The Perpetuation of Prejudice: The Chapel Hill Shootings
The wind is bitterly cold and blows sharply in the night. Somewhere above us, a bird caws a long and solitary cry that echoes across campus. Thousands of students, faculty, and town residents huddle together trembling, with heads bowed and hands shielding the tiny flame of their candles.
Despite the vast number of people at the vigil, it is completely silent. So silent, in fact, that I can hear the wax of the girl’s candle beside me as it hits the ground, leaving blood red splatters.
The town of Chapel Hill has long been known as an accepting environment, a haven for diversity. A home to the nation’s oldest public university, we pride ourselves on our open-mindedness and continual efforts to acknowledge and celebrate cultural differences. There are student organizations for everything from Paganism to Sikhism; we celebrate Holi Moli on campus in the spring; and every classroom discussion begins with the golden rule – be open-minded about your classmates’ beliefs and opinions, because disrespect will not be tolerated.
That’s why the murders of Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Razan Abu-Salha, three Muslim college students, have shaken Chapel Hill to its very core. Our tight-knit community of tolerance and respect has been permeated by hate. We are not infallible. And it hurts.
Deah, Yusor, and Razan were shot execution-style at their place of residence in Chapel Hill on Tuesday night. The murderer was their neighbor, Craig Stephen Hicks, a 46-year old man who was known to go on rants against radical religion on his Facebook page. While Chapel Hill Police say that the motive for the murders was a dispute over parking arrangements, family members of the victims say that Hicks had threatened the students before, often waving a gun.
Deah was a dentistry student at UNC who performed fundraising for Syrian refugees in Turkey. Yusor was entering the UNC School of Dentistry in the fall. She and Deah had been married for approximately six weeks. And Razan, Yusor’s sister, was a design student at North Carolina State.
As the thousands of mourners stand clustered in the Pit on UNC’s campus, pictures of the three students flash on a screen. Yusor is seen dancing with her father on her wedding day just a few weeks ago, and her smile is blinding. Deah stands in front of the basketball court in the Dean E. Smith Center with a grin from ear to ear. And every face in the crowd looks absolutely shattered.
I didn’t know any of the victims personally. My undergraduate classroom buildings are far from graduate schools, and you don’t typically see future doctors or dentists living in dormitories. I had never heard their names before the day of the murders, and yet I could not quit crying once I heard the news.
Chapel Hill has seen other tragedies recently. Just a few days ago, we lost the legendary coach Dean Smith to dementia. Earlier this year, we lost sportscaster and proud Tar Heel fan Stuart Scott to cancer. Eve Carson, UNC student body president, was brutally murdered in 2008. And yet, for some reason, this heartache hit me harder than any of the tragedies before.
Part of it is that as I go through college, I become more and more painfully aware of the repercussions of people’s actions. I realize now that senseless violence can happen anytime and anywhere, without warning, and to the best of people, and the concept of three bright lives being unnecessarily snuffed out is unbearable.
But the largest part of my sorrow stems from the fact that I’ve seen this kind of hate first-hand, and understand how easily it can be perpetrated. Before I go any further, let me emphasize this: we still aren’t sure that this was a hate crime, that these three students were targeted due to their religious beliefs, and we may never know for sure. But in a country where the apprehension towards Islam is increasingly apparent in the media and elsewhere, it would be naïve to let a neighborly dispute take center stage and sweep the larger issue at hand under the rug.
I will receive my degree in Religious Studies from UNC in May. I was asked multiple times when I declared my major what I was going to do with it. “Do you want to be a preacher?” “What jobs hire Religious Studies majors?” “Is it even worth the effort?” And to begin with, I didn’t have any answers (except the first one – being a preacher was not in the cards for me). I just knew that I thoroughly enjoyed it, and that the discussions I had in my religion classes stimulated me creatively in a way that nothing had ever done before.
For the first time, I was able to hear new opinions on issues I had always been puzzled with, but from different vantage points. There were people in my classes from all sorts of cultures, and professors with life experiences that I will never have. I was completely out of my element, and I loved every second of it.
