Earlier this week, I was wandering around a department store in suburban Cleveland, when a clerk spotted me and mercifully offered to help.
When I told her what I was trying to find, she laughed and said, "You are definitely in the wrong department." Then, almost immediately, her smile vanished and she took a step back. "I didn't mean—."
She was wearing a hijab to cover her head, and we were standing face to face just days after the San Bernardino, California, terrorist attack and within hours of Donald Trump's widely publicized attempt to cast all Muslims as potential terrorists. Like so many other Americans, I am appalled by his racist vitriol, but this encounter with a clerk just trying to do her job drove home the immediacy of the harm. This woman with the kind face was afraid, and in that moment, both of us knew it, and we knew why.
I began to babble, assuring her that I am as likely to get lost in a department store as I am on a country road in rural Ohio. She smiled and nodded, but her eyes were moist as she pointed to the escalator. "Thank you," she said. As she turned and walked away, I realized she was thanking me for being nice to her.
This is what we've come to — a country where innocent Americans fear that their every encounter with a stranger in this country could be their last.
You don't have to be a Muslim to experience this anxiety. You just have to be someone Trump and his fellow Republican candidates insist on casting as "the other," which always means someone who isn't white. Such political posturing threatens to cripple discourse in our communities, as Deepinder Mayell learned recently.
Mayell is an attorney and the director of the Advocates for Human Rights' Refugee and Immigrant Program in Minneapolis. This fall, however, he was hoping to be just one of thousands of Minnesota Vikings fans as he showed up with friends for his first NFL game.
In an op-ed for StarTribune, Mayell wrote what happened after a man pushed others aside to make a beeline for him, demanding to know whether he was a refugee.
"In that moment, I was terrified," Mayell wrote. "But what scared me the most was the silence surrounding me. As I looked around, I didn't know who was an ally or an enemy. In those hushed whispers, I felt like I was alone, unsafe and surrounded. It was the type of silence that emboldens a man to play inquisitor. I thought about our national climate, in which some presidential candidates spew demagoguery and lies while others play politics and offer soft rebukes. It is the same species of silence that emboldened white supremacists to shoot five unarmed protesters recently in Minneapolis."
The man who presumed he had the right to demand proof of Mayell's citizenship had no idea whom he was picking on. He didn't know that Mayell was born in Queens, New York, and grew up on Long Island. He also didn't know that Mayell's parents are Sikh Americans, not Muslims.
After summoning a security guard to his side, Mayell confronted the man and told him that he had frightened him and that what he had said was racist. The man apologized, but Mayell said that wasn't enough. He wanted the man to be ejected. That didn't happen.
In the newspaper's online comments section under Mayell's op-ed, the usual ugliness flourished like maggots on a carcass. He should have a thicker skin, commenters said. Many called him a liar, accusing him of making up the incident. A number of commenters assumed he is Muslim. Because, you know, his name isn't Jim Bob or John-Boy and his face isn't white.
"The man shouted, 'You're a refugee!'" Mayell said in a phone interview this week. "Not 'you're a Muslim' or 'a terrorist,' just 'refugee.' It says so much about how national dialogue affects others."
Fortunately, Mayell fielded far more positive responses to his op-ed. "In texts, phone calls and emails, there was overwhelming support," he said. "People are pretty shocked this happened."
What struck me about his essay and our conversation was how alone and vulnerable he felt in that crowd. "I wish somebody else would have stuck up for me. I understand how stunning it was, that they were in disbelief, perhaps. ... But speaking out goes a long way for the person who is afraid — and for everyone in the public sphere."
But in the moment, no one said a word.
We keep having this conversation in this country, asking ourselves: When is it appropriate to speak out against bigotry and racism? As if there were ever a bad time to stand for what is right or a right time to stay silent.
Our silence is our acquiescence. The time to stand up is now. The appropriate place to speak out is everywhere.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist. She is the author of two books, including "...and His Lovely Wife," which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate. To find out more about Connie Schultz ([email protected]) and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
Photo credit: Michael Vadon