How ISU Students, Faculty Confronted Their Own Prejudices After 9/11
Since the 9/11 attacks, xenophobia and violence have increased against Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim, and South Asian individuals within the United States. In the Bloomington-Normal community, this has made an impact on many.
As the 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, several people at Illinois State University say they still have to deal with fear and slander evoked by the memory of the attacks and the hate speech that followed demonizing a large segment of the world population.
The Arab and Middle Eastern Journalists Association (AMEJA) reports Muslims make up one of the largest diverse faith groups — representing numerous races, genders, ethnicities, and nations of origin.
The FBI reported 566 total anti-Muslim hate crimes in 2001 after 9/11. Anti-Muslim hate crimes declined in the United States after 2001 until 2017, when the FBI reported 426 hate crimes following former President Trump's travel ban from seven predominately Muslim nations.
The numbers declined more in recent years, and in 2020, the FBI reported 134 anti-Muslim hate crimes.
Illinois State University conservation biology and zoology student Alexis Herr says when she was a little girl she was afraid at airports or when she saw people wearing hijabs or turbans in public.
“Obviously as I’ve grown up, I’ve learned from other people that that’s not something to be afraid of. It was kind of instilled watching the news and watching that these people were supposed to be scary and bad. As a little kid, nobody told me any different. Nobody was like ‘Oh no. You're not supposed to be afraid of them. They’re just people. They're Americans too.'"
Herr says one of the ways she grew out of prejudice was through watching documentaries and taking history courses. She says she realized that her initial fear was irrational and based on false stereotypes. Herr says educating herself greatly reduced her personal bias.
Navy veteran and current ISU journalism student Jake Alkire says he remembers the immediate xenophobia that arose after the attacks. Alkire says he is ashamed to admit it, but he used racial, xenophobic and Islamophobic slurs after 9/11.
Over time, Alkire began to ask himself why one religious group was viewed as better than another. He began to reflect on the demeaning talk in his surroundings.
“I remember certain people in my life saying that we should just drop nuclear weapons on the entire area and turn the place into a glass parking lot. That idea was always just so foreign to me. Obviously, as a human, there are innocent humans over there. I started to ask questions about, ‘Why must we always hate so much? Why this vitriolic hate?’”
Now, Alkire says it is important to understand other cultures and not make harmful generalizations. He says given his personal growth, he believes others can change too.
“The world is so much bigger than we could imagine, and there’s so much out there to experience, and if you just give someone a chance ... sitting down at a table and eating with other cultures, it breaks down those barriers. Break bread with somebody. You'll start to see that we all breath the same air. We all bleed the same blood. If you can’t do that, man you've got some growing up to do.”
Parallels To Asian Americans During COVID
Many of the people at ISU interviewed for this story say the racism and stereotyping after the 9/11 attacks and since is eerily similar to the hate and misinformation that has targeted the Asian American community since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think it’s absolutely terrible how we take something that is so terrible and instead of accepting everyone who's having a hard time with it, we isolate a group of people who have really have nothing to do with it," said ISU special education student Zoe Smith. "I’m sure those Islamic (Muslim) people who were dealing with maybe deaths in their own family and now on top of it, they’re dealing with blatant racism.”
Smith says in moments where it's easy to want to point a finger, it’s important to not blame isolated events on large groups of people or make generalizations.
Sara Piotrowski was a student at ISU during the 9/11 attacks. Today she's coordinator of student teaching for ISU's history and social sciences education program.
Piotrowski said she clearly remembers Islamophobia arising in the United States after 9/11. Piotrowski says she has also seen evidence of negative mindsets towards Muslims in the last several years following President Trump’s 2017 Muslim travel ban.
“It feels like other times in history that we have blamed an entire gender, race, religion. This is another part of our history that we do have to teach about. This is a new type of racism, and it is important that our students understand why it happens and how you can take a stand against it.”
Piotrowski says she encourages individuals to be bold and stand up against racism and xenophobia when one sees or hears it.
“Let’s be antiracist. Instead of saying, ‘Oh, I’m just going to set back,’ saying when you see it and asking them, ‘Where they got that information from? Why do you have that opinion?'"
Piotrowski says people may be entitled to their opinions, but if those involve hate towards someone else, then it’s not informed by knowledge.