I was in New York on September 11, 2001, so I have felt the fear. That event left me extremely angry and frightened about Jihadist extremism. And we all know that it is still a huge danger.
I admit, after that event, I may have looked at Muslims with more trepidation. But that quickly changed. It started when soon thereafter I began to substitute teach in NYC public schools. None of the students ever listened to me. Even kindergarteners would walk all over me. Then, in a fifth-grade class, there were a few girls in hijabs. I would say turn to a page in a book and they actually did! They were respectful! It was so novel. From that point on, if there were Muslim kids in the classroom, I would thank God or Allah. I was filled with gratitude that they were here in our country. I began to question, “Am I becoming prejudiced against anyone who is not Muslim?”
On top of this, I did many comedy shows for years outside of the New York City. The amount of Islamophobia in other comics’ material was startling and so was how much audiences would cheer and clap at it. In one memorable routine, a comic described being in an airport and worried about all the darker-skinned people working in security. He imitated a man with a thick Indian accent. The audience laughed uproariously, because, of course, he must be a terrorist, even though most Muslims clearly are not and, regardless, the guy he was imitating was clearly Indian. The same comic went on to joke about being freaked out sitting on the plane next to a man in a turban. Again, the audience keeled over from the “hilarity.” I just thought, what was wrong with that Sikh man? The comic and audience put brown people into one big terrorist pot. This was disturbing and eye-opening.
Around the country, I would also see disdain for Latin immigrants. I saw men wearing t-shirts that said, “Why in the heck do I have to press 1 for English?” The shirt may as well have read, “I hate Hispanics.” And why can’t you press 1? Are you busy? You clearly aren’t that busy, because you had time to buy that hideous t-shirt.
The anti-immigrant and Muslim sentiment was becoming clear to me, way before this election. I decided I would do what I could to spread love or as much love as a repressed person like me could muster. I have had some Muslim friends, but it was time to bring my show on the road.
For instance, at one point, I went to a new pet store. I learned it was Palestinian-owned. As a Jewish person, I decided this would be my chance to bring healing to the Middle East. “I will always get my kitty litter here,” I decided proudly. I brought my cat nip toys to the counter and envisioned myself winning the Nobel Peace Prize. The iconic photo of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin shaking hands of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat after their peace agreement came to mind. Except my face was superimposed on Begin’s. Then on the west side of the pet store, I built settlements. (Just kidding.)
Since this election, and the increased targeting of Muslims, I have upped my singlehandedly-bringing-peace-to-the-world game. I was at a grocery store at Christmas time and asked the cashier, “What are you celebrating now? Ramadan? [the Muslim holiday]” First error: Ramadan is in the summer. I failed from the get-go. The cashier said, “I’m Hindu.” As I want to be a liberal and open-minded person, I almost punched myself in the face for the false assumption. Instead, I screamed, “I’m sorry!” five times in a row. To top it off, after he told me he was Hindu, I said this: “That is a great religion.” What? How condescending it that? Here I am trying to make love trump hate, and I’m just making everyone awkward.
But I won’t stop trying. So, I beg you, please don’t judge me and my feeble attempts. I am trying to heal America one retail store at a time.
Hilary Schwartz is a comedian and writer based in NYC with love (and hate) for politics. She is a regular contributor to Political Storm.