What It's Like to Be a Muslim-American Woman in the US Today
For the last two years the volume has risen on populist voices, culminating in a victory for President Trump. The day after his election, this is how "rude" New Yorkers treated one Muslim-American woman.
Amani Al-Khatahtbeh is the founder and editor-in-chief of MuslimGirl.com, the #1 Muslim women’s blog in the United States. She regularly provides commentary on social, cultural, and political issues on outlets like CNN, Al Jazeera, and the BBC, and has been featured in The New York Times, The Guardian, and made Forbes “30 Under 30” list. She is a frequent speaker at conferences and events addressing issues pertaining to women, Islam, and the Arab world. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter at @XOAmani and read more on MuslimGirl.com.
Amani Al-Khatahtbeh: The day after the elections and a completely unforeseen outcome, I think for a lot of us in New York City we felt like we were walking under this pall of confusion and somberness and just trying to make sense of what had just happened. And for me as a Muslim woman I anticipated that I would have an exceptionally hard day.
And yet I was so surprised that the entire day was spent with me receiving the warmest smiles from my people, the kindest gestures, more people than normal amongst the rudest of people in the world, New Yorkers, holding doors open for me or making a nice comment to me like complementing me on my scarf or something like that. And to me it signified that we all have this common understanding, that there are people right now that are being targeted and that we are all responsible for one another and that we have to stand up for each other.
And to me I took those little moments, those tiny exchanges as these signifiers to me that I'm not alone and we understand, and we have your back, and you don't have to worry. And it actually gets me emotional thinking about it, but even though they seem like very inconsequential especially in comparison to what could potentially be happening on a much greater level right now, to me that's what hope is. It's in the people and it's in those interactions that we have with one another and the way that we just have that support for one another.
Especially for a person like me that might feel more vulnerable or is more susceptible to a lot of hate these days, those moments really are the only thing that is keeping me going. It's like, “I can face today; I can like get up in the morning and step out of my house, and it's going to be okay, and I'll make it back tonight.”
And I don't think that people are aware of just how much those little exchanges can really mean to people or how much they can completely turn around a person's day. And honestly even in the midst of everything that we're facing right now and what the next few years could potentially look like for us, I'm still optimistic based off of that alone just because I know I have other people that are standing alongside me and that are going to face this with me together.
When she was nine years old, Amani Al-Khatahtbeh heard her first racial slur, from the mouth of one of her classmates. It was 2001, and 9/11 had just shocked and shattered the US's sense of safety. "I grew up through the worst forms of bullying, through an extremely low self-esteem, and it was very difficult for me to formulate who I was and what my identity meant to me," she says. So what was it like, 15 years later, being an American-Muslim woman in New York the day after President Trump was elected? Braced for the worst, Al-Khatahtbeh left her home and under the grey mood and matching skies of the day, was surprised by warm smiles and kind gestures from strangers in New York City. Even compliments on her headscarf. They were tiny exchanges that signified to her that there was a common understanding, and that hope was where it always has been — in other people.
This video is part of a collaborative series with the Hope & Optimism initiative, which supports interdisciplinary academic research into significant questions that remain under-explored. The three-year initiative will provide over $2 million for philosophers, philosophers of religion, and social scientists to generate original, high-quality, collaborative research on topics related to optimism and hopefulness. Discover the public components of the Hope & Optimism project, and how you can contribute, at hopeoptimism.com.
Amani Al-Khatahtbeh's book is Muslim Girl: A Coming of Age.
Political activism may get people invested in politics, and affect urgently needed change, but it comes at the expense of tolerance and healthy democratic norms.
- Polarization and extreme partisanships have been on the rise in the United States.
- Political psychologist Diana Mutz argues that we need more deliberation, not political activism, to keep our democracy robust.
- Despite increased polarization, Americans still have more in common than we appear to.
Most elderly individuals' brains degrade over time, but some match — or even outperform — younger individuals on cognitive tests.
