Outta the way, Muslim

Outta the way, Muslim.

It’s a cold November evening in New York City, and I’m on my way to dinner at a friend’s. I make a quick pit stop in a deli to pick up ice cream. It’s crowded at this time of the night, full of people on their way to evening engagements. Everyone milling around in front of the finger food and alcoholic beverages, bumping into each other and generally in everyone else’s ways.

Outta the way, Muslim,

he says. Low and sneering, half under his breath, half out loud. Mouth rounded for mo, s drawn out and transformed into a z. A pet peeve, this pronunciation. This is how they say it on the TV shows about terrorists, in the movies about invasions. Mozzzzzzzlem. It makes my skin crawl.

Outta the way, Muslim.

It’s what I am, undeniably. Brown skin, long clothes, hijab wound twice around my hair. In this moment, it is both fact and insult.

Outta the way, Muslim.

It’s not unfamiliar, this interaction. Over a decade in this country, a decade of people saying things half under their breaths, half out loud fucking terrorist take off your hijab do you have a bomb in there go back to where you came from terrorist motherfucker, a decade of these interactions and I’ve got the routine down. Deep breath, do not engage, walk away. Put as much distance between yourself and the interlocutor. And then, allow self a private eye roll.

Outta the way, Muslim.

There’s something different about hearing this today though, in this deli, in the frozen food aisle, in Trump’s America. Something sinister, something more directly threatening. Outta the way or what? After a campaign built on Muslim registries, travel bans, and fear mongering, after a spike in reported hate crimes, the re-emergence of swastikas and racist graffiti, I shiver suddenly thinking about what would happen if I didn’t get out of the way.

Outta the way, Muslim.

But it’s also so small, so quotidian, this incident — unlikely to escalate in this crowded deli, too small for legitimate fear. I’m too embarrassed to tell anyone, to admit how much it rattles me every time.

But what if I did? What if this is a small, quotidian way to resist the normalization of hate, to tell people every time it happens. The small incidents, as well as the big. Friends, neighbors, co-workers, people who move through this world in bubbles of oblivion, people convinced that hate only happen in the south, in rural areas, not in their cities of good people. To confront them with the fact that this happens, with the frequency, with the normalcy.

Outta the way, Muslim.

There’s a woman in front of us. She is a few steps ahead and clearly with the man who says this to me. She isn’t meant to hear him I don’t think, but she does. I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen someone look so horrified. “Why did you say that?” she asks him. “What’s wrong with you?”

I, too, am emboldened out of my silence. “Yeah, not cool man,” I say. My bravado returning, as if my first instinct wasn’t to run.

He looks sheepish, shuffles his feet as the woman apologizes profusely on his behalf. “Listen, I’m so sorry. I don’t know why he would say that, he’s not that kind of a person. That was really fucked up. He’s not that kind of a person, I promise.” He is quiet.

What does it mean that he’s not that kind of a person, I want to say. What does it mean that he’s not someone who generally says these things, but that they percolate close enough to the surface to slip out. That he can now casually say these things, that it’s only fucked up when he’s overheard. But I’m quiet.

“I didn’t mean it like that,” he says eventually, looking up to meet my eye. “You’re right, that was not cool.”

I nod, and move outta the way.

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