I was recently out with my mom on a breezy Saturday afternoon. You could hear the hidden birds cheerfully chirping as the sun’s warmth was at its peak in the sky. It was just another summer day – or so I thought.
We were patiently standing and waiting on the southbound Red Line platform at the Howard station after searching at Marshall’s for an outfit that I could wear to Sunday’s community picnic.
My mom, tired of standing with a heavy bag on her shoulder, decided to sit down on one of the wooden benches between a dark-skinned woman in denim, and a light-skinned woman in baggy clothes. My mom was thirsty under the summer sun, so I reached for a water bottle from my purse.
Suddenly, the white woman sitting on my mother’s left got up and began shouting incoherent sentences and phrases with occasional profanity.
At first I brushed the woman’s reaction off, assuming she was probably one of those ‘crazy’ people you encounter on the CTA. Regardless, it still felt awkward with my mom and I staring back at each other in silence as the woman rattled off. She hurried towards the staircase nearby and began spitting on the ground.
Before leaving, she shouted one last sentence in her frenzy.
That’s when I finally heard her loud and clear, and my confusion ended.
“You f*****g Hindu.”
I felt a mixture of emotions. I was surprised to have witnessed such an unexpected scene. I often heard stories of discrimination and ignorance, but was never actually in the presence of such events. I was also quite disappointed at the woman for her ignorance and her irrational behavior. Losing faith in humanity was not a good moment. But most importantly, I was concerned for my mother – concerned for her safety and her feelings.
“That was just plain stupid,” the black woman on my mother’s right exclaimed. “Ignorant and stupid.”
I was quickly brought back to reality and away from my flood of thoughts.
My mom was still confused. “What happened?” she asked the woman.
“Mom, she was being racist,” I interjected, my voice noticeably bitter.
The woman nodded her head in agreement. “Racist and hurtful. That was just stupid as hell,” she said, before kindly apologizing for her use of ‘hell’ in front of my mom. “You’re not even Hindu, right?”
It was my turn to nod in agreement. “It’s so dumb. Just because we’re brown doesn’t mean we’re Hindu.”
Through our shared sentiments and values, the woman and I soon began to have an engaging conversation about the ignorant woman, the recent news surrounding Paula Deen, and ignorance in America as a whole.
I was also able to learn about an interesting encounter that Try, the woman and a hair stylist by profession, had experienced regarding an Iraqi hijabi woman that came into her hair salon one day.
Although the morning’s events could have left me disheartened and completely upset at the world and its ignorant people, I had found a remedy in the conversation that ensued between me and Try. I had even found a remedy in the conversation between Try and the Iraqi woman.
I told Try about CAIR-Chicago, got her number on the train, and scheduled an interview for the following week so I could share her story.
I met up with her on the morning of the following Friday at her hair salon Eclipsz to hear the full story and to discuss the lack of understanding between people of different cultures and faiths.
While sitting on the black pleather chair, with my tape recorder in hand, I listened as Try recalled her encounter.
When Try had first met the Iraqi woman in her shop, she discovered they had a language barrier, and the Iraqi woman had brought her son to help translate. The Iraqi woman had wanted to get a hair cut, but told Try that she could not get it cut by a man and that she could not be in the presence of men. Try understood the woman’s cultural and religious reasoning and asked the woman to come back the next day.
The next day arrived, and unfortunately, the shop was full of men. Try said she and the Iraqi woman agreed that if the Iraqi woman did Try’s eyebrows, Try would cut the woman’s hair for free.
When the Iraqi woman hesitantly stepped foot in the shop that day, a man in the shop who overheard what was happening asked why she couldn’t get her hair cut. Try explained the woman’s cultural and religious reasons.
“The response from the ignorant man was, ‘Well why don’t she take her ass back home if she can’t get her hair done in front of us in here?’” Try recounted. “I felt it was ignorant as hell, and he was stupid, and I knew the lady didn’t speak good English, but you could see in her face that she knew he was saying something mean. Like she could feel his aura was nasty. So she backed out and told her son to tell me that she would go, and I told her I could go home with [her] and do it ‘cause she had already done my eyebrows.”
On the third day, the Iraqi woman was walking past the shop after getting her son from school. Try gathered her belongings and went home with the woman.
“I didn’t know all the time that she had baked me a cake and had made tea,” Try said. “So when we got there, we sat down and her son translated for us. We talked about God, and we talked about other things. And talking to the lady I found out that she had to flee from Iraq to Syria because she wanted to save her boys. And when she got to Syria, she had to flee Syria but by that time they had enough money to come to America. When I left, she gave me a kiss on both cheeks, told me I was a good woman, gave me my cake, gave me some tea, and sent me home. It made me feel damn good.”
I asked Try if she had personally dealt with discrimination, and she shared the story of a time in Texas when a group of white men disrespected her husband.
“I was in the army stationed in Fort Hood, Texas, and my husband at the time was very, very, very dark skinned – almost black,” Try said. “And we went to a restaurant called Ryan’s in a city called Killeen, which stands for Kill Each and Every Negro…and we had came in and paid our money to sit down like everybody else, and when we sat down at the table, there was a group of young white men sitting across from us. One got up, walked to our table, and spit in my husband’s face because he was black.”
Although she was upset, Try had to stop her husband from wanting to fight as they were outnumbered, and she knew someone was either going to get hurt in the process or end up in jail.
“I wanted to go lynch somebody,” Try said. “To be honest, it made me mad as hell. I felt they was ignorant, and I wanted to beat their behinds…From a distance, nobody knows who the idiot is. So why stand there and argue? That’s simple, from a distance, I could be the genius, and you’re the fool. Going back and forth, back and forth, makes both of us look like fools.”
We concluded that in order to combat ignorance and hatred, people must be forced into situations where they get to know and understand people of different backgrounds, cultures and faiths.
When asked if she thought we would ever get rid of the ignorance and lack of tolerance some groups of people have towards minority groups in America, Try said it was not going to be possible until people changed their attitudes toward immigrants.
“Without all the immigrants in America, there would not be an America,” Try said. “Bottom line.”
I realized that both the conversations between me and Try and Try and the Iraqi woman lay critical foundations for learning, growth, and understanding. Not only did I have the opportunity to meet Try and learn of her stories, but I also learned about the importance of meeting conflict with conversation and openness.