Preconceptions hinder progress
The Minority Report
I was shopping in a store last week when a woman approached me to ask me a question. When she looked up from the product she was examining and saw my hijab, she was startled and quickly exclaimed, “I’m so sorry, do you speak English?”
At this point in my life, the best response I have been able to come up with to this question is a polite smile and a “Yes I do. How can I help you?” in the hopes that this refined and approachable reaction is enough to break the ridiculous correlation between people of minorities and their ability to speak English. It’s definitely a better alternative to the anger and inner turmoil I used to feel when receiving this question.
Probably the first time someone judgmentally asked about my linguistic capabilities — and the experience that most impacted my social and political conscientiousness — was when a police officer pulled over my mom one day when she was driving me to school. Though my mom chooses not to wear the hijab, the officer took one look at me in the passenger seat under my favorite bright-pink handpicked scarf and immediately asked, “Do you speak English?”
I flashed back to that moment and saw that same face of ignorance and condescending reproach in a hospital security guard a few months ago when I was visiting someone in the hospital. The guard looked down at me with a raised eyebrow and asked, “Do you speak English?”
I’m not sure how many times is the norm for the “average American” to be asked if they speak English while living in, you know, English-speaking America, but I’m guessing that number substantially increases if you fall within one of the following categories: One, you have a shade of skin that is not considered white. Two, you wear garments that connect you with a certain culture or religion, and more so if that culture or religion is flagrantly misrepresented by the media. Three, you are actually visiting or have just arrived to the United States from another country. Taking into account the large number of minority communities we have in our country, I am going to take the sad guess that countless members of those communities have been subjected to the same scrutiny.
This type of experience demonstrates some very deeply entrenched preconceptions that American society harbors toward its minority communities. The assumption that one cannot speak English because of one’s culture or religion stems from historical stereotypes of immigrants — specifically, people of color — as being uneducated, illiterate and unassimilated. And seeing as how America should be the “salad bowl” of the modern world, it doesn’t make sense that being “unassimilated” should be viewed so negatively in today’s society.
These preconceptions seem too ignorant to have a place in our discourse today, but sadly, they are the same preconceptions that shape American policies toward the same communities that they misjudge. Like all great strides toward progress in the past, change doesn’t begin at the top, but at the bottom. In order for us to advance the situation and treatment of minorities in today’s society, we must socially begin questioning the judgments we ourselves harbor of them and from where those judgments have originated.
Whether it’s our parents, the media or the community we live in, there are no stereotypes too strong to overcome. And with that increased conscientiousness, we can undoubtedly unshackle ourselves from the judgments and stereotypes that have been holding us back from the national harmony that we have been trying to achieve for so long.
Amani Al-Khatahtbeh is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore majoring in Middle Eastern studies and political science with a minor in French. Her column, ‘The Minority Report,’ runs on alternate Wednesdays.