I have a child who is getting ready to apply to colleges now, and that is making me go back and ponder many things about my own college application experience. This has me thinking about how we fully belong in, and are excluded from, the communities that we think of as our home.
I was fortunate to be accepted to a school that I really had my heart set on. It was rated as one of the best universities in the country. I was thrilled to be pursing my future there. The summer before starting my first year, I received the customary “welcome to your university” package. It included a form that asked for personal information about my background and interests so that the school could help match me with interest groups.
There was a form that asked (voluntarily, of course) about my racial and ethnic background. I looked at the few options that it provided me: white, African American, Asian (including Pacific Islander), Hispanic, other. I remember my 17-year-old mind racing: Politically I identified with the legacy of Malcolm X, but I was not African American. I am ethnically Iranian, which is in Asia, but that is not the Asian that most people mean. I am surely not White (even though many Iranians jokingly and not-jokingly insist that we are “Caucasian” because the Caucasus mountains are so close to Iran.) I’m also not Hispanic. So I ended up checking the “other” box. Checking “other” didn’t seem as satisfactory as having a named box, but those were all the options I had.
It was even stranger for the optional religious background page. It too, was voluntary. It was a page with boxes attached to letters A to Z. Each letter was attached to a different religious tradition or denomination: Catholic was there, so was Greek Orthodox; Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian; Hindu, Buddhist, Zen, Confucian, Taoist; Native American, Zoroastrian, Bahá’í; Agnostic and Atheist. I kept looking over the list, but there was no box for “Islam” or “Muslim.” At that time (1988), there was no way for me to self-identify as Muslim at this major American university. Quite reluctantly, I checked out the very last box, “Other, non-Protestant.”
A few weeks later, I got my response from the University. It read:
“Dear Omid Safi,
We welcome you to the… University class of 1992. You are a cherished member of our incoming class. Based on your own self-identification, you are an Other, Other Non-Protestant. We will make every effort to match you with interest groups that match your background.”
Other, Other Non-Protestant. Those words haunted me for years. Other, Other Non-Protestant. I was 17 years old, and the institution that I was about to enter had identified me as an “other, other.” As the child of immigrants I wasn’t sure what I was. I was fairly certain I was not an “other, other.” I may be a lot of other things, but I am not an “other, other.”
I am not your other.
I was a shy, reserved kid who was always told by my immigrant parents not to cause problems. Yet I felt called to action. I walked into the registrar’s office and demanded to have my own boxes on that form. I said: “I am fairly certain that I can’t be the only Muslim student here. There must be more of us, and I want us to be identified.”
I was told: “We really would like to be helpful. But we can’t, because we have already assigned all the letters of the alphabet. We have no box for you.”
Being a fairly bright kid I didn’t take that as an answer, and I said: “Reprogram the form. Instead of A to Z, do one from AA to ZZ. That would give you 26×26, which is over 600 boxes.”
The registrar ladies, who were actually lovely ladies (we got to be friends over the years) said: “Omid, we would really like to help you, but you see, to reprogram all of these self-identification forms would cost us a huge amount of money, as we would have to reprogram thousands of students’ forms.”
Undeterred, I went all the way to the vice president of student life, pleaded my case, and eventually we got the forms changed.
This is not a story about individual persistence. Nor is it an “Omid vs. the World” story. It is an issue of what happens when we are seen, in both private and public settings.
Being seen for who we truly are in private and intimate relationships is the stuff of friendships and love. Being seen in public for who we truly are is about belonging. When we are seen in public, our humanity is seen. Our identity is seen. There is a being, a becoming, and a sense of community.
When we are unseen, invisible, we become less. Less than human. This not being seen has consequences. It is not about a letter or a box. It has communal consequences. It has institutional and economic consequences, as well as moral and spiritual ones.
In our university, Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish students had physical buildings devoted to their worship. They had ministers, priests, and rabbis. They had lists of alumni that went back decades. The university had a dedicated list of fundraisers who would cultivate relationships with these alumni, asking them to donate funds to expand programming for these Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic students.
As for the Muslim students, though we were there at the university, we were institutionally invisible. There was no list of Muslim students. No list of Muslim alumni. No physical space for Muslim students. And no one to spiritually mentor the Muslim students. We were, for decades, invisible, unseen.
This is what many of my colleagues do not understand. Christians, men, white folks do not face this situation. Women, African Americans, gay/lesbian folks, Muslims have understood this for decades. There are institutional consequences for this having been “unseen.”
It is not a level playing field. It has not ever been, and it is not level today. This is the difference between a simple affirmation of “diversity” and a genuine commitment to creating a level playing field for those who have been systematically and structurally marginalized for years, for decades.
And it is not about whether individuals are individually kind, loving, accepting, “liberal,” etc. It is a matter of systems and structures that offer an unearned privileged to some at the expense of others.
My experience is not unique. African Americans have had similar experiences, having been historically kept out of white institutions. Many of the elite universities of course excluded women till two generations ago. Jews and others used to face discriminatory practices as well. In some cases the legacy of these exclusions remains till today.
Many of us want to build the Beloved Community. Yes, that work begins with each of us, where we are seen, validated, and engaged. And that day will come when none of us are seen as other (or “other, other non-Protestant”).
I remember a saying:
How are we to treat others?
There are no others.
To get to that point, we have to change our hearts, our actions, our institutions, and our policies.