I walked into class, excited. A new semester meant new friends. I presented a subtle smile, one to show others that I’m friendly but not creepy. After I entered the class, I felt something burning my skin — the looks. I heard students shift and stare as I made my way to the front row. Checked my watch — no, not late. Looked around — yes, the only hijabi.
That must have been one of the first day’s rituals — to stare. But the staring continued. Every day I walked into class, people stared and others picked up their things and moved away from me. When I sat down, people clutched their bags. In my statistics class, every morning, the same girl, who I often left a seat for between her and myself, would have her things out on the table. As soon as I would walk past her, she would grab everything and stare at me as she moved away. Other days, she would sit in the seat next to mine and put her bookbag on my seat. That’s when I realized that many of these students went out of their way to make me feel uncomfortable.
I often get asked how it feels to be in the Stern School of Business, and nothing comes to mind except for the feeling of my hands sweating, throat tightening and heart dropping. As soon as I walk into the building, I’m immediately on high alert.
Who’s going to stare? Check the time. Who’s going to say something? Check the time. Who’s going to run away? Check the time. Who’s going to attack? Time to go.
Every time I walk into the building, I get flashbacks to my first semester. I remember a classmate who started up a conversation with me about study abroad. He then shifted the conversation to a political one. When he realized that we had differing political views, he became infuriated. He said to me, “all Arabs and all Muslims are terrorists.”
On another occasion, an international classmate told me about her country of origin. She began to describe the Muslims in her country and how they are isolated, saying the places where they live are full of poverty and crime. I continued to listen with the mindset that she was frustrated with the country’s Islamophobia or at least was attempting to make small talk. When I asked her stance on the government’s actions, she explained that “all Muslims are terrorists.” As she looked me in the eyes — the eyes of a hijabi, the eyes of a Muslim — she quickly said, “Don’t worry, I know you are not a terrorist.”
I wanted to quit, to go home and never show up to class again. I didn’t know who or where to go to. I still feel frustrated, attacked and unsafe.
That’s why I’m asking Stern to help build a better experience for minority students. There must be explicit disciplinary consequences against those who hate and discriminate. Minority students shouldn’t be expected to educate others or accept any discriminatory actions. I should’ve been able to report students who verbally attacked me. When I felt unsafe, I wasn’t aware and wasn’t told about any resources that I could reach out to. I felt completely alone and had no one supporting or comforting me. I should’ve had the resources and people to reach out to when I felt like dropping out just because I didn’t feel safe in my own school.
There must also be a space for minority students to voice their needs and talk about their experiences. There must be a full-time diversity officer that dedicates his or her time to make Stern more diverse and inclusive. After having several meetings and talking to other minority students in Stern, I learned that I wasn’t the only marginalized one. Other Muslim students and students of color explained that they have always faced discrimination throughout their time in Stern. Some experiences were similar to mine, like daily microaggressions, and others were completely distinct and utterly racist, xenophobic and disgusting. We have had enough with the hate and are just as deserving of our seats in Stern as anyone else. There must be change.
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A version of this article appeared in the Monday, April 30 print edition. Email Raneen Khalil at [email protected]