Learning How to Be a Minority
Saturday, June 1, 2019
danyal tahseen with models on stage at the hijab fashion show

Being involved in Trinity’s Muslim Student Association (MSA) has defined much of my undergraduate journey. People often ask me the question, “What do you notice is different ever since you moved to America?” I’ve never been able to answer that question with enough justice. I was raised most of my life in Pakistan, a Muslim country. It’s crazy to have spent 18 years in a space where most of the people share the same beliefs and customs as me. Even crazier was to form my identity there and then come in to a space where my community’s right to exist is consistently under question. Immigrating meant that I had to learn to be a minority for the first time in my life. I couldn’t just say what I want, I couldn’t just talk about Ramadan and expect people to know what it is, and I couldn’t write Islamophobia off as a distant problem delivered through a screen—I had to actually endure it.

My first year at Trinity, I quickly learned how people’s expressions would change when I mentioned I was Muslim. Their eyes would widen, their breath would quicken. I could hear them thinking: “What do I say next?” I was slowly conditioned to think, “Maybe I should be quieter about my identity.” I have to admit how surprised I’ve been at the lack of a Muslim community at Trinity. I wasn’t sure if I was unique or just lonely. 

This isolating reality first hit me during my first Ramadan at Trinity. In Pakistan, Ramadan was a huge moment for bonding and community where everyone could share what it feels like to be in pain. At sunset, entire families and even neighborhoods would come together to break their fast, share food, and celebrate each other’s company. My first Ramadan at Trinity, though? Having no Muslim friends or family here, I waited for the Ramadan app on my iPhone to tell me when it was time to eat. I spent my first Ramadan microwaving Hot Pockets in my dorm rather than celebrating it with people who could understand. I ran into a friend two hours later who said, “Oh isn’t it Rama-damn today?” It seems silly in retrospect, but at that time, when he said that to me after I was starving for 14 hours alone, with no one to share that pain with, I just really wanted to throw a Hot Pocket at him.

The cold truth is, as a minority, your culture may not matter to most people unless they find a way to commodify it. They don’t care about—or even dislike—hijabs until Vogue declares it’s cool to wear a headscarf. They don’t care about the challenges of having dark skin or ethnic features until Ariana Grande gets a tan. People on this campus have told me that they don’t like the smell of my mom’s cooking, but once it’s a trend, the same people tell me ”OMG, I love nan bread. Have you tried it?” Some people will try to cherry-pick the parts of your culture that serve their aesthetic, without caring about the story behind it.

During my first year, I was in a mass media class when a student said, “I just read this article about how Muslims shouldn’t hold political office because their values conflict with the Constitution and, by the way, don’t they hate gay people?” My breath quickened. Imagine, for the first time in your life, having your identity questioned in a room where no one else shared it. Imagine, in one instant, losing the small part of you that always wanted to believe that discrimination against your kind only existed on TV. It took every bit of courage in me, as a young, timid first-year, to stop hiding my identity and speak up. I said, “I’m sorry you’ve had reason to believe these things are true. I don’t want to change your mind, but as someone who has been raised Muslim and is actually part of that community, I want to offer my perspective.”

That experience in my mass media class is what encouraged me to take on a leadership role for my community on campus and revive the Muslim Student Association (MSA). This role was a big turning point for me. I stopped complaining about how “no one gets me” and tried to turn my negative experiences into an opportunity to pinpoint what misconceptions people hold. During Hijab Awareness Month, someone posted onto the Trinity Overheard page that no feminist should support wearing a hijab because it symbolized female oppression. I subsequently started a conversation with that person. I don’t think I changed their mind, but I tried to use that conversation to productively raise awareness about what the hijab represents to Muslim women—something a lot of people genuinely don’t know. That experience is what spawned the Hijab Fashion Show that’s been part of MSA’s biggest event, Henna Night (now called Nur Night), for the past 3 years.

Danyal Tahseen '19 helped host events as part of the Muslim Student Association.

For every moment of triumph, I’ve felt many moments of exhaustion and defeat during my tenure as president of MSA. I’ll hear about the awful atrocities afflicting Muslims in Burma; about Christchurch; about the Muslims in China that are being sent to concentration camps and having their every move watched. Imagine organizing events about these atrocities and watching your peers coming in, not to offer you compassion, but to take the free food at your event and leave. Imagine your closest friends never even coming at all. Imagine hosting a discussion panel about what it means to be Muslim, as if you must translate your experience in order for it to deserve validity. Imagine how difficult it is to talk over and over again about the hateful things people have said to you. Imagine seeing people only ask you about your life when it’s for extra credit. Imagine overhearing people ask why the Muslims on campus aren’t doing more—all five of us. 

So when people ask me, “What do you notice is different ever since you moved to America?”... I guess I’m what’s different. I often get stuck explaining myself in spaces where I feel like the other. Carrying that responsibility has never seemed fair, but I’ve learned to find power in it. I hope that the next generation of Muslim students who come to Trinity will have an easier time. I hope that they don’t have to defend their religion during a class about newspapers. I hope they don’t have to promise free samosas every time they want their stories to be heard. I hope they don’t have to eat Hot Pockets in their room for the biggest religious holiday of the year, but rather have a community to share that joy with. Most of all, I hope they have people like you who continue to care and listen to their stories.

