Blacks have spoken out about the system of white supremacy and various de facto crimes of being Black in America since the founding of this country. Until recent events sparked what appears to be the re-awakening of a more intense sense of responsibility among elite Black professional athletes, many remained silent as their success had entrapped them in a perpetual state of having too much to lose.
Many of these high-profile professional athletes will be competing at the Rio Olympics, and some Americans wouldn’t find it surprising if a handful use the platform to make statements attempting to unify behind true liberty and justice for all. However, there is not likely to be a more important symbol than one of the athletes competing in a much less popular sport. Muslim-American fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, who takes her messages of tolerance everywhere she goes, is the first American Olympian to compete in a hijab.
Muhammad focuses on the positive when describing what her path to the Olympics has become, but she does not shirk her duty to assert that Muslim Americans and other minorities should enjoy the same rights and protections as anyone else.
“I feel like I owe it to my community, I owe it to people who look like me and fight struggles every day, to hear something different. It’s up to all us to combat these things. I have to speak up because I know there were people before me that did it,” Muhammad told ESPN.
Often reminding herself that she is blessed to be in her position, she refuses to allow other people’s misconceptions to alter her path.
“Something I definitely struggled with as a kid was traveling to different schools and different communities and hearing that I made people uncomfortable because of my skin color, because of my religion,” she says. “Being covered allows people to see me for my skills and my ideas.”
After a recent confrontation during a visit to New York by a man who suspiciously asked if she was going to blow something up, Muhammad posted a picture of her assailant on social media.
“We’re living in a time where people feel comfortable spewing their hate and harassing the innocent on our streets. We need change,” Muhammad tweeted after her incident with the heckler in Times Square.
She recognizes how the rise of Donald Trump has fanned the flames of hate.
“Unfortunately, we have people who are in the presidential race who are providing a platform for hate speech and fear-mongering,” Muhammad told London’s Daily Mail, “and they’re creating a space where it’s acceptable to speak out against immigrants, to speak out against Muslims and to really publicize this inherent racism that I feel a lot of people have. It creates a really scary environment, and I fear for the safety of minorities in our country.”
Though many minorities are contemplating where they would go if America selects Donald Trump as president, Muhammad is not going anywhere.
“I’m American, you know? I’ve never questioned myself as an American or my position here. This is my home. This is who I am. My family has always been here. We’re American by birth. This is all that I know. I feel American to my bones,” she said.