- "Super-agers" seem to escape the decline in cognitive function that affects most of the elderly population.
- New research suggests this is because of higher functional connectivity in key brain networks.
- It's not clear what the specific reason for this is, but research has uncovered several activities that encourage greater brain health in old age.
At some point in our 20s or 30s, something starts to change in our brains. They begin to shrink a little bit. The myelin that insulates our nerves begins to lose some of its integrity. Fewer and fewer chemical messages get sent as our brains make fewer neurotransmitters.
As we get older, these processes increase. Brain weight decreases by about 5 percent per decade after 40. The frontal lobe and hippocampus — areas related to memory encoding — begin to shrink mainly around 60 or 70. But this is just an unfortunate reality; you can't always be young, and things will begin to break down eventually. That's part of the reason why some individuals think that we should all hope for a life that ends by 75, before the worst effects of time sink in.
But this might be a touch premature. Some lucky individuals seem to resist these destructive forces working on our brains. In cognitive tests, these 80-year-old "super-agers" perform just as well as individuals in their 20s.
Just as sharp as the whippersnappers
To find out what's behind the phenomenon of super-agers, researchers conducted a study examining the brains and cognitive performances of two groups: 41 young adults between the ages of 18 and 35 and 40 older adults between the ages of 60 and 80.
First, the researchers administered a series of cognitive tests, like the California Verbal Learning Test (CVLT) and the Trail Making Test (TMT). Seventeen members of the older group scored at or above the mean scores of the younger group. That is, these 17 could be considered super-agers, performing at the same level as the younger study participants. Aside from these individuals, members of the older group tended to perform less well on the cognitive tests. Then, the researchers scanned all participants' brains in an fMRI, paying special attention to two portions of the brain: the default mode network and the salience network.
The default mode network is, as its name might suggest, a series of brain regions that are active by default — when we're not engaged in a task, they tend to show higher levels of activity. It also appears to be very related to thinking about one's self, thinking about others, as well as aspects of memory and thinking about the future.
The salience network is another network of brain regions, so named because it appears deeply linked to detecting and integrating salient emotional and sensory stimuli. (In neuroscience, saliency refers to how much an item "sticks out"). Both of these networks are also extremely important to overall cognitive function, and in super-agers, the activity in these networks was more coordinated than in their peers.
An image of the brain highlighting the regions associated with the default mode network.
How to ensure brain health in old age
While prior research has identified some genetic influences on how "gracefully" the brain ages, there are likely activities that can encourage brain health. "We hope to identify things we can prescribe for people that would help them be more like a superager," said Bradford Dickerson, one of the researchers in this study, in a statement. "It's not as likely to be a pill as more likely to be recommendations for lifestyle, diet, and exercise. That's one of the long-term goals of this study — to try to help people become superagers if they want to."
To date, there is some preliminary evidence of ways that you can keep your brain younger longer. For instance, more education and a cognitively demanding job predicts having higher cognitive abilities in old age. Generally speaking, the adage of "use it or lose it" appears to hold true; having a cognitively active lifestyle helps to protect your brain in old age. So, it might be tempting to fill your golden years with beer and reruns of CSI, but it's unlikely to help you keep your edge.
Aside from these intuitive ways to keep your brain healthy, regular exercise appears to boost cognitive health in old age, as Dickinson mentioned. Diet is also a protective factor, especially for diets delivering omega-3 fatty acids (which can be found in fish oil), polyphenols (found in dark chocolate!), vitamin D (egg yolks and sunlight), and the B vitamins (meat, eggs, and legumes). There's also evidence that having a healthy social life in old age can protect against cognitive decline.
For many, the physical decline associated with old age is an expected side effect of a life well-lived. But the idea that our intellect will also degrade can be a much scarier reality. Fortunately, the existence of super-agers shows that at the very least, we don't have to accept cognitive decline without a fight.
We have a new range of skills coming to Big Think Edge this week, including communication, critical thinking, and emotional intelligence.
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