I distinctly remember that infamous day in American history when two planes crashed into the World Trade Center. I was 18 and happy to finally be an adult away at college. I was working in the library early in the morning when my boss came in to tell us that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I was in disbelief and shock. I didn’t know how to react because nothing of such magnitude had ever occurred on American soil in my lifetime. I remember still going to class, but being in a fog as everyone didn’t know what to say or do in the aftermath. People worried about the stock market and my roommate said her father had told her we would be okay as long as everyone stayed calm. I remember seeing Maya Angelou on the news and remembering why? In this moment of great fear, even the news had no idea what to do, so they put someone comforting on. Nothing made sense in that moment.
What was also on my mind was xenophobia. After the shock and worry subsided, my mind wandered to the hijackers. In my heart of hearts, I hoped they wouldn’t be Asian. Because if they were, I knew my life would no longer be the same. When I found out they weren’t, I was relieved, then felt guilty because I knew someone else would be the target of American hate, and they were. I heard stories of neighbors seething and vengeful as they stood outside of Muslim and Indian-born citizens’ homes. I read about a Sikh man who was mistaken for Muslim, who was targeted and killed. And I’d heard that a Hmong teenager had made an off-hand comment that no one Hmong cared that 3,000 people died because it didn’t affect us, and the deep-seated racism that had been so carefully concealed came out. Because of one young individual’s comment, people were emboldened to be racist towards people like me. It seemed this tragic act had resurrected a long-simmering hate that barely boiled beneath many American’s blood and they felt as if they were doing their duty by accosting those they deemed responsible for the fear that permeated their lives.
That is the fate of a minority who lives in a country where the majority of it’s people are White. I don’t blame White people in general, but I hold them responsible for not understanding that as the majority in control, they also control the narrative of who belongs and who doesn’t, and through this experience, I knew I would never belong. I would always be an outsider. I was not free to only mourn what had happened, but as a minority, I knew immediately that there would be consequences and I feared what would happen. For months after, I read about stories of Muslim women who did not wear their headscarf because they feared retaliation, even though they had nothing to do with the crashes. Looking back, I see how unfair that was for me. I knew that even in the midst of a national tragedy, I still had to worry about my own safety and those around me because they would never consider me one of them.
People will always act out of fear because it is who we are. And it’s easier to root our fears in racism than it is to dismantle what we’ve been told and believed all of our lives about who the enemy is. It’s been 20 years and I wonder if we’ve learned any lessons from the past. Are we any different than who we were on that fateful day? I honestly don’t know if we are and perhaps we may never be, but I hope we can change.