After working at a civil rights nonprofit organization defending the rights of Arabs, Muslims, Sikhs, and the broader Asian American community, I came to law school in Cambridge this year to learn how to better advocate for marginalized communities. I spent months working with people targeted by hate, but I was astounded to face such hate myself just blocks from where I am learning how to fight it. Over the weekend, I was confronted by a man who called me a “f***ing Muslim” and followed me around a store aggressively asking where I was from, and and no one in the store said a thing. I was on the phone with my mom the entire time, and we were both concerned for my safety as this man stood inches away from me.
While deeply painful, what happened to me pales in comparison to the hate and violence many of my brothers and sisters have faced across the country. However, one thing is clear — there is far more positivity and love out there than hate. The support I have received from my classmates, school administrators, and even strangers far outweighs the hate of any one person. In the spirit of Charhdi Kala (eternal optimism), my three takeaways from the incident are: such hate and intolerance is not new, and the fight against them transcends political and personal identities; this can occur anywhere and to anyone; bystander intervention is a concrete and crucial step everyone can take.
Since the election last week, many Americans have felt unsafe and incidents of hate have increased dramatically. However, people of color, immigrants, religious minorities, and other groups have in ways felt marginalized for hundreds of years. Instances of harassment are not new, and their increased frequency makes understanding and responding crucial and timely. Whether this happened last year or on the night of the election, whether the man was white or brown, whether I was actually a Muslim or not — these are irrelevant. Such hate is intolerable whenever, wherever, and against whomever it occurs.
After I shared my story, several people accused me of making it up. Even though every media source that covered this independently corroborated the story with the store, such skepticism highlights the importance of acknowledging that hate can be directed by anyone, toward anyone, and at any time or place. While I am lucky to have a platform to share my story, we must be more attuned to the hate that people are facing and must ask ourselves what we can do to prevent it.
Bystander intervention is a simple and effective way to counter hate and intolerance. If I could ask the people in the store to do one thing, it would be to step in — support and engage the person being targeted by talking to them, escorting them to a safe place, and ignoring the aggressor. Even if that is uncomfortable, we can ask those around us to step in themselves or with us, and we can contact local law enforcement. The unfortunate reality is that many of us will witness racism, Islamophobia, homophobia, and other forms of discrimination, so this lesson applies to everyone.
My parents and siblings came to America in 1985 to flee religious persecution. In many ways, my family’s experience with hate and discrimination in India and the hate and intolerance I faced in Cambridge derive from the same source — both based on the labeling of an “other” through hate, fear, and discrimination. I am a product of the opportunity my family had to build a successful life in America largely free of hate and discrimination — an opportunity being snatched from countless Americans. The best way to fight back against my aggressor is to stand together against hate and intolerance with love and optimism to ensure that all people feel safe and welcome in America.
Harmann Singh is a first year student at Harvard Law School.