The Journal Gazette
Monday, August 26, 2019 1:00 am

Preconceptions set by hyphen limit diversity discussion

Ahmed Abdelmageed

“Why do you [insert question]?”

I've been asked many a variation of the above question. From the seemingly innocuous “Why do you do that?” to the outright belligerent “why do you hate us?”

The “you” in that question is usually in reference to one of the layers of my identity; the ones that precede the hyphen... Muslim-, Palestinian-, Arab-, Immigrant-American.

The question, usually accompanied by an accusatory undertone and a “this is weird” air about it, presupposes that I speak on behalf of that entire hyphenated population. As if my choices in life or the way I express certain things, which are influenced mainly by how, not where, I was brought up, are representative of “them.” The “them” I purportedly represent is seen by the questioner as a monolithic group that does not mesh with, or is antagonistic to, the American way of life.

It is asked, as you may have figured, by someone who does not belong to the group inquired about. Someone who is typically of the majority.

And, unfortunately, it happens way too often.

In my experiences, the above-mentioned questions surrounding my hyphen are frequently employed by those who consider the “other” less than or unworthy. I have witnessed it used, often systemically, to place minorities – such as African-American, Hispanic-American, Asian-American or Arab-Americans – at an arm's length from being just American.

Don't get me wrong, I fully embrace the multiple components of my identity and appreciate their complex intersectionality, but I wholeheartedly reject the use of the hyphen to denote a “less than” status of American. Unfortunately there are more than we would like to admit of those who will always view me, and others like me, as less than, but they are not where I choose to expend my energy. Trying to convince them otherwise is an exercise in futility as their questions are not asked to seek understanding but rather to express their opinion about me.

Now, I understand and fully appreciate the fact that we as human beings are naturally curious. The unfamiliar intrigues us and we seek to understand it. Therefore, I would rather engage those who have questions but are unsure how to ask them. Those who doubt the inflammatory rhetoric they see on traditional and social media. The ones who reject the pressure to fit into an “us” box despite it being tempting and relatively easy for it can be validated and reinforced by their echo chambers.

I'd rather expend my energy on those who refuse what is being peddled and seek truth through understanding.

But we as a society seem to have lost the art of simple, civil conversation. We avoid asking the questions that may expand our understanding in fear of coming across as offensive. We choose not to engage in heated discussions for fear of coming across as defensive. We dance around meaningful conversations to spare ourselves the inconvenience of hurt feelings.

It seems we have bolted down the doors to our silos and replaced intrigue, curiosity and interest with suspicion, anxiousness and fear. And no, you can't hang this on “political correctness” or the “oversensitivity” of people. This is nothing but the product of replacing genuine curiosity and intrigue with crippling, mostly unfounded, fear of the unknown. And that falls squarely on the shoulders of those who choose to stick only with one side of the hyphen over the other.

To better the relationships among our various communities, to enhance the beauty of the mosaic that is the American society, we need to overcome disinformation, hype and unfounded fear. That cannot be accomplished without deep and honest conversations.

Such conversations cannot take place without trust, and trust cannot be established without developing friendships, and friendships do not form when each of us is behind closed doors.

Go out there, assume well of each other, reach across and embrace the beauty of our diversity.

Ahmed Abdelmageed, assistant dean of alumni and community engagement at Manchester University's College of Pharmacy, is a board member with the Indiana Center for Middle East Peace.

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