Lesson one is simple. Just one word.
Smiling is important. More than once, it will make all the difference. Sometimes, it might hurt and you will want to scream or open your mouth instead. But your mother will say it’s not worth it, and she’ll be right (you’ll realize that happens more than you think).
Smiling is especially important when you’re around strangers. Think airports. When the security guard selects you for a random check, smile and follow his directions. When the elderly white woman peers over at you while you’re sitting at the gate, smile back in response to her stone-cold expression. When the flight attendant scans the plane one last time, make sure your tray table is pushed back, your bag is under the chair in front of you, your seatbelt is fastened, and your phone is on airplane mode. Oh, and that you’re smiling, of course.
It sounds comical, and it’s a little annoying, but this is your job now. When you are other, you are performing. You are playing a role in which you’re just a little friendlier than you need to be, just a little happier, just a little more non-threatening. So smile. (Terrorists don’t smile. And you’re not a terrorist, right?)
The next lesson is easy too. It goes with lesson one, because you can do both at the same time. Lesson two is to be comforting.
When someone asks you if you’re Arab and you tell them you’re Pakistani, be ready to accept their apologies. They will tell you, “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to assume.” Assure them that it’s perfectly fine and that you are not upset. In this moment, it is not your place to consider how interesting it is that the scarf on your head and the shade of your skin always lead people to the same peninsula. However, it is your place to comfort the person who made the mistake. You don’t want them to feel bad. In fact, it’s your job to make sure that they don’t.
This applies in other settings as well. One day you will be on the bus and the two white boys in front of you will be making up a song about Muslims and bombs. They will turn around, see you, and turn pale. Laugh along then. Let them know that you understand—they aren’t being offensive, they’re just trying to be funny. They’re middle school boys and they aren’t trying to hurt you. Your job is to play along, not throw the wet towel of political correctness on their humor.
Lesson three is the one you may have to do the most. Lesson three is ignoring it. (This one is another favorite of your mother’s. It makes your blood boil, but she says it keeps you safe.)
Lesson three comes in handy when you’re with your friends. When it happens, remind yourself of these three things: They don’t mean it, they mean well, you don’t want to fight. So when you’re sitting in the cafeteria during your senior year of high school, and a girl you’ve known since you were 11 says slavery needed to happen because it got America to where it is today, ignore her. Don’t remind her that America today is nothing to get excited about. Definitely don’t ask if her reasoning for defending slavery is that it’s a major part of history. Don’t challenge her logic. It will upset your other friends and rock the boat two months before graduation. Instead, remind yourself that she is a good person, that she is kind to you, that she cares for her friends and family. She probably doesn’t even mean what she’s saying.
This lesson comes in handy in class too. After Freddie Gray is murdered, your city will be wracked with protests. The next day, your mother will tell you to stay quiet in school. (She tends to remind you when you need it most.) And when your AP US History teacher tells your class about how they used to trample protesters with horses in the old days, don’t consider what he’s implying. And when he says “that wouldn’t be a bad idea now,” bite your tongue. You want to get into a good college—getting into a fight with a teacher won’t help.
Most importantly, don’t question this reality. Don’t wonder why, in the years that your peers are learning about themselves and the world around them with freedom and excitement, you are learning to know your place. Don’t wonder why you can’t speak up. Don’t wonder why their feelings matter more than your humanity and the humanity of every brown and black person in this country.
Thinking isn’t your job. You are already too other. Your name is hard to pronounce. Your skin is brown. (And yes, it is, no matter how much your one friend who tans like crazy in the summer insists otherwise.) Your religion is synonymous with a violent political ideology. With all the mistakes you’re making simply by existing, you are not in a place to rock the boat.
So smile. Comfort. If neither of those are possible, ignore. It’s three simple steps, but it will teach you how to be other. Being other is about making sure that your otherness doesn’t inconvenience or threaten those around you. It is not about speaking up and demanding space and humanity. After all, what sense would that make?
Shireen Younus ’20 is a Crimson Editorial editor in Pforzheimer House.