Social Categorization: the process of classifying people into groups based on similar characteristics, whether it be nationality, age, occupation, diagnosis, ethnicity, gender, or some other trait; typically used to emphasize the prevalence of prejudice and stereotypes in society.
Not so long ago, I went to the gym (something that doesn’t happen too often) and I saw the instructor who helps me when I want to make my time there productive. I believe they’re referred to as “trainers” in the US. We were talking when a lady came up to me to ask a question. At some point in the conversation, my heritage came up and I said something about being Bosnian. I looked over at the trainer who looked shocked. I laughed it off but something about it bothered me. My insecurities took over and I told him that I am also Muslim. That did him in. He was speechless. After a few moments, he responded, “Wow! I honestly never expected that.’’ When I saw him again a week later, I just had to ask him what a Muslim was supposed to look like to him. He replied, “dark-skinned (but not too dark skinned!) and for women, a scarf (hijab).”
That interaction made me immediately think, “How sad?” While I’m not angry with him, I am quite perplexed that others tend to label people so easily based on their appearance. I asked someone else the same question and I was given the same response. It was so unexpected. I could not help but think about my little niece— to feel bad for her really—knowing she might have to go through similar interactions with others, having it impact the way she feels about herself because she doesn’t look the way she is apparently “supposed to.” The instructor had assumed that I was a Dutch woman because of my light skin tone and green eyes (eye roll). Of course, there is nothing wrong with being Dutch! It’s more so the thought that I can’t be Muslim because of my looks that I had an issue with. Thanks for those, Mom.
I was born and raised in the Netherlands and I never had a lot of Muslim friends. I went to a Christian school, but my being a Muslim wasn’t a problem. From a very young age, I would get comments on my appearance. I didn’t look like a Muslim (oh gasp, shocker!). And still to this day, I always get comments on my appearance because people don’t understand how the green-eyed girl with the light-skin tone who never shuts up is, in fact, a Muslim. Everyone assumes I am a Dutchwoman. It never bothered me much because I, personally, never saw the importance of this.
But living in a very Christian neighborhood, surrounded by people who weren’t very keen on what is referred to as “bad Muslims,” made it difficult for me to be open and honest. As the hate started to grow towards Muslims, I had to choose between being open with my Muslim identity or just avoiding the topic altogether. I will not lie and tell you I was proud of being Muslim. I wasn’t. I had no Muslim friends and I didn’t want to be outcast by my peers for something that my parents chose for me. Eventually, after lying to myself and others, my conscientiousness on the matter grew and I learned that you should never be ashamed of yourself and also in this case, your beliefs.
The biggest struggle I had to deal with in regards to my appearance happened during primary school. Like I mentioned earlier, I attended a Catholic school, so going to church every now and then was normal. There came a moment when I didn’t want to go anymore. I told my teacher that my dad didn’t want me to go anymore because I found her very scary. She was really tall and had these cat-eyes. She got angry because I was “sabotaging everything,” in her words. To this day, I still have no idea what she meant by that. Moral of the story: I was not special- I was just like the rest, so I had to go to church. But I still didn’t. I used the ‘I am Muslim’ card. She looked at me and started laughing, assuming I was lying. She genuinely did not believe me — because I did not look Muslim. That was the day no one wanted to play with me during recess. They all went to church and I had to stay behind— in a classroom by myself. Needless to say, I felt really alone.
The older I got, the more I started to think about this. Sometimes, I got really annoyed, feeling that some people distanced themselves from me when they learned that I am, in fact, a Muslim. Instead of just talking to me about it, they would act surprised and mask their facial expressions by murmuring, ”Oh boy, I have to go!” and making a quick exit. And let’s not even get into how this impacts conversations/dates with boys. From my experience, they are absolutely the worst when it comes to this. They literally just stop talking. One moment everything is going really well and the next, it’s all over. Just like that. I get labeled. It’s like an invisible sticker is placed on my forehead with the word ”Muslim” on it and a warning that goes with it stating, “Don’t touch it. It bites.”
After my interaction with the trainer, I spent the following week thinking and inquiring: What makes a person look Muslim? Why do we judge and presume things about others based on their looks, race, or gender? Why are people always so shocked when they hear that I am, in fact, a Muslim woman? I asked a lot of people and their answers varied. Some friends (Muslim and non-Muslim), random strangers on the train (since I have no shame in my game), and even another trainer in the fitness center (bless him, he didn’t even understand why I would ask him something like that while sweating like a pig) were all subject to my inquiries. I didn’t really get the concrete answer I was hoping or looking for. Everyone has different ideas and experiences, which makes it hard for there to be a common response let alone a right or wrong answer.
But one thing did stand out to me. Everyone I spoke with about this issue said the same thing, “I always get judged wherever I go.” Sometimes, when you feel that people are treating you differently because of your beliefs, you tend to start believing that most people just don’t understand it simply because their beliefs are different. That is where I went wrong. I totally lost sight of the fact that there are so many people being negatively judged for a variety of reasons: their looks, race, or gender, etc. It’s kind of a vicious cycle; while I feel betrayed that I don’t look like I am supposed to, I too, judge others based on immediate appearances. And it mostly takes place subconsciously.
So, here I am being a philosopher, trying to find out how to motivate people to think outside the box about Muslims without considering that this is happening to so many others I know. How ignorant of me!
This, my friends, is social categorization: we see someone, we recognize things like their race, or physical appearance, and immediately our brains paste a nice-looking sticker on their forehead with the group(s) we place them in and try to make sense of these individuals based on what we know of those categories we feel they belong to. Categorizing can be very negative; stereotyping, discrimination, and racism grow from this behavior. And even though we don’t do it intentionally or consciously (at least I’d hope not), it happens. Just to clarify, being subject to this categorization-process should not affect how you feel about yourself! I felt bad originally because I felt like an outsider, but after doing more research on the topic, reading and talking to others, I found out that even though I am working to break some of the stereotypes held against me, just being me is enough. I don’t wear a hijab and I do some things differently then the stereotypical Muslim woman. That makes me, well, me.
“We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.” -Ernest Hemingway
For more information on social categorization, click here.