Khalid Latif – Love and Understanding
Khalid Latif, the youngest-ever NYPD chaplain, shares an important lesson he learned during the tragic 9/11 terrorist attacks that forced him to see beyond the surface level of life.
A plane has flown into the World Trade Center. Moments earlier I had gone through the middle of our campus, which is situated around a park called Washington Square Park and it was completely empty. Now when I walked out with my classmates there was probably about 10 or 12 thousand people that were standing in that park. There was a lot of noise, a lot of commotion, people were trying to figure out what was going on, and all of the sudden, we got hit with this very heavy silence as we watched the second plane fly into the towers.
What felt like an eternity, but was really just moments, as instantaneously as it had hit us, it shattered into pieces and everybody went in numerous directions. I walked back into my dorm and I overheard people who lived on my floor saying things to the extent of we need to gather up all of the muslims and send them out of the country so that things like this don’t happen anymore.
When they say that I could hear them, they got quiet, and I said, “You don’t have to be silent on my account, if it’s something that you believe, keep going.” We had to evacuate the buildings again and this time someone tried to push me down a staircase. When I turned around it was a young woman who was physically shorter than me and was looking up at me, but I could even still tell you, just the anger that was on her face.
There’s a lot of different things that were happening in those moments. Eventually I was able to get back to New Jersey where my parents were and I still remember for days not being able to leave New York City because everything just got shut down. When I got off the train in New Jersey my sister ran out of the car and threw her arms around me in tears because she just had no idea what was going on.
When I got home, my father sat me down and he said, when you go back to New York, we’d like for you to just kind of change a little bit of your identity. Keep your beard, but we’d be more comfortable if you didn’t cover your head anymore. My father, he had said it to me, and I just listened to him because he’s my father. When classes resumed about a week later, I felt so wretched inside. I was just blending in and hiding who I was. I started to make a commitment that I wouldn’t be somebody who would take a step back. Society teaches us to look at ourselves a lot, but not really look for ourselves. Most of us aren’t really learning how to be thinkers. We’re not engaged in spaces where we’re understanding why we love what we love. Or why do we hate what we hate or why do we desire the things that we desire.
We get to spaces where all we can see are things in very black and white frames. We don’t know how to navigate the nuance of gray and what it breeds is a very deeply rooted intolerance, hatred, bigotry, and misunderstanding that doesn’t only impose inequity upon populations that are distinct from us, but it limits us from being able to really see the depth of beauty that exists in the diversity around us. Because we only see people through one part of who they are, the color of their skin, the amount of money that they have, the amount of money that they don’t have, where their distinct from us and how we don’t share things in common with them.
That wasn’t a way that I wanted to look at the world. I didn’t want to be in that place where all I saw was what was lacking or how somebody else was making mistakes, but I wanted to be in a place where I could really see beyond the most surface level and to also call people to just looking at things in terms of real beauty. I don’t know how to be me, when I’m the only me that is in a group of people that is nothing like me. I either have now the option of pushing back against realities that don’t take into consideration the I that is me because the larger prevailing demographic comes from a distinct background. Or I start to think, well how do I build not just for myself, but for those who are coming, that are from my background, or have certain characteristics that are not unique to me, but they’re unique to this place because I’m the first one like me here.
Culture can be normative, but what’s normative can also be influx. We can change things and we see that. The history that you find of numerous demographics and populations that have had to struggle for what it is that they were met with, is just an unfortunate reality that we hear over and over and over again. What was it like to be a black person in the United States during a Transatlantic slave trade? What it is like to be a black person in the United States today? What was it like for true indigenous populations that were already living here when the country was first being established? What was it like for Japanese people when internment camps started to take place? What was it like for people who were Jewish at the high points of the holocaust? How is it possible that things like Rwanda, things like Darfur, things like Bosnia, thing like Myanmar, real ethnic cleansing and genocide take place and can the honus just be on the demographic that is victim to those realities, or can we understand how all of us are part of the process.
The reality that numerous minority populations face in this country are things that if we are not woke to right now, we need to really wake up to them.