Thoughts and Power

by Jeannine Sherman
Monday, February 7, 2022

“When my dreams showed signs
of becoming
politically correct
no unruly images
escaping beyond borders
when walking in the street I found my
themes cut out for me
knew what I would not report
for fear of enemies’ usage
then I began to wonder”

Adrienne Rich, “North American Time”

As Muslims in this country, as American Muslims, we know the scary words, the words we may try to avoid: terrorist, jihad, shariah… What are we afraid of?

Unfortunately, the answer is pretty objectively scary. I’m afraid of saying the wrong thing. I’m afraid of going to prison. Missing opportunities, isolation, losing my job. Torture, humiliation, losing the people I love.

What is the cost of this fear? What have I hesitated to say? What have I failed to write? Author George Saunders talks about regrets1. One of the most common things that people talk about is failures of kindness. Failures of kindness happen when you’re afraid to stand up for someone, afraid to speak up. This fear keeps us in our place. We realize that it’s the wrong thing, but we get trapped by fear.

It’s one thing to hold back what you say, to hesitate before trusting someone, to not speak up. But what happens when I police even my own thoughts?

The Constitution tells us about freedom of speech. I want you to know these rights2. I want you to feel empowered by this knowledge.

And yet how does it feel, in practice, in real life? Do you speak freely? Do you think freely?

You should know about these rights. You should have something to hold onto, something to make you feel safe. But we’ve all heard about the time when the rights didn’t protect. We’ve heard the stories of how quickly those rights can be taken away or how they become irrelevant when someone shoots first. They don’t have any magical power on their own. They exist when we struggle to preserve and enforce them for ourselves and others.

So what do we do? Do we lie low and wait for things to get better, hope to stay off the radar? Maybe, sometimes. I don’t believe in ever judging the person who chooses basic survival, who does what they need to do just to get through the day. I only want to offer that person in that moment a safe haven, a shield or a cover where they can regain strength.

What about anger? Anger can be harmful, sure, but anger can also be the energy we need to make a change. Injustice stirs up this anger, gets this energy moving. Yet for black/brown/Arab men especially, the slightest expression of anger is very quickly translated and perceived as aggression.My son was suspended for joking around with his friend. He thought they were play-fighting, and the friend didn’t. Part of the conversation we had after this was about how he has to double-check himself, be double-good, double-careful. Even a neutral action from a brown or black pre-teen is likely to be perceived as aggressive.

A former colleague of mine told me a similar story about preparing his son to deal with police encounters. This African-American colleague has a law degree. He has some financial security. You’d hope that he would be practicing with his son how to stand up for his rights. But no. They practice keeping their head down, doing anything and everything to avoid appearing threatening. Lots of parents have these talks3.

This kind of conversation makes me sick. It breaks my heart, in a dark kind of way. But I’m still a mom who wants my headstrong child to stay alive. So I try to have these conversations anyhow.

And then, when we’re breathing in all this fear, we arrive at a place where we police our own thoughts. Maybe we’re afraid that the truth of who we are will spill over, even accidentally, and that we’ll be excluded or condemned because of who we are. We should know about our rights. We should learn about freedom of speech. And we also know it’s not that simple. It’s messy, and we have to stick up for each other. We have to cover each other, give each other the benefit of the doubt. This is how communities have protected each other in this country, a path forward. Being willing to struggle for justice shifts the energy, gives you some power, especially if you’re not alone. Let’s find ways to show up for each other. Let’s find the courage.


1
Klein, Ezra. “George Saunders: ‘What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness’”. The Washington
Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2013/08/04/george-saunders-what-i-regretmost-in-my-life-are-failures-of-kindness/
2
ACLU. “Know Your Rights”. https://www.aclu.org/know-your-rights

3
HiHo Kids. “Black Parents Explain How to Deal with Police”. https://youtu.be/DrqufuL6eD8