#TBT: The Evolution of an Activist - We Have Options
I'VE BEEN AN ACTIVIST.
an activist is someone who takes a politically active approach to evaluating and, when necessary, challenging the status quo.
everything about my identity is political,
NOW MORE THAN EVER
as an Arab Muslim woman in America, ACTIVISM IS IN MY BLOOD.
as a little girl, I was hyperaware of my identity as an arab muslim in a predominantly white/christian school. 9/11 only heightened that awareness. when emily, one of my white classmates, told my [white] best friend that she didn't want to sit next to me in class because "arabs cheat on everything. how do you think Rima gets all a's?" being an activist meant that I decided not to entertain or internalize her racism. when that same girl randomly came up to me and aggressively said "Jesus is god's son!" being an activist meant coming to the realization that Emily likely came from a household where hateful speech about arab muslims was circulated. when I was convinced that my zionist 3rd grade teacher didn't like me, that she was mean to me for no reason, I told my mom. my mom urged me to give her the benefit of the doubt. I was skeptical, but I agreed to do so anyway. being an activist meant that I was forced to be empathetic early on.
being an activist meant I had to apologize on others' behalves, even if they weren't sorry
as a pre-teen, I was tired of carrying the burden of apology everywhere I went. despite the fact that I was still attending predominantly white schools at the time, most of my friends became arab.. I just felt I could breathe easier that way, and I decided that I didn't want to apologize about that preference either. this was also the time when I noticed that my parents preferred to listen to non-american news outlets, that they were always watching the news to begin with. being an activist as a pre-teen meant developing a deep understanding of the single stories that exist about people who looked like me and my family, people who have last-names like mine. it meant that we had to tune into the news twice as much because of the implications it always had on us. that we had to watch the news through our eyes and through their eyes, too. just to know what we were dealing with. being an activist meant that I respected my parents' decision to filter out as much of the fake news as possible. it meant trusting my intuition when I felt racism, that someone didn't have to say it for me to know it was there.
being an activist as a preteen meant that, regardless what Fox News said, I was proud to be an arab muslim
I moved on to attend fordson high school, the largest public high school in Dearborn with a 95%+ arab/muslim student body. although my identity was nurtured by my peers, high school was when things got real for me. my father was the first arab muslim (let alone immigrant) principal at fordson. for years, fordson's demographics made it a magnet for so-called educators who sought to infiltrate my community with their islamaphobic agendas. aside from robbing us of a quality education because they refused to teach, many tried to convert students and convince us that we were doomed to hell because we were muslim. my father's leadership and reformist policies indirectly threw a wrench in their hateful agenda. my father was about the kids. every single decision he made as a principal was to ensure his students were getting the education that was rightfully theirs. not used to being held accountable for doing their jobs, many of the racist staff called my father a terrorist, an islamic extremist who wanted to spread "sharia law" throughout fordson. they even went so far as to file [empty] lawsuits against him, hoping the pressure would get him to leave the building. members of the board of education later admitted to my father that they flagged every stroke on his keyboard in hopes that he would give them some ammo to work with. media outlets nationwide branded him with all sorts of names and flat out lies. you can google his name if you don't believe me. I won't include any of those links here because, quite honestly, it breaks my heart to know that those disgusting headlines outlived the most beautiful man I know.
during this time, many of my teachers would make defamatory remarks about my father during class, waiting to see if I would speak up, knowing that I wouldn't, but hoping that I would. hoping for some drama. hoping they would get me riled up so I could be another angry arab in their sick story. in my first few years of adolescence, I was so afraid to perpetuate their defamation of him, of us, I didn't want to give them the ammo they were looking for. I would be seething in anger, but I would look down and nervously doodle on my notepad, praying for the bell to ring. I did what I thought I should do and bit my tongue until it bled. I wouldn't even tell my father about these horrible experiences because I wanted to protect him from them. I didn't want him to worry about me. in those moments, being an activist meant being a silent observer, documenting my experiences, and making sure I was a model-student because it would kill me to give them anything to say about him.
at that time, being an activist meant I played by the rules, at least until I could figure out how to create my own
I got really, really tired of biting my tongue. by my senior year of high school, I began to understand racism, bigotry and islamophobia on a completely different level. baba habibi tried to protect me from these stories, but he didn't realize I was already so aware of what was going on. I understood the game that many of the adults in the building were playing. baba didn't know that, in many ways, I was playing too. I knew they wanted him out so badly. I knew they were doing everything in their power to stress him out, so I figured why not have my fun. I finally created my own rules.
they used to ask me things like:
1- "your father's job is so stressful, he must come home and take it out on you somehow! how are things for you at home?
2-"rima, your dad goes to Lebanon every year! what does he even do while he's there?"
the one that broke my heart the most was from my favorite teacher at the time:
3- "my god rima. you are just such a great kid. you're such a nice person...I-I-i just don't understand it!"
I stopped responding with decorum. I stopped playing dumb. I decided I would start addressing the root of their questioning:
1- "my dad takes out his stress by napping every day at 3:30. when he's particularly stressed, he asks my mom for advice. but I don't think you care about that - do you want me to tell you that my father is abusive?"
2- "my dad goes to lebanon to visit family and enjoy some peace and quiet in our village, but I think what you really want to ask is whether my father is affiliated with terrorist activity."
