Los Angeles Times

Shadia: A melting down of prejudices

When you move from one country to another, culture shock is inevitable, especially when you go from one different system and culture to another.

But there were only two things about America's culture that shocked me.

I had been in high school for just a few days when, on my way to a classroom, I spotted a girl making out with a boy.

She could not have been much older than me, 15 at the time.

I found myself embarrassed for them and immediately looked away.

How could she do that at such a young age? And isn't she embarrassed for doing that in front of everyone? Was anyone seeing what I'm seeing?

I looked around. No one seemed to care.

I got over the horror I felt shortly thereafter seeing a few more.

I encountered culture shock a second time in high school when I realized Americans use race and color to describe each other.

The black guy. The white guy. The Mexican. The Asian. And, of course, the A-rab (me).

The skinny girl. The big girl (me again).

In high school other kids didn't say much about who a person was beyond these surface characteristics.

I especially didn't like it when someone told me I wasn't white.

What do you mean? I am white. My skin is white.

But then I understood what white meant. (Arabs come in all colors, but are not considered Caucasian, though they were at one time).

I too am guilty of sometimes referring to people by their race. But I feel awkward about it.

It's not that it is said in a demeaning way or that America's multiculturalism isn't great. But it gives me the feeling that people's race, religion or whatever it is that makes them different is how some define them — at least at first.

And then again, I don't know how people feel when they're referred to by their race or color in casual, but not pejorative, statements.

Growing up, I don't remember anyone describing people by their color or race. In the Middle East, people are usually referred to by their family's name or their profession, or even by how they lead their lives, their actions and deeds.

I think it has a lot to do with how Islam deals with race.

The prophet Muhammad arrived in one of the most tribal societies that ever existed and transformed it in many ways, including melting down prejudices.

I was reminded of the ways the prophet went about eliminating the issue of race when I attended a khutbah (sermon) a couple of months ago. It focused on issues of prejudice and how sometimes people put others down because they're skinny, overweight, black, white, Muslim, Christian, Jewish or their differences in any way, shape or form.

When Bilal ibn Rabah, a black man who was once a slave, was chosen by the prophet as the first "Muezzin" — a person who calls people to prayer — some said they were glad their parents didn't live to see the day when a black man ascended upon the Kaaba.

But Bilal's color was not an issue for the prophet. He was chosen because his voice was the most beautiful when he called the prayer. Bilal was also chosen to teach Arabs, who were very tribal, something about humanity by giving him, a man with a humble background, the honor to stand on one of the most sacred, historic places for Arabs.

Bilal was also one of the most important companions for the prophet.

The prophet would not allow anyone to be belittled in his presence, and he would take the person's insecurity and turn it into a point of pride, the imam said at the khutbah.

The prophet's Jewish wife, Saffiya (Sofia), once told him that some in his household used to refer to her by her race. She was a minority among them, and though she was in fact a Jewish woman, she didn't like how her race was used as a way to distinguish between them and her.

The prophet told her, if they ever repeat it, tell them "my father is Aaron, my uncle is Moses and my husband is Muhammad."

No one aside from her could ever claim such a status, the imam said at the khutbah.

There were many more examples. One about a man who was made fun of because of how skinny his legs were. The prophet told him his legs will weigh more than a mountain on the day of judgment.

Another felt he was worthy of nothing because he was black and illiterate. The prophet told him he was not worthless in the eyes of God.

The point is, it's easy to throw jabs at one another because of our differences, whether they are race, color, gender, religion or disabilities.

But when you look beyond the stereotypes and consider the facts, you're likely to find something extraordinary.

Like Bilal's voice.

MONA SHADIA is a reporter for the Huntington Beach Independent. An Egyptian American, she was born and raised in Cairo and now lives in Orange County. Her column includes various questions and issues facing Muslims in America. Follow her on Twitter @MonaShadia.

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