Standing in Solidarity with the Victims of the #ChapelHillShooting

by Dee Rene

In 2005, I was a student at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill when a student named Jillian Bandes wrote the following sentence in a column of the campus newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel: “All Arabs should be stripped naked and cavity-searched if they get within 100 yards of an airport…” (Bandes would later be fired from the newspaper for her sentiments.)

The words rolled off my friend’s tongue as she read from the opinion section. The article continued to push for racial profiling of Arabs and Arab-Americans at airports, showing more ignorance and fueling more outrage. When we were done reading the article, we sat in stunned silence. Our usual vibrant lunch table in Lenoir Hall was quiet and pensive. How could this be happening here in America, let alone our college campus?

Students who identified as Arab and the Muslim Student Association were already gearing up to protest. Tears flowed. I was disappointed in my community. We all knew that outside our campus boundaries, we were often profiled, followed, and harassed by police, but inside these walls we lived in a Carolina Blue bubble of diversity and acceptance.

The bubble was shattered that day.

A year later, my phone would go off with friends and family asking, “Are you okay?” Mohammed Reza Taheri-azar wanted to “avenge the deaths and murders of Muslims around the world,” so he drove his SUV through the Pit, a popular campus gathering place. No one was killed but several people were injured. His attack came a month after the campus paper published an original cartoon featuring the Prophet Muhammad, an insulting act of violation for many followers of Islam.

Protests flooded campus and the surrounding community. This was before the explosion of social media and every news outlet still showed up on our lawn as students and residents demanded the incident be labeled an “act of terrorism.” Muslim students—and many who were assumed to be Muslim—were profiled and harassed constantly after this incident. The actions of one man, acting alone, were being used to cast a broad stereotype about Muslim students and UNC community members. My disappointment grew heavier.

This week, again, I am disappointed in a community I love so dearly. Three Muslim residents of Chapel Hill, NC were shot in the head by a white man supposedly over an ongoing parking dispute. Like many, I only found out through social media, as mainstream news outlets were silent until the story began trending under the Twitter hashtag #ChapelHillShooting. The same news teams that showed up in 2006 and nodded along side protesters to label the Pit incident as an act of terrorism were noticeably absent this time. Three people’s lives were taken from them by senseless violence, but where was the outrage? Where was the news coverage? Why wasn’t this also labeled an act of terrorism?

Although there are still lots of rumors about how the murders will be handled in the court of law, one thing is clear: people are much less hesitant to call them hate crimes or terrorism because the perpetrator was a white male. And many within the pristine Southern town of Chapel Hill refuse to acknowledge that racism towards Arab-American and/or Muslim residents has been a problem for years. There were many protests and op-ed pieces to frame Taheri-azar’s SUV attack as a hate crime and act of terror. But now that the identities of the victim and the aggressor are reversed, what’s going to happen? Will the outcry be the same?

When acts of terror against one minority group are either not acknowledged or not given the same attention as those focusing on white victims, it gives permission for other violent acts to take place. We cannot remain silent on issues of racism and oppression, even when the crimes are not committed only against black people. As the famous Lilla Watson quote intimates, all of our liberation is bound up together.

As someone with the privilege to practice my religion openly with a sense of pride and without the threat of backlash—but who does suffer the consequences of living in this world as a woman with dark skin—I know that this is so much bigger than a dispute gone wrong over a parking space in a small college town.

There is an anti-Muslim bias in Chapel Hill that has permeated the area for years. The murders of Chapel Hill residents Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, and his wife Yusor Mohammad, 21, as well as Yusor’s sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, of Raleigh are hate crimes and acts of terror.

I hope that finally the community that I love so dearly will begin to address the systemic, ingrained racism and prejudice that seeks to take away from the beauty of Chapel Hill. It’s time we stand up against this type of racialized, Islamophobic violence.

As we work to mend our community, I wish peace to the victims, their families, and loved ones.

Read more about the Chapel Hill shootings and follow the conversation on Twitter: #chapelhillshootings.

Dee Rene is a connoisseur of snacks and brunch. Her focus is holding onto faith in all the things that make us laugh, cry and cuss. Follow me her on Twitter: @deerene_.

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