On Wednesday morning, I walked out of class only to find my friend sitting on College Green looking distressed. He told me a group of friends had just questioned his belief in Islam. They jokingly asked him why he subscribed to a religion that was so dogmatic and cruel.
My friend felt overwhelmed, embarrassed and dehumanized. He was hurt by some of their comments that linked religion to violence. The conversation alienated him, making him feel like a second-class citizen.
I was not shocked by the incident — the encounter he described is something we all have to face at some point in our lives. What shocked me most, however, was what happened the next day. The friend I spent time consoling on College Green joked that, “All black people are ghetto, it’s kinda funny!”
He proceeded to taunt me about living in a black neighborhood and how “dangerous” that can be. While I’ve developed a thick skin for such ridiculous comments, it hurt to see a friend — who understands the pain associated with belonging to a marginalized community — oppressing others.
How could he have already forgotten about his experience the day before?
Brian Peterson, director of Makuu — the black cultural center — shared his thoughts on prejudice with me. “As an African American who attended Penn in the early 1990s and whose parents went through the Civil Rights era, my former context for ‘diversity’ was black and white,” he said.“Working in such a diverse black community at Penn, we clearly see the deeper layers — national origin, religion, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, etc.”
Over the past year, Penn has been home to several protests and movements. From the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement to the Trayvon Martin Million Hoodie March — once-quiet voices are now booming.
These voices, however, are not separate from each other.
Although there is a sense of community amongst activists on campus, there is still a distinct sense of segregation among the student body. Just think: how many Hispanic students attended the Trayvon Martin march? How many black students stood in solidarity with the Muslim Students Association as they rallied against the NYPD? The list goes on.
This is not to say that students should not identify with a particular group. I value the time I spend with the Muslim and black communities on campus and the phenomenal results that occur when we’re united. However, it’s important to transcend our tendency to turn inward and realize that many of our causes are connected.
Penn for Palestine Co-President and College sophomore Sarah Shihadah, for example, refuses “to be silent while immigrants in this country are denied their rights, while Palestinians face violence and oppression, while people of color are murdered with impunity, while women are abused or when the LGBT community is dehumanized.”
Seemingly unconnected issues can affect each and every one of us equally. If the NYPD can justify monitoring the MSA, that same rationale can be used to support racial profiling or barring undocumented students from going to school.
“As people of conscience, we cannot accept injustice for anyone, anywhere,” Shihadah added. “I’ve found the stunning fact: together we don’t have to be a minority and we’ve already made a difference together.”
This idea is especially poignant as the Class of 2016 — who will be joining us next fall — promises to be more diverse and representative of the shifting demographics in this country.
The increased diversity creates new potential to unite students from all walks of life. Yet, this will not amount to anything unless we realize that we share a common narrative in the history of this school and the world at large. Fortunately, the University has resources to make this a reality. Peterson, who advises students, says he tries “to help them be aware and respectful of these layers, both within the black community and in the larger campus community.”
“In doing so, we ultimately help expand the ways that we view each other and come to much deeper understandings of our shared humanity,” he added.
The next time you see individuals protesting against an injustice that you think does not affect you — chances are, it does. So before you pass judgement on someone else and their community — whether on campus or in the world at large — think of a time when someone was prejudiced against you. Would you want to inflict that same pain on someone else?
Aya Saed is a College junior from Washington D.C. She is a former board member of the Muslim Students Association at Penn. Her email address is email@example.com. Seeds of Reason appears every other Friday.