park with basketball courts and playgrounds. I would often meet up with my friends and classmates there to plan our next mischievous adventures. That morning it was eerily empty in the park, and there was not a soul to be seen; even the usual dog walkers chose to stay home.
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As I sat sadly on the swings on the playground, contemplating whether to go home, a boy close to my age approached me. He seemed of a Middle Eastern ethnicity and was new to the area as I have not seen him in the neighborhood before. He started talking to me, being friendly and had a cool toy nerf gun that he let me play with. Nothing seemed conspicuous at the time, but for some reason, I remember feeling uncomfortable.
The boy then asked if I wanted to come over to his place and watch cartoons, and suddenly my whole perspective shifted. The level of comfort turned to fear, and images of the recent news that I had seen with my parents flashed in my head about terrorist attacks and kidnappings of Americans in the Middle East. I simply jumped off the swings and ran as fast as I could without saying a word. The boy chased me but soon stopped, and I did not stop running until I reached my apartment building and sprinted up the stairs to the safety of my family.
Now much older, that memory is engrained in me, and I am extremely ashamed of it. I have come to realize that even as a child, I had already been embedded with the preconception of Islamophobia and a belief that Middle Eastern individuals would hurt me. It is a dangerous and unethical fear that I understand now having education and exposure to Islam and other cultures. The cause of personal Islamophobia as a child and teenager was based on the existing culture around me, family beliefs, and exposure to selective information without having an understanding of it, and for a long time, it led to the effect of unjustifiable prejudice, strained relationships with certain people, and an inaccurate perception of the world – it created an inherent fear of the unknown culture in my perception.
In September of 2001, the world was shaken by the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center by Islamic extremists. By 2003, the war in Iraq and Afghanistan began resulting in a horrific conflict and impact on American society. Even as a child, one was exposed to it through the news, conversations among adults, and perhaps the school curriculum attempting to make sense of it. Everywhere, there was a culture of fear and support for the heroic troops who were portrayed as fighting against “evil” Islamic insurgents. That is the exposure that I received as a child, hearing such sentiments and watching the news showing devastating bombings.
At the time, I had no understanding of geopolitics and complex contexts of Islamic radicalism. Implicit biases are formed based on associations made by the brain, and social cognition is the ability to use the information we understand then apply it to people in our personal social situations. Cultural and social conditioning, such as media portrayals, are influential in forming biases (Paul, 2016). Unconsciously, an implicit bias was formed, resulting in the misperception of the situation and then the demonstration of the explicit bias of fear towards an individual of Middle Eastern descent.
Based on ongoing events, the American culture took a strong anti-Islamic stance which was evident in daily interactions and even my family sentiments. According to sociological research, Islamophobia peaked in the United States in the early 2000s, post the 2001 attacks; at one point, an estimated 67% of Americans demonstrated Islamophobic tendencies, and hate speech and crime against Muslims were at an all-time high (Samari, 2016).
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Stereotypes and slurs were being formed and used against people of Middle Eastern origin, even if they were not Muslim or actively practicing the religion. My family, being conservative Americans, also supported the general cultural mentality. This is undoubtedly reflected in my perceptions as a child. Having little previous exposure to Islam and Middle Eastern individuals, my opinion was not inherently hateful but, as the described incident demonstrates, underlyingly fearful.
The implicit biases and cultural preconceptions formed had a profound effect on the now seemingly innocent encounter back in December of 2003. It was a new kid on the block that simply wanted to make friends, and it was relatively common for friends to visit each other to watch movies and play video games at the time. However, I already had a prejudiced opinion of the boy even though he was nothing but kind to me, to the point of causing discomfort and eventually a fearful response of running away. A famous quote by Nelson Mandela states, “no one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion.
People must learn to hate…” reflecting the aphorism that racism is a taught phenomenon. Reflecting back, it is phenomenal to me as an innocent and ignorant child that had little understanding of the complex geopolitics and religious wars of the Middle East; I had such a strong and underlying bias. The causes described earlier shifted my behavioral, social psychology to negatively interact with this individual of Middle Eastern descent, a boy who was most likely born in America and lived here his whole life.
Since this incident, I had seen many instances of Islamophobia personally, particularly in the mid-2010s when the biased sentiment peaked again in the United States. How many times, going through airport security, we see Middle Eastern families pulled aside for searching without any suspicion. There was a time when my family visited a festival and saw security not let a Muslim family in while the women were wearing hijabs.
It is a prevalent tendency, and I was lucky to witness only mild examples of Islamophobia while periodically seeing on the news instances of violent crime against this culture and religion by white radicals and supremacists who are just as many domestic terrorists like the ones they believe they are fighting against. As I grew older, beginning to understand and changing my worldviews away from this misconception, in the back of my mind, I continued to experience this implicit bias for many years.
A sense of worry and danger, a belief that my own life and those around me might be somehow threatened, and despite avoiding such open demonstrations of explicit bias, it is a sentiment that is likely reflected in my demeanor in one way or another. It is mystical how such associations could form, but the childhood culture and influences created a part of myself I strongly dislike.
Those who know this anecdotal incident from my childhood most often laugh at it as a display of childish imagination and ignorance. Perhaps it was, but it also reflected a dangerous and deeply rooted bias of Islamophobia instilled by culture, family, and events in the world that were far from my own life. It makes one question the extent of influence of media and culture on driving forward these messages of fear and hatred.
Even objective reporting and analysis on the news can seem hostile to an individual without proper understanding if it is an attack on values that they hold. At the time, American patriotism and fear of terrorism were prevalent, and to me and many other kids and adults, the Middle Eastern culture and Islam had become a symbol of hostility to personal and national safety. My perspective has since shifted after learning about the Islamic religion and having one of my best friends is from the Middle East and also being Muslim.
However, some people are not able to or willing to learn and experience the difference, but instead, choose to practice and promote the bigoted view that inspires fear and hatred. This affects the world, stirs negative passion in society, and does not enable the peaceful multicultural co-existence, a foundation that the United States has been built upon.
Paul, A. M. (2016). Where bias begins: The truth about stereotypes. Psychology Today. Web.
Samari, G. (2016). Islamophobia and public health in the United States. American Journal of Public Health, 106(11), 1920-1925. Web.