March 27, 2019

AHMAD | Death Threats Don’t Scare Me

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Long before I became a regular columnist for The Sun, I sent in a letter to the editor about being a Muslim student at Cornell. If I’m being honest, the article could have been a feel-good piece, but it turned out to be more of an angry rant about a series of unpleasant interactions I had during my first year. I’ll admit that it was written somewhat from a place of cynicism, and most definitely from a place of bitterness. Some things weren’t phrased in as polished a way as they could have been, but can you blame me? I was a furious freshman, and an idiot.

Still, the piece was published, and I was proud of it. That is, until I read the onslaught of upset comments that I was sent from an amalgamation of profile picture-less Facebook users. Amongst some choice words and dissenting opinions, I received (drumroll please) my very first death threat!

It truly was, and still is, a momentous occasion in my life — one that I will cherish for years to come. Much like a college acceptance, or your child’s first words, your first death threat is something that you remember fondly until the day you actually do die.

I feel it is customary to state that while I joke about it now, reading that message in the moment was terrifying. The wonderful individual who sent it had managed to find me on Facebook and slid right into the DMs, if you will. I didn’t report it, or tell anyone about it. Instead, I emailed The Sun and asked to have my article removed. Doing so felt like the biggest defeat of my life: Was I really going to let myself be censored by someone who threatened to kill me? I mean, yes. But I wasn’t happy about it.

I proceeded to spend the next few weeks walking around campus mildly paranoid that the end was near, but also increasingly upset that this had even happened. Not only was it unfair, but in a sick, twisted way, it also seemed to prove exactly what my article had been arguing in the first place: Cornell was no post-hate paradise.

In the years since that incident, I’d like to think that I have grown a lot. As the social and political climate in this country has become more tense, I think I have become more mellow. I don’t mean to say that I’m suddenly chill about ignorance and hatred, but I think I’ve stopped letting small acts of them get to me as much as they used to.

I recently listened to an episode of “Congratulations” with Chris D’elia in which he talked about an incident he witnessed at what he jokingly nicknamed the “Racism Cafe.” In the segment, he recounts an uncomfortable exchange between a group of White people and one Black man. D’elia states that he was ready to jump to the defense of the man being targeted, but to his surprise, “the guy didn’t say anything.” D’elia goes on to speculate that maybe snide, subtle and somewhat racialized remarks are just something that Black man had grown accustomed to and just didn’t feel like dealing with on that particular day. Somehow, listening to that, I feel like I knew exactly what that guy from the so-called “Racism Cafe” was thinking.

I think that as a minority, you learn to pick your battles — not just for the sake of your safety, but also for the sake of your sanity. As bad as it sounds, sometimes when a professor absentmindedly gestures towards you when bringing up Islamic terrorism, or when a TA asks if he can shorten your name because he can’t remember how to pronounce it or an advisor tells you not to go into the health care field because of your headscarf, you decide to let it go.

These are all things that have happened over the years, but what made me decide to write this column was a lot more recent. Just a week ago, I overheard a girl behind me in lecture who, after my professor briefly brought up the mass shooting that happened in New Zealand, said to her friend under her breath, “Ugh, are we still talking about this? They’re acting like it was 9/11.”

Yeah, that one hurt. In that moment, I so badly wanted to turn around. I wasn’t even really sure what I would say, but I wanted to say something. Instead, I ignored it. I let that flash of rage pass, and I went on with my life.

I am not going to go so far as to deem all of these incidents racist or Islamophobic, because those aren’t words that I like to throw around. I am also not going to pretend like I feel some sense of moral superiority by ignoring them. Yet despite being painful and problematic, these experiences are not the end of the world. While I wish I didn’t have to be complacent with them, I no longer feel the obligation that I once did to challenge them. I think I’ve realized that I don’t need to be the one pulling others out of their ignorance, and quite frankly, I don’t really want to be either.

At the end of the day, if someone decides to do something as extreme as sending me a death threat, that’s on them. I, for one, am choosing to opt out of being angry.

Faiza Ahmad is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at fahmad@cornellsun.com. The Fifth Column runs every other Wednesday this semester.