The Sunday before the terrorist attacks in Brussels, I sat in the salon waiting to be called for my appointment. A young Arab woman wearing hijab (scarf) and her husband sat beside me. She smiled at me. We greeted each other. She and her husband began to chat and laugh as they too waited. It was a very pleasant normal encounter between two complete strangers. As the young woman is called to go to her appointment and stands to leave, another complete stranger leans forward across the space separating us and says in a loud stage whisper, “Hey, you know what, if they are going to cover up their heads with a scarf, I wonder why they bother going to the beauty shop!” I was hurt and mortified for the young woman who simply continued on her way, her husband beside her. Many of my Muslim women friends tell me this sort of thing happens to them all the time, but this was the first time I had personally witnessed such public hostility. Then on Tuesday, we learned that terrorists had succeeded in orchestrating more death and destruction in Brussels Belgium. Besides a myriad of emotions, one pervading thought for me has been, “This is going to make the hostility against Muslims even worse.” I thought of the young woman at the salon and wondered how many more insults she will endure.
We lived and worked in Brussels for nine years. We raised our children there. Even then it was not necessarily an easy place. We lived and worked in the immigrant neighborhood that has been so much in the news recently. Indeed, most of the people in our neighborhood were Muslim. It is the inner city with all the same sort of inner city problems we find in our American cities. In fact we were robbed and mugged so many times I lost count. But when I walked down the street of my neighborhood, I did not see thugs, delinquents, or terrorists. I saw my friends. I saw people I knew. I knew their mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters. I called their children by name. Some of them went to the same school as my children. And I clearly remember the joyous feeling that came over me the first time I walked in my neighborhood and realized how many people knew me and called out to greet me. We returned to our neighborhood in Brussels about a year and a half ago. We visited our friends; we shopped at our favorite Arab market; we ate at our favorite Turkish restaurant; we marveled at how children had grown up; we reconnected with those who had been a part of our center. Even when after the Paris attacks revealed that one of the suspected bombers had used our metro stop in our old neighborhood, my mind saw my friends, my favorite places, my former students. I did not see terrorists.
The point of this is just one simple thing: when we seek to know the other and understand who they are as people and we let ourselves be known and understood, it is virtually impossible to stereotype. You can’t lump everyone together because you know the person and you know how that person is different from others you know.
So the next time you are in a salon – or restaurant, grocery store, shopping center, etc – and you see a person you would normally shy away from, just say hello. It will go a long way towards knowing and being known.