Yesterday, a man mistook me for a Muslim woman.
I’ve had a few minor pain attacks recently due to trigeminal neuralgia, but nothing serious. Preventative maintenance has a lot to do with it. I am careful to avoid triggers such as wind, and anything that touches my face. If I feel any kind of irritation, I don’t wash my face at all. I also keep the left side of my face covered by a head scarf.
I was on my way to meet a friend for dinner when I stopped at a gas station. I was wearing one of my black head scarves–a softer, warmer scarf because there was a chill in the air and it had been raining. I was dressed in a dark blue t-shirt and jeans. I got out of my car and used my card to pay for gas.
Just before I started pumping, a man about my age walked up to me.
“Ma’am,” he said. I turned to look at him. “Ma’am, God bless you,” he said. He was very forward, his tone firm and insistent.
I was taken aback, but I said, “Uh, thank you.”
He walked by, I started pumping gas, and then he said again, “God bless you, ma’am. I don’t know how you say it–” He held up his hand as if assuming he’d offended me somehow. “–I don’t know how you say it, but God bless you.”
That’s when I knew: He thought I was Muslim.
When the man headed into the gas station, I figured that was it. Feeling a bit uncomfortable, I finished pumping my gas and went around to the driver’s side of my car. I didn’t want to take any chances with the breeze, so I kept my head down as I walked. At the same time, the man had come out of the gas station and was passing me, heading for his own car.
I heard him mutter under his breath, “Oh, shit,” and I somehow knew this had something to do with me.
I had a feeling he was watching me, and I quickly got in my car. Before I could get settled and lower my scarf, he was knocking on my window. I opened the door a crack.
“Yes?” I said.
“Ma’am, I just noticed when you were walking, you kept your head down. Don’t keep your head down when you walk,” he said. His next words confirmed what I’d originally thought. “In my country,” he said, “we look up at the sky towards God, not down at the ground. So you don’t look down at the ground anymore when you walk.”
Despite his words, his tone and approach made me uncomfortable. I hope that he just meant well. I smiled weakly and said, “I was born in this country.”
He looked taken aback, as if he hadn’t expected me to say that. For the record, there have been a number of instances during which I was asked whether I was from Europe, Germany, Russia, or Czechoslovakia. There are Muslims everywhere, from many different countries, so none of this is really implausible. (I’ve even been asked if I have any Native American ancestry, because of my hair.)
The man went on to say, “Oh, well, in this country we don’t look down when we walk. So you remember that. You don’t look down when you walk.”
I like to defuse things with humor. So, I smiled and looked him right in the eye, and I said, “Unless you’re trying to avoid stepping in a puddle.”
He laughed–we both did–and then he shut the door for me, and that was that. My silly joke turned the tide of the awkward interaction, and caused him to walk away with a smile on his face. Everything turned out fine, but it made me wonder what might have happened if things had gone in a different direction.
The current climate in this country of late has been disturbing, and it makes everyone more wary. Just recently, two men were fatally stabbed when they tried to protect two young girls from a man who was shouting anti-Muslim hate speech on a train. I can’t imagine the fear that Muslims must feel.
The way I see it, some people have been given permission to express their hatred by the current Presidential administration. (Added note: I am not at all trying to say the man who approached me was doing this, as well.)
Even if he’s not expressing it now, Trump’s anti-Muslim statements have made visible the many people who, without educating themselves about the cultural and religious backgrounds of others, make assumptions and judge others negatively based on appearance.
That said, I was happy to drive away from that gas station, because I had been made to feel extremely uncomfortable. This man had noted that my hair was covered by a scarf and therefore made an assumption about my religion, my belief system, and my country of origin. He had preconceived notions about who I was and the kind of person I was based solely on how he judged my appearance.
It was natural that I become uncomfortable.
What if something else had happened?
My head is covered by a scarf most everywhere I go. I have gotten many strange looks, but few people have ever said anything to me.
What are they thinking?
Yesterday, I got a taste of the fear that Muslims must feel when confronted by ignorance.
It also made me think about anyone else who isn’t your average white American. Racism of any kind is flat-out despicable, and I won’t tolerate it. This country belongs to all of us, Americans from many different backgrounds, belief systems, and cultures.
My health requires me to wear my scarf, so that’s not changing. I just hope that I don’t have to deal with any more incidents like this one, and I pray for a time when differences are celebrated rather than feared or reviled.