By: Zainab IqbalJune 30, 2021
Below is an excerpt from The Collective, Poynter’s newsletter by journalists of color for journalists of color and our allies. Subscribe here to get it in your inbox the last Wednesday of every month.
When I was covering a protest one day in Brooklyn, an elderly woman came up to me. She was shorter than me, her hair was silver, and she walked with a limp. I can’t remember if she held a cane. I was standing on the side of a crowd that had gathered, with a notepad in one hand, a camera around my shoulder and my press pass around my neck.
Old women at protests are usually sweet and warm. They ask me where I work, what I am covering, where I am from. Sometimes they tell me they like my hijab. And then they ramble on about how they went on their daily walk, saw the protest and just had to join. I always enjoy speaking with old women. So when she approached me, I smiled.
“Did Arabs murder any people today?” she asked. “Did your people burn any pregnant women?”
I was stunned. I couldn’t seem to comprehend what she asked. I stood there, and she stood there, too, staring at me, as if daring me to answer. I think I muttered a “no” until someone approached the woman and told her, “Let’s go walk over there.” She left, but I still stood there.
Later, I would wonder why I hadn’t answered her. I would wonder why I didn’t tell her, “Ma’am, you are racist.” I would wonder why I didn’t educate her. I would wonder why — as a person who encourages others to share with me their truth, as a person who is obsessed with words for a living — no words came out of my own mouth at a time when they should have most.
For the past three and a half years, I have covered everything Brooklyn. From crime, to the opening of a small business, to the pandemic, to lost dogs who later found each other, to politics, to death. Brooklyn is huge and it’s diverse. I live in a neighborhood surrounded by Muslims on one side, Orthodox Jews on the other. Right across from my building is a Roman Catholic church. Brooklyn is the only place I have ever truly known, which is why by default it’s a place that I write about. I try to write stories I never grew up reading, about communities not usually covered by the media. If we don’t share the stories of people in the communities that we belong to, how can we trust anybody else to?
People often write to me online. Sometimes they send an email. They DM me. They comment under my article on Facebook. “Anti-Semite.” “Terrorist.” This is nothing new, and thousands of Muslims experience the same thing. Other Muslim women journalists experience this, too.