Late Saturday night, I was walking up to the ATM on Church Street and South University Avenue, when a SUV full of drunk men yelled at me, “Fuck you, Afghanistan bitch!” I kept walking, ignoring this eloquent comment. They targeted me because I was wearing my keffiyeh, a checkered Palestine solidarity scarf, which is not in any way related to Afghanistan. I’m white and Jewish, yet I still experienced anti-Muslim racism.
When I reached the ATM, I felt something hit my shoulder, possibly a plastic bottle. I turned around to respond and was only met with more belligerent yelling. As I went to write down the car’s license plate number, I noticed a police car right behind them. The cops either failed to notice what happened or simply ignored the incident. The SUV full of boys turned off the road, and the police drove off like nothing happened.
Ironically, I had just left an uplifting workshop at the Trotter House called the Arab Community Summit, which was sponsored by Multi Ethnic Student Affairs. The session foretold my experience with the group of drunk men: It was about the prevalence of anti-Arab racism at the University.
In the workshop, a Palestinian student told the story of being silenced and called an extremist in her classes, regardless of the subject, after pro-Israel students realized her heritage and ganged up on her. Another Arab student described sitting in class behind two non-Arab students while they discussed how Israel should kill all Palestinians to make more room for Israel’s economy.
Make no mistake: Anti-Arab racism is alive and well in Ann Arbor.
The day after the incident at the ATM, I told a friend about it. In turn, she relayed a story of a friend on campus, a black woman, who was called the n-word while walking down an Ann Arbor street last month.
I am a hip-hop artist and community activist based in Detroit, but I was raised in Ann Arbor. I know from growing up here that this undercurrent of racism is deep, and it goes well beyond anti-Arab hatred.
Beneath Ann Arbor’s facade as a liberal safe haven, the police disproportionately criminalize communities of color and poor people. There’s a landfill on Ellsworth located across the street from low-income housing. And who can forget the historic moments in 1996 and 1998 when the city allowed the Ku Klux Klan to demonstrate on the roof of City Hall.
So how can these problems be addressed? The following are some of the solutions that were put forward by Arab Summit participants on Nov. 10, as well as students of race-related organizations throughout Ann Arbor:
First, we must speak out. These are only isolated incidents if we let them go undocumented. Second, student organizations should address hate crimes through programs and action. Third, change the race and ethnicity requirement at the University to an anti-oppression requirement. Such a requirement would educate students on how being privileged or harmed by systems of oppression can influence their mentality. This requirement would also support students in figuring out their role in ending racial oppression.
Beyond changes on campus, we must establish truth and reconciliation commissions, modeled after South Africa’s post-apartheid resolution process – a process that is now being applied across America in communities that are no longer willing to sweep ongoing injustices under the carpet. Without addressing past wrongs, power dynamics will continue to be asymmetric, and the racial hierarchy will remain unchanged.
Ilana Weaver is an Ann Arbor-raised, Detroit-based emcee and activist.