Breaking Biases & Preventing Prejudices

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co-authored by Andrea Holt and Michael Marry

A few weeks ago, as we were standing in the elevator of a parking garage after a hockey game in Grand Rapids, Michigan, I froze. Michael instantly knew something was wrong. He could see the fear in my eyes as I gestured toward the man that had just entered the elevator. His olive-skin and scruffy beard put me on edge; we were stuck in a confined space with a Muslim man. I have never been so apprehensive.

While I knew intellectually my reactions were wrong, my body still involuntarily reacted in fear. My heart raced, the hair stood up on the back of my neck, my body was poised to flee, and my mind involuntarily considered my impending death (and ways to avoid it).

I did not believe I had any Islamophobic tendencies; I went to high school with many Muslims and was good friends with several of them. Michael and I were taking a class on religion and violence at Grand Valley State University. We spent the majority of the semester discussing how few Muslims are violent. At the beginning of this course, we were asked if any of us had Muslim friends, I rolled my eyes and raised my hand. If you have black friends, you aren't racist; so if you have Muslim friends you aren't Islamophobic, right? I was not Islamophobic.

But there, on that elevator, I was sadly reminded just how deep our biases and prejudices run within us. Similar to our elevator incident, many people's’ adrenaline pumps when seated next to a Muslim on a plane. Despite our best intentions, we often have an irrational fear of people who do not look or act like us. Our fear of Muslims is commonly referred to as “Islamophobia.”

Everyone has biases and prejudices. They are built into our human framework and run deep into our core. These can arise from something as simple as skin tone to something as complex as religious beliefs. While our biases against Muslims are common, and even understandable (due to the media’s portrayal of Islam), this irrational fear is the source of prejudice, bias, hostility, and even violence. As such, they need to be talked about, understood, and rooted out.

Rooting out bias requires a lot more than sifting carefully through the evidence. Sitting in our religion and violence class for the past four months, Professor Kelly James Clark lectured at length about how few Muslims are violent. He threw facts, data, and statistics at us. Honestly, both of us were resistant to his lectures and they had little effect on us (at least not in helping us overcome our Islamophobic tendencies). Studies have shown that when our biases are involved, we resist, rather than tend to, the evidence. We tend to confirm our biases and ignore counter-evidence. However, people can overcome biases when empathy or personal stories are incorporated and provided.

Near the end of the class, our empathy was engaged. We had the privilege to attend Dr. Simran Jeet Singh’s workshop, “Islamophobia, Hate Crimes, and the Racialization of Religious Identity.” Prior to hearing Dr. Singh’s personal accounts and reading current Muslims’ personal stories, we were not aware of how detrimental Islamophobia truly is to Muslims.

At the workshop, he coined the term “apparent Muslim;” a person who is categorized as Muslim because of, say, their skin color and beards, but who does not practice Islam. Dr. Singh, a Sikh, is commonly mistaken as a Muslim due to his olive skin, facial hair, and turban. This idea of “apparent Muslims” is ironic since Islam is one of the most socially and ethnically diverse religions in the world; indeed, most Muslims do not have olive skin, beards, or wear head-coverings. And although Sikhs are not Muslims, acts of intolerance against them are still considered Islamophobic.

Dr. Singh powerfully brought his own personal stories to his presentation. When he was in 5th grade, he went to a roller-skating rink for a birthday celebration where he was promptly kicked out. The owner said, “you can’t skate with that thing on your head,” in reference to his turban. Then, in high school, with anti-Muslim rhetoric on the rise, a referee in a soccer game told Simran he couldn’t play with a turban on because, “I don’t know what weapons you have up under there…You probably have a bomb.”

In the past few months, there has been a spike in Islamophobia, parallel to that immediately following 9-11. Approximately 40 mosques have been vandalized across the United States. Hasel Afshar’s home in Oregon was vandalized and “F*ck Terrorists” was spray painted across his cabinets. Other crimes have been carried out since the inauguration. On March 3, Deep Rai was shot while working on his car after the attacker told him to “go back to his own country.” Rai is currently recovering in the hospital from the nearly fatal shooting.

Participants in Dr. Singh’s workshop were encouraged to have non-argumentative discussions with others in which everyone would honestly acknowledge their biases and prejudices and actively work on breaking them. He suggested these steps: a) listening and observing carefully, b) taking seriously people’s ideas about their own selves, c) respectfully asking difficult questions and most importantly d) recognizing our own biases.

How can we break our biases and prevent our prejudices?

First and most important, talk with a Muslim. Educate yourself, of course, but more importantly, open up dialogue between differing groups (non-Muslims, Muslims and even “apparent Muslims”). One of the best ways to start this dialogue is to break bread together; while sharing a meal, we begin to share our lives, aspirations and beliefs. This can open a door to more complicated conversations about religion.

Speak up against people performing microaggressions: small hostile acts committed against someone based on their race, religion, ethnicity, etc. Calling out prejudiced comments and jargon can help end further violence. When you have a prejudiced thought, acknowledge that it was wrong and try to think about why you had it in the first place. Metacognition--thinking about what, why, and how you think--can help in reducing Islamophobia.

Recognize your own biases, educate yourself and others, ask the hard questions, and always be respectful. By taking these steps you can, and will, begin to break your biases and prevent your prejudices.