It's no secret that the flames of racism and bigotry have been burning wild in recent months, particularly in the US. Donald Trump's presidential campaign felt rooted in prejudice and was followed by an election that has left a nation completely divided, and like many, I've had my own preconceptions about the residents of red states. As an Iranian woman, such preconceptions were rooted in fear. It's hard not to feel like the days of passive-aggressive racism are gone and replaced by a more aggressive sense of validated ignorance and violence.
Prior to the election myself and two peers from Mexico decided to shoot a documentary of our experience visiting the South together. We wanted to showcase humanity, and to challenge our own perceptions and ideas established on media portrayals. After Trump's travel ban, stories poured out about families forced apart, people being detained and sent away at airports, and even Canadian citizens were having their phones searched by border officials. Despite my dual Canadian-Iranian citizenship, I no longer felt comfortable traveling to the US. We put the idea aside, and decided to wait and see exactly where the world was headed before putting ourselves into a potentially precarious situation.
Connor Sheets, a reporter from Alabama published our story on a state news site, AL.com. We had an engaging conversation about the intentions of the film, bigotry in America, and the devastating consequences of Trump's travel ban. Within minutes of the article being posted, hundreds of commenters were calling me a "snowflake" and telling me to keep my "Muslim ass" in Canada, despite the article clearly stating that I wasn't Muslim. Some went as far as saying I lied about not being Muslim because I saw Americans as "infidels," and my personal favourite, that the story was "fake news." I can't say I didn't see it coming, but that's what bothered me most. It's the predictability of the hatred that makes it hard to not feel defeated by it. Even though we only wanted to spread compassion, it didn't look like we'd receive much back.
Seeing hateful comment after comment, putting the project aside suddenly seemed like the sensible choice. I realize that comment sections aren't always indicative of society's finest, but it still gave validation to the generalizations I was rooting against. We weren't looking to interact with extreme Trump devotees, or to expose racism and Nazi culture in America; we've already seen plenty of that on social media these days, and even within the White House cabinet. We were hoping for the opposite outcome: thoughtful dialogue. I logged off, wondering if we would have even been successful in finding any Southern hospitality.
Without expecting any good to come from it, I checked my messages later that night, and saw, to my surprise, over 35 messages from people in Alabama who had seen the article and had decided to reach out to me personally. Through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn I was assured by men and women of various ages that we would be welcomed, if not by everyone, then certainly by them. We were invited to meet with them, to discuss life and politics, to have dinner with their families, and almost everyone said they would help out in some way if it meant that we would reconsider shelving the project.
Among the messages, Ellen Sullivan, a filmmaker, writer, publisher and lawyer expressed her sadness that the project had been put on the backburner. "If there was a quintessential time for you to make your documentary, reaching out to the people of the southern US—reaching beyond stereotypes, beyond the packaged characterizations of the news, beyond the attempts of the current political regime here to divide us—wouldn't that time be now?"
Ellen was right. I realized that I had given into a fear-based idea because of internet trolls and Donald Trump's administration. Despite the countless hostile comments from people hiding behind anonymous avatars, I'd received something that out shined all of that; the good of humanity spoke louder (and more eloquently) than the people who did nothing but spew hate. It has dawned on me over the past month that people will show up when it counts, but sometimes it needs to get ugly first.
Right now, more than ever, is the time to fight against the things that tear us apart, and to find unity amongst each other. Despite this setback, I was proven wrong by people who openly reached out to me, wanting to prove that they didn't believe the misconceptions about us, and that they hoped we could do the same for them.
In the face of alarming, disillusioning, and at times even disgusting rhetoric of an administration fueled by bigotry, people have found the courage to stand up and speak up. It's essential that we find common ground with one another so the world can move past this, hopefully stronger than we once were. My short stint trending on a news site from Alabama demonstrated this to me. At the end of the day the trolls are just trolls; they are ultimately weak, and they will crumble when the compassionate people of the world come together to find understanding within each other.
Lead photo by Dennis Van Tine/ABACAPRESS.COM
Follow Shadi Bozorg on Twitter.