This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
I was recently accused of stealing a bottle of water at a grocery store in Salt Lake City. After the police frisked and exonerated me, a bystander jokingly inferred that my beard may have triggered something. My beard and my brown skin have forced me to confront the assumption that I may be Middle Eastern.
I'm from Nepal, a South Asian, but that's not how most people in Utah see me. In the American imagination, Asians have ancestral origins in East Asia, and Pakistanis and Afghans, also South Asians, are lumped together in the broad category of Middle Eastern. Unless I define my national identity in precise words, I have to live with the assumption that I'm Middle Eastern and all the negative stereotypes associated with it. When the store clerk called 911, he described me as "Probably Middle Eastern. Muslim."
Not every Middle Eastern is Muslim, but that's a nuance lost on many Americans, let alone the language and cultural disparities between South Asian and Arab Muslims. It's easier to fuse all identities and banish them to the territory of outsiders. I don't have any problem in being mistaken as a Muslim, but while discrimination and hate crimes against Muslims are heinous, racism caused by mistaken identities poses a unique problem. Racial violence against Sikhs since 9/11 has been well documented, including the shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin that claimed six lives in 2012. Without a turban, I'm not as visibly different, but if an uninformed person or a bigot doesn't care for finer distinctions, why should I have to justify that I'm not Muslim? Wouldn't that be acknowledging a perceived threat?
I grew up in Nepal, where Muslims are perennially alienated. They make up less than 5 percent of the country's population of more than 25 million, dominated by upper-caste Hindus. In education and health care, Muslims are among the most disadvantaged groups. According to Al-Jazeera, "only 26 percent of Muslim women in Nepal are literate the national average for women is 55 percent." Lack of state funding for Islamic schools is cited as a key reason. Maternal mortality ratio is highest among Muslim women, as per a USAID report. In 2008, a mosque was bombed by a nationalist Hindu group, killing two and injuring dozens. Growing up as an upper-caste Hindu, I was trained to view Muslims with suspicion. Now an atheist, I'm assumed to be a trouble-making Muslim in America, faced with the predicament of proving my identity in unusual places.
The day after the latest terror attack in Berlin, my treadmill neighbor at the gym seemed disturbed by the images on cable news. Shaking his head, he kept looking at me. Perhaps it was an impulse to reach out to a fellow human in a moment of tragedy, but I read his overture as an attempt to test my allegiance. "What's happening is terrible," I said. "If you don't mind my asking, what's your background?" he asked.
I told him I was Muslim. The lie was not an altruistic act of solidarity. It was knee-jerk, caused by my slight annoyance at what I perceived to be an intrusion. But I quickly regretted it, and needing to squelch unnecessary attention, I added, "ISIS should be destroyed."
Author Pamela Meyer says that lying is a co-operative act. "It has no power by its mere utterance. Its power emerges when someone else agrees to believe the lie." When the man I had just lied to said, "We need more like you," I wondered if I'd done right by providing a narrative he had hoped to hear.
Stigmatized communities must endure what sociologists call "phantom acceptance," where their implicit behavioral codes have to be just right not too angry, not too brown. By making Muslims palatable to an average white American, I may have misrepresented the genuine pains of a maligned group. But the lie awakened in me a bigger truth. Instead of trying too hard to prove that I'm not a Muslim, sometimes I should just pretend that I am. The point is not to deceive. It is to internalize the notion: So what even if I were?
Ranjan Adiga is an assistant professor of creative writing at Westminster College. His stories have been published in Story Quarterly and South Asian Review.