Two years ago this week, 51 people were killed and another 49 wounded in an attack on a New Zealand mosque. In Arlington, Mass., where I live, hate graffiti appeared in a local park the day after the massacre. The words scrawled on the pavement appeared to be unintelligible at first glance but referenced those shouted by the gunman before he began shooting down worshippers. On our town’s Facebook pages, some people downplayed the graffiti’s significance and posed alternative interpretations with little consideration for how those words were received by the Muslim neighbors who were targeted.
When I shared my frustration and fears with Muslim friends, their words were filled with powerlessness. “It’s awful,” they said, “but there’s nothing to do about it.” They were convinced that we had no allies and so the best response was to keep our heads down.
Saddened, I confided in my neighbor and friend, Leah, a white woman and the pastor of our neighborhood church. She had a different response, one that I hope my Muslim neighbors and I can internalize: It’s unacceptable to feel threatened or targeted. Address the incident and bring people together as a response to hatred, she encouraged me.
She had a different response, one that I hope my Muslim neighbors and I can internalize: It’s unacceptable to feel threatened or targeted.
She set up meetings at her church with other pastors and the acting head of our local police force and I expressed my concerns about prejudice and safety to them. They, in turn, offered their expertise and help to raise awareness in our community. Their support gave me the momentum to reach out to local Muslim organizations and figures.
Together, we organized an interfaith “Reclaim the Park” town gathering where the graffiti had appeared. Leah wrote and distributed a one-page pamphlet explaining that white supremacist messaging, like the graffiti, was often intentionally designed to be recognizable by other extremists and the groups they targeted, while leaving others confused about its intent. She described how to be an effective ally for communities experiencing bigotry, underlining the need to educate oneself on white supremacist messaging, speaking to young people about the harmful impact of ‘pranks’ mimicking such behavior, and, above all, to take someone seriously when they say they feel threatened.
The incident taught me an important lesson about privilege: Allies are most effective when they deploy their privilege. The refrain of "checking your privilege," sometimes misconstrued as an alienating and unproductive reprimand, should instead be interpreted as an invitation to marshal the powers that privileged people often take for granted to confront injustice on behalf of those who cannot.
Leah’s actions were profoundly important. She recognized that her race and professional position accorded her the privilege of being heard. Leah lent me her voice, organizing expertise and connections in the community so that I, too, could be heard.
She recognized that her race and professional position accorded her the privilege of being heard. Leah lent me her voice ... so that I, too, could be heard.
Privilege has to be leveraged to raise marginalized groups, whether on an international or local scale. Burmese Rohingya Muslims have struggled with targeted crackdowns for decades but it was only when non-Rohingya aid agencies leveraged their reputation for impartiality to articulate the continuing threat and urgent needs of the refugees fleeing genocide that the true extent of the violence they experienced was understood by the international community. The Uighur Muslims in China have faced mass detention in camps where reports of horrific violence have only recently come to light because of international media organizations who have leveraged the privilege of their reputation and risked the consequences by a powerful government to draw attention to their plight.
Leah’s allyship had a multiplier effect. It encouraged me to become a better advocate for myself and others. I still hesitate before I voice my concerns, question whether my position is justified and take more care than is perhaps necessary to plan my actions and words to minimize unintended offense. But now I speak up.
I’ve pointed out problematic racial and religious stereotypes in writing workshops and discussions with fellow graduate students. I’ve brought instances of implicit bias in organizations to the attention of managers and asked them to address these in ways that shift the burden of doing so on them, the owners of privilege. I push back when the validity of my experiences of bias is questioned. I do so with greater vigor when the bias I encounter is directed towards another marginalized person or group because I recognize that I can spend my privilege productively as well. I am trying to show my young children how to own their Muslim voices and raise them, for themselves and others, when the need arises.
Since the New Zealand mosque massacre two years ago, the need to address the continued intolerance of minorities in the U.S. and globally has intensified. One way to honor the victims of the shooting is to support organizations like Muslim Advocates or the Southern Poverty Law Center who do vital work to counter hatred and advocate for minority groups. But we can do more. Privilege accords undeniable power. It is a moral imperative that each one of us seizes the smallest opportunity offered to us to deploy that power and amplify the voices of those struggling to be heard.