The tail end of my undergraduate journey has seen many promising changes thanks to the establishment of the new Diversity and Inclusion Office (DIO). The DIO, under the comforting and visionary leadership of its director, Alli Roman, has finally given a voice to people like me. Among many things, Alli has taught me the therapeutic power of storytelling. Her panels and workshops have equipped me with the language and terminology to talk about racial experiences that I would always bottle inside. I’ve realized that opening up about my life can be empowering, and not just a laborious way to educate others who may or may not be receptive. As an ally and advocate for underrepresented identities, it’s tempting but unproductive to measure your success by the number of eyes you open. It is much more valuable to normalize uncomfortable conversations so all sides can be more aware.

Through the DIO, I found a renewed attitude that I carried with me into the school year, and found company to foster that. Due to my role as president of MSA, I became a member of the DIO advisory board and sat down for monthly meetings alongside the leaders of every other cultural, racial, and identity-oriented organization on campus. To my left, I had the president of PRIDE. To my right, I had the president of the Black Student Union. It was like being on Celebrity Big Brother: Activist edition! It was so cathartic to, for the first time, be connected with other student leaders who understood the unique struggle of serving as voices for communities that aren’t usually heard. I felt like these walls had broken down around me and I was finally surrounded by people who were fighting similar battles. 

At the same time, seeing the amazing work these other students had done for their respective communities reminded me that my work as an activist matters. And most importantly, being in such great company taught me a very humbling lesson: I realized that so much of my work as president of MSA was directed towards issues facing the Muslim community, rather than paying attention to being an ally for all other marginalized communities. Being involved with the DIO has helped me appreciate the hardships of other groups and actively participate in their battles, too. It also started conversations on intersectionality and empowered students who belonged to multiple communities, rather than feeling like they have to subscribe to one particular identity to fit in the social climate on campus.

Outside of the advisory board meetings and discussion panels, I also started visiting the DIO to study or hang out with other students, many of whom are also culturally conscious. The DIO has become not only a lynchpin for educational initiatives and workshops on allyship, but also just a great physical space to chat with people I don’t normally share classes with. In doing so, I’ve found a space and community that I’ve struggled to find in my social circles as a STEM student where these issues often get overlooked or downplayed. It always confused me why privilege was suddenly too difficult of a topic for people who want to make a living on quantum physics or genetic engineering. The DIO has finally given me the company of people who make me feel comfortable sharing my story and, in reciprocation, become more educated by listening to theirs. This increased sensitivity to other identities empowered me to have deeper relationships with my residents as an RA, and enabled me to respectfully intervene when I witnessed moments of insensitivity within and outside the residence halls. 

It is particularly powerful to have a DIO on campus to serve as a conduit between minority voices and administrative bodies. During my first year at Trinity, I had concerns about dining issues at Mabee. As a Muslim, I am not allowed to consume pork or bacon. Because of the small Muslim population on campus, there wasn’t much communication made to the dining staff about the dietary restrictions we faced. There were numerous times when I was served unlabeled meat and was unable to find answers about what I was being given. There were even a couple occasions when the lack of care in compartmentalizing ingredients led to pieces of pork finding their way into my veggie omelette. It is incredibly difficult to convey how distressing it is to a Muslim to be halfway through a meal and to find a piece of pork in your teeth. I made attempts to communicate with staff at the dining and administrative level how much this affected me, but I was told it would’ve been too “cost-prohibitive” to make changes that only mattered to a handful of students. Yet through the DIO, I was able to find a voice that was supported by the campus, and that voice helped drive change. Aramark has now imposed regulations on labeling and handling of their meats and pledged to be more sensitive in general towards dietary constraints of students, especially on religious and cultural grounds.

As I prepared to graduate, my very last days at Trinity fell during the holy month of Ramadan. During my freshman year, you’ll remember how I had no one else to experience the pain, patience, and palliation that comes with fasting the entire day and then sitting down together for a hard-earned meal. During my senior year, MSA received invitations from the chaplain and professors Sajida Jalalzai, Tahir Naqvi, and Habiba Noor to their homes for a collective dinner. A group of us got together right before the break of dawn to share a last bite in preparation for a full day of fasting. I had the honor of leading my Muslim peers in prayer. It warmed my heart to see the Trinity student body and faculty coming together for Ramadan and Eid, celebrating it as more than just ‘Muslim Christmas’. I will now have a semblance of the community I enjoyed in Pakistan. Thinking back to the freshman version of myself eating microwaved food alone in my room after 14 hours of fasting, I will finally rediscover the childish joy of sharing a well-deserved Hot Pocket.

Danyal Tahseen '19 (third from left) celebrates Iftar with friends and professors.

Danyal Tahseen '19 helped tell Trinity's story as an intern with Strategic Communications and Marketing.

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