Wearing a Hijab Doesn’t Mean I Don’t Speak English

wearing a hijab

“Are you here for a potential student or a current student?”

Say that sentence out loud, making sure you say it really slow. Oh, and don’t forget to enunciate each word as you say it.

Now imagine someone speaking to you in that manner, when you’re well versed and spoken in the English language (in fact, it may even be your first language).  How does that make you feel?  Offended? Outraged?  Confused?  Amused?  Conflicted?  All of the above?  Well that’s how I feel- all of the above.

Let’s rewind so I can give you the back story on all of this.  A few weeks ago, while on our search for a preschool for our toddler, my husband and I decided to visit a local Montessori’s open house.  We were greeted at the door by a handful of volunteers, and from them there was one who took it upon herself to start our tour.   The first thing she asked us was, “Are you here for a potential student or a current student?”  But she didn’t just ask us that.  She enunciated each word, and she spoke each word slowly.  I was a bit confused, but tried not to think about it too much.  I thought it may be because I was wearing a hijab but I internally scolded myself for being so judgey.  As we walked forward, she asked another volunteer to hand her the appropriate paperwork.  But guess what? She spoke normally!  No slowed or enunciated speech! My husband and I looked at each other with astonishment, giving each other looks that expressed our surprise- Why is she talking to us like this?!

The rest of the tour was handled by another volunteer, but the aforementioned woman saw us on our way out.  Again, she spoke to us slowly and gently, making sure that we understood each and every word she was saying.  We left, bidding her farewell, a bit dejected.  Sure, the school was great, but how can someone be so oblivious?!  Her interactions with us overshadowed everything we had just seen and heard.

A few days after our tour, with our interactions with this woman on my mind, I took to my Instagram to express my thoughts and frustrations.  There was a great deal of conflict within me. One part of me was regretting not speaking up, while another part of me feared that by speaking up, I would come off as rude, and then by proxy, this woman would think that all women wearing a hijab are rude.

I, a hijab wearing, American born and bred woman, often find myself in situations where I have to think twice about how I’m going to handle or react to things.  I worry about speaking my mind and coming off as impolite, and thus brushing an entire group of people as the same. 

The response I got on social media to my vent session was overwhelming.  The majority of people responding had the same astounding feeling- that minorities feel like they have to carry the burden of perception of their entire race.  Let that sink in for a moment.

Along with sympathetic responses, I also got a number of messages about how to handle such situations.  A handful of people told me that their way of handling such situations is to just let it slide.  The offending person doesn’t intend any malice, they said.  A number of people also believed that one should handle these situations head-on; that we call people out on their racism, no matter how subtle it may be.

After this whole experience, I’ve come to realize that there may be a middle path.  I think part of the problem is that we do tend to let things slide.  We make excuses for people’s racist behavior.  Sometimes we rationalize their offensive behavior by telling ourselves that it wasn’t intended, or that maybe they are just ignorant and don’t know any better.  We ignore the issue, and thus it’s never resolved.  The cycle continues.

Maybe the right thing to do in these situations is to address the behavior.  We don’t have to brash, but we can address it in a respectful manner.  In the situation I encountered, instead of ignoring the woman’s clearly ignorant behavior, I should have respectfully asked her why she was talking to us in the manner that she was.  Maybe that would have made her realize just how ridiculous she sounded.  Perhaps it would have made her question her subconscious belief in who she considers an “outsider” or an “other.”  Maybe it would have made her think twice before talking to someone else in the same manner.  Maybe it would have made her realize that her behavior can cause someone to question if they even belong or fit into what they’ve always thought of and known as home.

This entire experience has taught me a very valuable lesson- that constantly ignoring subtle racisms, we are contributing to the problem.  We need to address these, albeit in polite ways.  We may not be able to change everyone’s behaviour, but we can create the right conversations.