It's been eight years. And since then, I've learned that ignorance and discrimination are two sides of the same coin.
It happened in sixth grade after gym class. As we were walking back to the locker rooms, I heard you and your friend snickering behind me. Then, I felt a whoosh of empty air behind my head as you pulled my headscarf off. A week later, in front of your mom, two gym teachers, the vice principal and the school counselor you said it was because you "just wanted to see what was underneath."
My hair was underneath. You saw my hair — black, curly and pinned up in a bun. Then you saw my face, turned around, confusion morphing into shock and then a livid expression. I reached out to grab you by the collar, and looking back, it's almost comical how two guys nearing 5'7" stumbled back from a girl who stood barely five feet tall and wore bright pink scarves to school. In that moment though, you looked scared, and the only thing running through my head was, how dare you?
I already knew what to do. I had already been cautioned: if anyone ever tries to hurt you, tell the teacher. So I mustered up my courage and told, except that the gym teacher didn't think it was a big deal and said, "Tell me if it happens again, and I'll talk to him about it."
I thought, well, maybe it wasn't a big deal, but I still felt oddly betrayed, because all I wanted was an apology — an admission that he had done something wrong which hurt my feelings. This was just the first of many times that adults in school would turn their back on me. I would learn later on to never trust counselors or teachers, to always approach the person in the highest position of power or else no one would care what happened to me, whether it was a small form of discrimination or life-threatening bullies. But in this case, I thought my teacher would knew best, so I didn't mention it to her again.
I let the story slip in Spanish class the next day because it was still on my mind. My Spanish teacher's reaction was instantaneous, "That's horrible! Did you tell the teacher?" When I shared my gym teacher's response, my Spanish teacher exclaimed, "Oh no, that's not right." I felt relieved. Here was an adult who understood how I felt. She could tell me what to do!
Except that she didn't either. She just repeated, "That's not right. I hope that doesn't happen to you again, sweetheart," and began class.
Clearly no one thought this was a big deal, so I was unprepared for the severity of my family's response: "He did what?! Did you tell the teacher?"
A flurry of visits to the vice principal's office and several days later trying to find you (because you had taken a few days off, it turns out), fast forward to the beginning of next week where we stood outside the gym surrounded by a quintet of adults. You stood next to your mom, an esteemed Spanish teacher at the school and a sweet lady who knew how to apologize for something she did not do or appear to understand at all. But I didn't want to hear your mom apologize. I wanted to hear it from you. We all stared, the vice principal gesturing vaguely in your direction as the silence grew.
"I'm sorry," you mumbled, eyes glued to the floor.
You then handed me a crumpled up note and turned away.
Maybe if it had just been you and me standing there, if the vice principal hadn't clapped his hands together to "call it a day," if the counselor hadn't ushered me to the side right after to assure me that I could always "confide" in her (as if I already hadn't before I confided in my parents) and if the gym teachers hadn't strolled right back into the gym with you trailing behind, I would have said: "That's not a proper apology. Look up. Look at me. Look me in the eye. Tell me, what exactly are you sorry about?"
But I didn't, because we were only 12 years old. I didn't know to stand up for myself. I didn't know adults can be just as clueless when it comes to situations like these — that whether it's a quintet of school officials or all 430 white members of Congress, ignorance of other cultures and religions comes in many forms.
That was the first day I was forced to understand, no matter how well-meaning someone may be, ignorance cuts just as deep as the knife of discrimination. Whereas discrimination is a slap to the face, publicly humiliating and openly unfair, ignorance is a stab in the back, because it is naivety that stems from an uncaring heart and an empty mind. Ignorance is as easy as shrugging and saying, "Well, that's too bad. I'm sorry that happened to you," and turning away without a second thought. Ignorance is comfortable and easy. It's sitting on your couch Sunday nights, laughing at late night shows gone politically rouge or tweeting about Trump's latest fiasco and then going to bed without a single proactive thought in your brain — ready to wake up and go to work the next morning to chat about it with your coworkers over a cup of coffee.
Ignorance is as seemingly innocent as a 12-year-old kid scribbling onto crumpled notebook paper, "I'm sorry I took off your hat thing," as if it constitutes as an appropriate apology, as if that's what his mom meant when she said he spent all weekend "researching your 'culture.'"
I don't mean to sound bitter, but to be honest, I am.
I'm bitter because I have to to be OK with your half-hearted apology.
I have to be OK with the fact that you nor any of the adults standing there with us had thought to ask me what it felt like to have my hijab yanked off as if it meant nothing, as if it were nothing more than a decorative piece of cloth that just happened to be on my head.
I have to be OK with it, because we are still living in a world where ignorance is acceptable when it's nothing more than a lazy version of discrimination. The inability to express a genuine interest, no matter how perfunctory, in the identity of another is a lack of empathy — the very essence of humanity.
I have to come to terms with this, and I also have to forgive you. We were only 12, and all you and I knew was to follow the example of the adults around us. But now we're adults. So even if you don't remember, even if you don't really care, please understand just one thing: just as there's no justification for discrimination, there is no excuse for ignorance.