I'm A Muslim Woman & Activist, And I Shouldn't Have to Grow Thick Skin For It

Naaz Modan

Newly minted, naïve, and taping up the rumpled corners of my Banksy poster onto the dormitory walls, I was still harnessing the early enthusiasm of social activism when she asked. "Is it wrong to get tired of this work?" my roommate, Angie, said wearily.

At the time, I didn't consider myself a social justice advocate, but rather a budding journalist whose work happened to overlap with combating Islamophobia and exposing everyday racism. I had recently decided to take a break from my anti-Islamophobia research internship. Angie's work in social justice long outdated mine, and she recognized in me the early signs of mental fatigue.

I have mulled over her question nearly every day since Trump was elected. Is it wrong to get tired of this work? Our now-president rode into the Oval Office on a wave of anti-minority rhetoric and white supremacist policies that sought to drown the voices of people of color. When Angie asked the question, I wondered to myself: Does a person have an obligation to keep going, when every institutionalized process seems to be built in a way that minimizes or works against your success?

At the time, I thought so.

In this line of work, having thick skin is not optional. It grows itself.

And then, my adamant "yes" to her question — already two years into the process of disintegrating — crumbled entirely. A piece I had written about America's gun problem triggered a wave of threatening emails and Twitter, Instagram and Facebook direct messages. Among the comments were "haji b*tch," "c*nt" and "terrorist piece of sh*t." I was advised to sleep with one eye open, sent creative methods to commit suicide, and described in detail how exactly my genitals should be cut before I was stoned.

Naaz Modan

This was not just one or two comments — they bordered on hundreds, mostly from White men whose toes I had stepped on (I had framed America's gun control problem as one that inevitably intersects with racial politics).

I had already been forced to grow thicker skin than most. As a social justice advocate, thinking constantly about every person of color disenfranchised by American politics takes a toll on your psyche. Every player called "sons of bitches" on a national stage for exercising his Constitutional right; every Muslim woman physically assaulted for wearing the headscarf; every immigrant verbally abused for carving a slice of the American Dream; every Black man fatally shot because of the color of his skin — it is exhausting. And every time you are targeted for challenging the structures that are helping create these experiences, you are reminded of how deep their roots are.

In this line of work, having thick skin is not optional. It grows itself.

Naaz Modan

What I experienced after the publication of my article was not an isolated incident. It was yet another attempt to undermine and silence people of color. Any person challenging White norms has experienced this in some capacity — from activist Linda Sarsour, who is attacked as an "anti-Semite" for her social work, to poet Rupi Kaur, whose bite-sized poetry on racial and social issues that has reverberated in minority communities is mocked by elitists for its lack of complexity. From Obama, whose credibility was undermined by claims that he wasn't born in the U.S. or was Muslim (as if that were a bad thing), to Colin Kaepernick, who was casually called a "son of a bitch" by the president for invoking his Constitutional right.

Just look at what happened when Mattel announced that Ibtihaj Muhammad, the first hijab-wearing Muslim American Olympian, had inspired her own Barbie doll. Within hours, Ann Coulter and her small army came after her on Twitter. And Coulter's tweet — "JIHAD BARBIE! ISIS Ken sold separately" — received 3,900 likes and almost 2,000 retweets over the next few days. Apparently, seeing the name "Muhammed" receive positive recognition, and watching a covered woman of color celebrated as a "Shero," was a moment of victory for Muslims that Coulter and her followers simply could not reckon with.

Naaz Moran

This kind of experience is the bitter pill that people of color are expected to swallow. If we react, if we're upset, if we're furious, we are accused of having "thin skin."

It should not fall on the shoulders of people of color to have to toughen up as a result of standardized bigotry. We should not have to ferment under the psychological and emotional strain that comes with making the choice between walking on eggshells with our grievances in tow, or facing the backlash of White fragility.

As a privileged individual, you might wonder: what can you do to help?

Well, the first step in legitimizing our experiences is this: Acknowledge the scars that years of racism have left on our minds. Do not conceal them, or pretend they're not there. And do not write them off as standalone incidents. They never are.