Today, I wanted to share a bit of a personal story. Since last Tuesday, I feel like an awful lot of people have had a lot of things to say. My Facebook feed has been completely taken over by political statements, jokes, and links to opinion pieces. I didn’t want to write another one. I’ve had a very strong reaction to everything that’s been going on, and while I know I live a very privileged and safe life here in California, I couldn’t necessarily pin-point what exactly I was feeling and why.
It’s just a hat.
Over the last 48 hours, the little voice in my head says that on repeat. It’s just a hat, it’s nothing to worry about. It’s an accessory, it shouldn’t matter so much, but it does…
For those of you who don’t know me away from my little corner of the internet, there’s a bit of craziness in my family. And by craziness, I mean, we’re 100+ Afghan immigrants strong, with the exception of a few people (myself and my European-born mother included). Some fairly awful circumstances forced them out of their homeland, and now here they are, some 35 years later, calling California home.
When I was younger, no one knew where to find Afghanistan on a map. I would, quite literally, have to point it out to them. This quickly changed, and the world I found myself living in post 9/11 seemed decidedly divided. I stopped conversationally telling people where my family was from— I never knew what their reaction was going to be. As a teenager, my parents protected me from peoples’ more horrendous opinions of who we were. I went from my peers smiling and peering curiously at my naan sandwiches, to absorbing the awkward silences that followed the statement that I was, in fact, Middle Eastern.
Last week, as I was dropping my parents off at the airport for a very well-timed vacation, I couldn’t ignore my anxiety. Irrationally, I worried that my father, a Muslim immigrant with an Arabic first name that no one could pronounce, and my mother, a resident alien since the 80’s, might not be able to get back home. I even joked about this with my coworkers in an attempt to mask a deep-seated fear. As they say, some things are only humorous because they point out evident truths: “It’s funny because it’s true!” I laughed because it was better than crying over something that felt like a very real possibility. I still couldn’t forget my father’s hushed tones on the phone late Tuesday night: “We are citizens. This is our home. He can’t legally keep us out.” Like so many people, I’m worried for my family, for those who didn’t speak English very well, dressed differently, and didn’t assimilate like they were “supposed” to.
As I drove up to SFO’s international terminal, my parents and I debriefed their travel plans. I wanted to know when they had arrived safely, and asked them silly things like why their luggage was so heavy. My dad is always unabashedly himself, to a fault. He never hesitates to crack jokes, even in tense moments or situations. With all his stories and personality, my friends recently remarked that he reminded them of the Dos Equis “Most Interesting Man in the World.” Those who know my dad know his unwavering character and quirks. There are few things you’ll find him without. He’s always up to date on current events. He always has some sort of hard candy in his pockets, and he always wears his hat, a decidedly Afghan pakol— inside, outside, rain or shine. When my dad got out of the car on Wednesday, he was missing his hat. I didn’t think very much of it, at first, and he reassured me that he had packed it away safely in his carry on luggage. He suddenly looked smaller, not like himself. I tried to think not much of it when I spotted the book in his hands, written in Dari, on the history of Afghanistan in the 19th century. I also tried not to think too much of it when I took it from him, and packed that away too, like it was a matter of convenience, like I wasn’t nervous that people would see it. It was just a hat, it’s just a book. Just like a hijab is just a square of fabric. Something that’s, in actuality, just a square of fabric can’t be entirely responsible for starting a worldwide backlash against immigrants.
Today, I couldn’t help thinking of my dad without being deeply sad. He’s come thousands of miles, avoided several wars, and relocated his entire family. To this day, he still helps Afghan immigrants get settled in the United States. The people who are worried about their economy, about unknown “outsiders” coming in and threatening their sense of well-being don’t know people like my dad or my mom. Just as we don’t know them. That’s the fundamental disparity here. I certainly try to. I try to think about a place where people are so frightened of losing their jobs or not being able to provide for their families as the main motivation to look the other way when someone in power actively abuses women, minorities, and people in the LGBTQ community. The sad thing here is that so many people have come to this country to escape similar economic climates and discrimination going on in their own countries. We all fundamentally want the same things in life.
But now, all I can focus on is my dad’s favorite hat, and the day he felt it might be unwise to wear it. It’s just a hat, but to me it represented a fact that I’ve known all along: that it’s no longer acceptable to unapologetically be who you are. Ironically enough, I had recently been working on a post on about not apologizing for yourself (“I Ain’t Sorry”), and now, all I want to do is apologize for people. I want to apologize to everyone who’s felt marginalized or hurt by the changes in the country over the last few weeks, regardless of your personal politics. I want to apologize for the grief some people have been experiencing. I want to apologize to those people who have experienced enough fear that it shapes who they are and how they interact with others. I’m sorry, everyone. To me, it might not be just a hat, but I’m hoping that one day that’s all it will be.