Commentary: Stand in solidarity against bigotry and prejudice

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In recent months, the Southern Poverty Law Center has reported a nationwide spike in incidents of harassment against minorities, particularly immigrants and African-Americans.

Sadly, Vermont too, has seen examples: the Islamic Society of Vermont posted on its Facebook page a letter vowing to try to prevent the future entry of Muslims in this country. And hatred has also found other targets: someone scrawled swastikas on the door of Havurah House, which belongs to a Jewish congregation in Addison County; an anti-Semitic flier surfaced in Burlington and a school-board member posted anti-immigrant comments on his Facebook page; and parents have reported bigotry directed at themselves and their children, both immigrants and children of color.

Such harassment, usually anonymous, is all but impossible to confront head-on.

But two different Vermont-based initiatives are responding not by direct confrontation but by expressing solidarity with the victims.

In response to reports of harassment and even assault on Muslim women, particularly those wearing headscarves, I started a Facebook group, WearaheadscarfJan.20, encouraging members to wear headscarves on Jan. 20 to show support and solidarity to not only Muslim women, but all targets of bigotry. WearaheadscarfJan.20, is public and open to all.

Response among online commenters has not been uniformly positive. First is the question of the hijab itself.

While many Muslim women wear it proudly to show respect for their religion, it's also true that many Muslims — men as well as women — and others are ambivalent about the wearing of the hijab, seeing it as a symbol of the suppression of women's freedom to express themselves. However, those people are probably not the ones bullying women wearing the hijab.

There's also a question about cultural appropriation: what might it mean if non-Muslims wear a hijab, even to express solidarity? I wonder if a simple headscarf can be a visible sign of solidarity for not only Muslim women in their hijabs, but also Singh men harassed in their turbans, immigrants harassed for the way they dress or the language they speak, and people of color who are targeted simply for being who they are.

Another online group, the Facebook group called Local Love Brigade, first formed in early December to send support, in the form of postcards with hearts on them, to the Islamic Society of Vermont. The group's Facebook page describes its mission very simply: "to band together when there is an incident of hate and respond with giant helpings of love."

The effort soon expanded to support many other groups as well as individuals, including an African-American girl who was told, "you're rude because you're black." And the idea has caught on quickly: the group now has more than 1,000 members, and it has added Vermont to its name, since there are now Local Love Brigades in four other states.

What these two initiatives share is that they're positive and completely nonviolent.

They also have social media in common: Facebook provides a structure and a growth model for their informal, decentralized organization, as members post their ideas and activities and read those of others. In the dark of winter these initiatives, which require only individual energy and goodwill, allow New Englanders to take positive, collective action without ever leaving the house, as people across the region and even across the globe can simply send a postcard or wear a headscarf on a given day to stand up to bigotry.

This was adapted from a commentary that aired on Vermont Public Radio on Jan. 3, 2017. Maggie Brown Cassidy is a regular contributor to the Reformer. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.

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