“Go back to where you came from!”
The man’s voice jolts me from my usually dependably vanilla morning commute. Though I live in South Korea, I am staying in New York City, taking classes and visiting family. His voice is abrupt and harsh, and on a bus that is virtually silent except for the hum of the engine, the hateful words linger in the air, pressing against the ceiling and threatening to blow off the emergency hatch. I look around, half expecting the culprit to be an unkempt man with blood-shot eyes, incoherently rambling to the misfortune of the other passengers.
“Get the hell out of my country and take your filthy terrorist family with you!”
Though the bus is packed with people swaddled in coats, the extra fabric does nothing to absorb the disgust that saturates every word that drips from his mouth. Fur-lined hoods obscure my view, making it difficult to identify the agitator.
The bus is motionless, and the palpable juxtaposition of the man’s voice with the silent crowd makes it even more obvious that the other passengers are holding their breath, tuning into every word while waiting for the person next to them to speak up first. Somehow without moving they manage to shift their bodies away from the confrontation, leaving a halo of space around the man and the target of his hate.
To my surprise, she is a young woman of about 18, wearing a hijab. Her light brown eyes remind me of a doe. And right now, there are pools of tears gathering in them.
I focus my attention on the man. He is well dressed, in his late forties, carrying a suitcase. He looks like he leads a comfortable life. There are no features that outwardly mark him as a racist. He wears no confederate badge nor does he have a swastika tattooed on his neck. Truth be told, the scariest part about him is that he isn’t a caricature – that he could pass for a normal, decent human being if not for this outburst.
I look back at the woman. She is wringing her hands and imploring, “Please stop.”
I see the man grow red in the face and retort, “Nobody on this bus wants you here. They’re all afraid that you’ll shout to your Allah before blowing yourself up or shooting us all to death!” He jabs his finger at her. “You’re the dangerous one. You look so innocent, but we saw it happen in San Bernardino and we saw it happen in Paris, and it’ll only stop if we get rid of all of you.”
My ears are perked, expecting to hear someone speak up and put an end to his bullying. But nobody does. The other passengers remain inert, clutching their phones and swiping their screens, hiding under the transparent guise of busyness. Nobody wants to accept the responsibility of standing up to this public display of hatred.
Our silence is deafening, and the longer it stretches, the more my discomfort grows. I look around, trying to force eye contact with the other passengers, trying to eavesdrop on their thoughts. Am I the only one who is offended? I want to shout, “The longer we wait to come to her aid, the longer we are complicit in her verbal assault and humiliation!” But it is 8:42 a.m. on the crowded, rush hour 151 bus. And although today is no longer unfolding as a vanilla morning, it’s obvious everyone wants to act like it is.
I squirm inside even though I know it’s unlikely that I will be his next target. I wear no hijab and look nothing like the young woman. Instead, I have long, jet black hair that is uncovered, caramel-colored skin, and almond-shaped eyes.
As an American who believes in diversity and the civil rights of all people, I am disturbed by the man’s cruelty. Inside, I itch to raise my voice and defend the woman. But as hard as I try, I can’t produce a sound. I fear that he will find a way to stab me with his nasty words. In truth, I have become as complicit as my fellow commuters; we aren’t committing the wrongdoing ourselves, but we are content just to look the other way.
A voice emerges from the loudspeaker: “This is your bus driver. The disorderly man in the back has violated city bus rules of conduct and must exit the bus immediately. Otherwise, the police will be notified to escort you off.”
Everyone groans and focuses on the man. He gives the young woman a final look of disgust and steps off the bus. But there is no clapping or cheers to usher him out. Instead, everyone goes back to living their day. I watch the young woman dry her eyes. She looks woefully lost, as if in an automatic act of self-defense her mind has become unmoored from her body and set adrift.
I think about this experience the rest of the way to school. Up the stairs to the lockers. Throughout all the group presentations. It keeps creeping into my consciousness even after I resolve to forget about it. It is done. It happened. But I feel so much shame.
When presented with a hypothetical situation, each of us may be convinced of our goodness and commitment to ethics. We say we’ll come to the aid of victims and call out bullies and bigots. We say we’ll take the initiative – that we’ll lead by example. But when a situation presented itself, all I did was hold my breath and wait for someone else to do the right thing.
As I lay in bed that night, I wondered: what good are our morals if we don’t act on them? What chance do American Muslims have to survive in this political climate if even those of us who want to shield them from discrimination can’t rise to the occasion?
Next time I find myself in this situation, I will make my voice heard, even if I feel threatened. I am confident that the law and those who share my optimism for a fair and diverse America will support me.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.