My friend and I were attending a wedding and were put on errand duty for the bride when we detoured into a popular shoe shop chain having been enticed in by the display and promise of discounts. We went into different parts of the shop focusing intently on the shoes available, keen to find a pair for the special evening. I walked past a lady in the aisle and smiled as I always do and thought nothing of the blank look she gave me in response – not everybody likes 'chit chat' while they are shopping I guessed. I had a tickly cough and as luck would have it, I started a coughing fit in the shop. The lady I had just walked past looked me up and down with a look of annoyance while I tried to contain my cough.
I was now walking back looking at the opposite row of shoes and unfortunately the cough had not subsided and the aforementioned lady scowled at me and muttered under her breath “stupid dirty Muslims, you don’t even have manners.” Flabbergasted doesn’t begin to describe the amount of shock I was in. I was completely taken aback and still struggling with my cough. Eventually, I said, “sorry, were you talking to me?” I was certain there was no way she meant to say that out loud and if she did, she wasn’t saying it to me. She responded with “why don’t you go to your own shops in your own bloody country”? I must have gasped in response. Me? Why would somebody speak to 'me' like that? My friend rushed over, put her arm around me and rushed me out of the shop.
It felt like a long time before the penny dropped – this lady had literally judged me by my appearance. I had my hair wrapped and henna tattoos from the bridal celebrations the night before and therefore she had decided I was a Muslim woman who should not be welcomed in the same shop as her. Me - being chatty, smiley, bubbly and me. Yes - teacher me. I said nothing as we walked to the car but my mind was still trying to process what had just happened.
The weight that came next was even heavier as my friend explained that she had found that to be the best way to deal with such bigotry. I felt so ashamed. I am accustomed to living in a society full of individuals that exhibit microaggressions toward me as a Black woman. I was completely unprepared for the sheer hatred that was projected towards me just because I was presumed to be a Muslim black woman. I was ashamed because despite the many years I had known my friend and despite our many excursions in and out of this country, I had never known that that level of absolute resentment and hostility was completely normal to her. People look at her and never see the kindness in her eyes, the generosity in her face or the warmth of her smile – they see a Muslim woman first and therefore feel licensed to abuse her.
I am ashamed that we live in a country that boasts mutual respect and tolerance as one of our values and yet, these sorts of attacks happen on a day to day basis. I am proud of the grace that our Muslim brothers and sisters have shown towards such incidents but until the day of this fateful incident, I believed that these were just rare occurrences. I’m abhorred to find that it happens way too often to members of our profession, members of our families and our closest and dearest friends and it’s only together that we can work to eradicate islamophobia.
The National Education Union is working hard to ensure islamophobia is recognised and action is taken in schools to address the causes of Islamaphobia and take action where incidents occur. My Union works to ensure that all individuals in the workplace are treated fairly in accordance with the Equalities Act. This Black history month, spare a thought for those valued members of our society and our profession who face this crime all too often and let us stand in solidarity to eradicate it.