I also began to learn that prejudice is, in many ways, a very delicate thing. It’s not often that people scream their hatred in the streets, or resort to terrible acts of violence – and when they do, we call them extremists. But behind the carefully laid backdrop of society, the one painted with phrases like, “Everybody’s equal” or, “It’s what’s on the inside that counts”, the ones that we’ve heard since kindergarten, there are dried layers of paint underneath. We tell our children not to judge a book by its cover; but by doing so, we insinuate that some covers are better than others, and the mark of a good person is to look past that. “It’s not the hijab that counts, it’s what’s underneath it!” We assume there is something inherently flawed with not looking the part, not playing the part of a red-blooded, hot-dog-eating American, and that those flaws must be compensated for with outstanding character. As if Deah, Yusor, and Razan were to be missed even more because they were outstanding citizens and students, even though they were Muslim. Language is powerful.
To learn how much of my life revolved around cultural constructs – arbitrary guidelines put in place by humans no different than myself, with their own motivations – was astonishing. And coming down from the high of Western superiority was awfully sobering. I found myself becoming angry at the public school system for not teaching me more about the world around me – there was so much I didn’t know, and all I had learned thus far was the ways that America was better. I had to reconstruct my definition of “better”, and, eventually, abandon it altogether.
And so, with every class discussion in the Religious Studies department, I was slowly dismantling the walls of the limited world-view I inherited from my small-town USA lifestyle, and building up a new one on a foundation of respect and open-mindedness. The world suddenly seemed much bigger, and I couldn’t get enough.
But as the world got bigger, it also got scarier. It became more and more unfair. I realized that my own privilege as a white, Christian, cisgendered female had protected me from so much already. The body I was born into is a good one by society’s standards, and my mainstream cultural identity doesn’t cause any unwanted ripples. Lucky me.
As I stood in the crowd at the candlelight vigil, I’ll admit that I was a bit distracted, despite my grief. I had a very uneasy feeling about the security and safety of the event. After all, Deah, Yusor, and Razan were killed in their own homes – what could stop another gun-toting “extremist” from walking to the Pit and using supporters as target practice.
But when all of this is said and done – when it’s no longer on the front page of CNN, when the burials are complete and our Facebook feeds are no longer flooded with memorial posts – I will have the luxury of never having to give hate crimes a second thought, if I so choose. If it is this emotionally exhausting to feel heartbroken for the victims, and to feel worried for my own safety, I cannot imagine how hard it is to live every day with constant acknowledgment of my country’s prejudice against me, be it subtle or blatant.
That is why my experience with Religious Studies has been so terribly crucial. Religious Studies scholars focus on similarities and differences, on potential origins and influences, on scriptures and deities and cultic sites to learn how the world around us has been influenced by religion. But even more importantly , Religious Studies scholars investigate the ways in which religious communities provide infrastructure for the ways that people live their lives.
While the customs and traditions of Islam are important, what’s even more interesting is to study the subtle undercurrents that influence day-to-day lives and bind together religious communities. Deah, Yusor, and Razan were generous souls who wanted to help those in need. Such motivations are more indicative of the human condition as a whole rather than individual belief systems.
At the vigil tonight, Chapel Hill was described as a “melting pot.” My professor Dr. David Lambert believes that term is outdated. It insinuates that we take all of the vibrant and unique religions and cultures of the world and put them into a blender, and what we’re left with is a bland and assimilated mixture. While the intentions may be golden, ignoring our differences will only make us afraid of them.
Instead of a melting pot, I think of Chapel Hill as a mosaic. There are people of different colors, different religions, and different upbringings, and we can preserve those pockets of diversity while still making a beautiful picture. In my religion courses at UNC, my entire world-view was reconstructed using bricks that I gathered from a wide range of people and opinions. And as long as I’m able to, I want to remain a student of Religious Studies and continue building that perspective as diversely as possible.
In the future, when people ask me about the usefulness of my Religious Studies degree, I will tell them the story of Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Razan Abu-Salha, and how fear can be powerful, but knowledge and understanding still prevails. I will tell them that the only way to prevent prejudice is to be aware of how it’s perpetrated, in ways as bold as murder and as subtle as an averted gaze. I will tell them that it is our responsibility as citizens to learn about all the things that motivate and affect human decisions – whether those things are founded in religion or not.
Because when you’re standing in a crowd of thousands at a candlelight vigil on a cold night, our differences don’t seem that different at all.
Lauren Sutton is a senior Biology and Religious Studies major at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She uses journalism as a way to dive into her interests of science and religion, and as a way to explore the connections between the two. She can be found on Twitter at @laurenxeli.