3- "why are you so surprised? haven't you met my parents?"
in those moments, activism meant finding my voice, holding a mirror to their racist faces, and channelling my feelings of anger and resentment in a productive way.
activism as an adolescent meant that I had to grow up twice as fast in order to be ready for the real [racist] world I was about to enter
my high school experiences were preparing me for the "otherness" I felt as a student of color on a predominantly white campus. they prepared me to understand the imposter syndrome that myself and many of my peers of color were experiencing. those experiences prepared me to deal with my racist peers at michigan, and they helped me quickly determine my passions and purpose. my commitment to justice and education. by my senior year at Michigan, I became extremely active on campus, co-founding the first column for and by students of color. ACTIVISM AT THAT TIME MEANT THAT I attended every protest I could, ACTIVELY POSTED ABOUT SOCIAL ISSUES ON MY MEDIA CHANNELS, CHECKED STUDENTS IN MY CLASSES FOR SAYING IGNORANT THINGS, you know, the loud-in-your-face kind of activism.
DURING THIS TIME, I WAS CONVINCED I was at the peak of my activism. THAT BEING AN ACTIVIST WOULD ALWAYS include some form of rage. that rage, if channeled appropriately, would always lead to revolution.
but teaching changed everything. I immediately learned that THERE WAS NO ROOM FOR ANGER IN a CLASSROOM. THERE WAS NO ROOM FOR ANGER while WORKING WITH OTHER EDUCATORS - EVEN THE DO-GOODER KIND, OR THE FLAT-OUT RACIST kind. TEACHING FORCED ME TO SET MY EGO aSIDE AND LEARN TO WORK WITH PEOPLE ACROSS LINES OF vast DIFFERENCE, IN HOPES THAT I COULD urge THEM TO PRODUCE BETTER OUTCOMES FOR THEIR STUDENTS. I WALKED INTO THE CLASSROOM SO ANGRY AT THE WORLD, AND WALKED OUT A BETTER LOVER. MY STUDENTS NEEDED A DIFFERENT FORM OF ACTIVISM. THEY DIDN'T NEED FOR ME TO IMPOSE MY ANGER ONTO THEM. it wasn't about me anymore. AS BLACK STUDENTS GROWING UP IN WHITE America, THEY WOULD SURELY HAVE ENOUGH ANGER OF THEIR OWN. many of them already did. BEING AN ACTIVIST then MEANT I WORKED MY ASS OFF TO ENSURE I WAS PROVIDING MY STUDENTS WITH the TOOLKIT, RESOURCES AND NETWORK THAT COULD HELP THEM NAVIGATE WHITE AMERICA. BEING AN ACTIVIST MEANT I NEEDED TO WORK THROUGH MY PERSONAL TRAUMAS IN DEALING WITH RACIST WHITE EDUCATORS IN ORDER TO best WORK WITH THEM to ensure we were putting our students first in all that we do.
TEACHING TAUGHT ME THAT, AS AN ACTIVIST, I HAD OPTIONS. that SOME WERE BETTER THAN OTHERS.
I WAS IN A ROOM WITH A BUNCH OF COLLEAGUES A FEW MONTHS AGO, WHEN ONE OF THEM PULLED UP A PICTURE OF ME AT A college PROTEST (above) AND POINTED TO IT LIKE: "I HOPE YOU NEVER FORGET ABOUT THIS "RIMA." WHERE IS SHE AT?" I LAUGHED AND BRUSHED IT OFF, BUT IT MADE ME REALIZE that I HAVE CHANGED drastically OVER THE YEARS. SHOULD I FEEL guilty THAT I'm NOT OUT IN THE STREETS? CAN I EVEN CALL MYSELF AN ACTIVIST ANYMORE? IS IT BAD THAT I'm NOT POSTING political STATUSES ON Facebook OR WRITING ARTICLES about politics DURING TIMES AS TURBULENT AS THESE?
I THOUGHT ABOUT THIS FOR A WHILE. I'm STILL THINKING ABOUT IT. AND THIS IS WHAT I've COME UP WITH.
ACTIVISM TAKES JUST AS MUCH INTERNAL WORK AS EXTERNAL WORK. FOR ME, THE MOST REVOLUTIONARY THING I CAN DO TODAY IS TO LOVE IN THE FACE OF HATRED, IN THE FACE OF FEAR. in this way, I AM MORE OF AN ACTIVIST today THAN I EVER WAS. I CHOOSE LOVE IN A WORLD THAT IS CONSTANTLY CHOOSING HATRED. I QUITE LITERALLY EMBODY THE CHANGE I WANT TO SEE IN THE WORLD, EVERY DAY. I POUR MY HEART OUT ON THESE PAGES IN HOPES THAT MY TRUTHS will enable others to follow suit. to love more. today, activism means that I write. it means that I love myself and others fearlessly. even those who don't love me back, especially them.
being an activist today means that i do the internal work necessary to heal and make room in my heart for anyone and everyone.
activism can take so many forms, but what form is right for you?
what form is right for today? for right now?
I don't think there is any right way to be an activist, but I do think that effective activism requires we work on ourselves first and foremost. that we are constantly asking ourselves those difficult questions and holding ourselves accountable to finding the answers: why am I here? what is the best way for me to contribute to this cause? should I be using my voice right now or amplifying others' instead? who am I uniquely positioned to serve? who am I uniquely positioned to change? have I set my ego to the side? what is my purpose?
WE ALL HAVE OPTIONS.
REGARDLESS YOUR APPROACH, JUST MAKE SURE YOU CHOOSE TO EVOLVE IN YOUR ACTIVISM.