Fear, and learning to live with those different from us

Jan. 25, 2017, 8:03 a.m.

For the most part, I’m not shocked or upset when people say they don’t like Muslims. This may be incredibly presumptuous of me (being Muslim and all), but I think I get where they’re coming from.

I’m incredibly (irrationally) suspicious and fearful of men. When I think of men, I think of the 50-year-old guy who propositioned me and tried to follow me home when I was 14 and the guy who groped me on a crowded bus — not the male advisor who paid for my flight to Stanford or the incredible teacher I had sophomore year of high school who I still keep in touch with.

The fact that it’s an irrational fear doesn’t mean it’s entirely unexplainable. Many of my early experiences with men (especially during adolescence) outside of my direct household were negative. And fundamentally, our brain focuses on negative memories and associations more than on positive ones.

I grew up mostly segregated from men, so those negative exposures had an exceptional amount of impact. My culture trains women to be wary and frightened of men, and I spent 18 years in that environment. Fearing men is practically in my genes at this point.

If I could create a world in which I could avoid men for the most part, I would be kind of thrilled. I would be far less uncomfortable in my day-to-day life. I wouldn’t worry (whether reasonably or not) for the safety of myself or others when they go out.

So yes, I feel like I can very much understand why a person would be suspicious of Muslims. I can understand why they fear for their safety. I get why they may not particularly want Muslims immigrating into the country and why they would be horrified to see a Muslim in a government position. When all I heard and saw about men was that they were dangerous, arrogant, manipulative and powerful beings, I didn’t want them around me. I didn’t want them in my school, I didn’t want relationships with them, I didn’t want to sit next to them on public transportation.

I wanted absolutely nothing to do with them.

Here’s the thing, though. We’re both still wrong.

Regardless of how justified and valid our fears are, it cannot be denied that those fears don’t represent the true state of the world. It cannot be denied that those fears negatively affect our lives and the lives of those around us. It cannot be denied that we need to learn the skills necessary to live with those who are very different from ourselves.

I had it pretty easy. It’s not really possible to avoid men. Even my extremely gender-segregated culture, a culture that says that it is a sin for a man and a woman who aren’t married to each other to meet alone (even in a public place), understands this and makes provisions for it.

If I want to live in society, I have to live with men. And if I want to live in American society, I have to learn to live with men in circumstances that would be considered shockingly intimate where I grew up and are very uncomfortable for me. That’s just how this works. This is a personal problem that I’ve (mostly) resolved and I know how to deal with my own discomfort when it resurfaces. I have these skills largely because I wouldn’t be able to function in society otherwise.

I single out people who aren’t fans of Muslims because I primarily identify as Muslim and that was the concrete example I related most to. But this applies to everyone.

People who are not fans of Muslims probably don’t live in a town with a large Muslim population, and if they do, they almost certainly have not interacted with said population of Muslims. And frankly, interacting with people different from and unrelated to you is difficult, to say the least.

The internet is often a hostile place, but engaging with strangers in the physical world is also a pretty dicey proposition. It’s difficult work, but I think it’s also very necessary work. We have to interact with each other. There is no way for anyone to prosper while avoiding people of different races, different genders or different faiths. We have to live with each other, and if we have to do that, we should try to dislike each other as little as possible.


Contact Dabiyyah Agbere at bagbere ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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