The events in Libya this past week once again pushed a minority to the forefront of national dialogue. Tensions flared in the Middle East as anti-American protests manifested in multiple countries. And then, just as the news cycle was dying down from this, a Newsweek cover entitled “Muslim Rage” pushed Islam back into the spotlight.
On Sunday, Sept. 16, I was at a summit for the Coalition for Tuition Equality. The summit included representatives from a wide variety of organizations on campus, and CTE took the opportunity to engage us in a dialogue about social justice.
We were asked to talk about what social justice means to us and what issues of social justice we notice around campus. When this question came up, one of the girls in my small group — Zeinab Khalil, President of the Muslim Students’ Association — made an interesting point. She mentioned that whenever anything Islam-related happened around the world, people automatically expected MSA to comment on it or in some cases condemn it. In many of these instances, the events are far removed from the students involved in MSA — they’re happening on the other side of the world. But still MSA was held to a different standard, being treated not just as a student group, but as something more — as some sort of a corporation or country that was obliged to apologize or condemn or respond to huge national and international political events.
This really struck me. I understand why MSA is in this position. Being a minority, they’re in a unique position to have an opinion on these issues that people want to hear. But, at the same time, it seems people are forgetting that there’s more to MSA as an organization — there’s more to people than their minority status.
I’m Indian, and I remember whenever the caste system used to come up in Social Studies or History classes, teachers and classmates would always look to me for a comment. Even now, in political discussions, whenever South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley or Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal is mentioned, all heads automatically turn my way. For some reason, I’m expected to have thoughts to share with my peers on all things India-related.
The same can be said for the shootings in Wisconsin. While they were a truly tragic event and many Sikh communities took the initiative to speak out on their own, many others also were expected to, by the rest of us, simply because they were the minority that was affected.
And in many cases minorities do have a unique opinion on certain social and political issues, especially those that affect them more directly. But, that’s not to say they have an obligation to talk about these issues every time they come up or even an obligation to be knowledgeable about them. Being a minority is only one part of someone’s identity. We all have varying likes and dislikes and diverse interests.
Another student at the CTE discussion, Brock Grosso from Students Organizing Against Prisons, built on this point. He emphasized how the burden of explaining social injustices and educating people about these issues tends to fall on the minorities affected. It’s true — we look to those who are disadvantaged to educate us about the problems and barriers that they face. We expect Muslims to raise awareness about Islamophobia, Sikhs to educate people on hate crimes or Hispanics to fight the immigration battle.
Being a minority isn’t synonymous with being the face of an issue. Just because someone comes from a background that has ties to an issue doesn’t oblige them to be an expert on the topic by any means. Yes, being of a particular minority gives one a unique perspective on issues that more directly involve that minority. And yes, often minorities share a personal connection to certain issues that can’t be found among others. Should they share their unique perspective? Absolutely. But that doesn’t mean they have to be singled out whenever that issue comes up.
Awareness of social justice issues and political concerns isn’t just the responsibility of the minorities. Regardless of who these issues are impacting, we all have an obligation to be aware of what’s happening in our societies and communities. And if we ever want to make progress in solving these issues, we all have to make efforts to engage in learning about them.
Minorities do come from backgrounds different from the general population — that’s why they are considered a minority. But we often forget that that’s not all they are. Whether it’s a racial minority, ethnic, religious or socioeconomic — being a minority is only one characteristic of identity. And while most minorities don’t mind discussing that aspect of their identity, it’s not something they should automatically be expected to talk about any time an opportunity comes up.
Harsha Nahata can be reached at email@example.com.