Clothes don’t make the American

by Bruce Wallace

After a long Tuesday of putting the paper together, picking it up in Jefferson City and getting my reliable inserting/labeling crew to work, I was off to pick up some quick Chinese food for a late dinner in front of the Olympics.

Bruce Wallace

Bruce Wallace

While waiting in line at the Hy-Vee Chinese food counter, I was amused by watching a high school boy and his mother. The son was watching Olympic fencing highlights on his phone. His mother, somewhat annoyed by her teen son with his head buried in his phone, pestered him for his order.

Me? I was trying to watch fencing highlights over his shoulder. I’m a sucker for nearly every competition at the Olympics.

“No, mom – look! This is the girl who fenced with Stephen Colbert on the Late Show – she’s the girl who wears the thing on her head,” the boy said, referring to Ibtihaj Muhammad’s hijab.

“She needs to take that head scarf off and look like an American if she’s on the U.S. Team,” scoffed the mother.

Suddenly, I was no longer looking over the boy’s shoulder and no longer thinking about my cashew chicken order.

I was surprised and stunned by the woman’s callous remark. I was incensed and wanted to reply.

Should I stick my nose into someone else’s uninformed opinion – or help her become more informed?

I would normally never dream of jumping into someone else’s private conversation – especially two people I have never met – and I generally don’t think it is up to me to get in someone’s face about their bigotry.

But the thought was running through my mind and I quickly thought of a few retorts:

“You mean she needs to look like an American like Alice Coachman – the American who was the first black woman of any country to win a gold medal back in 1948?” I wanted to ask, “Or do you mean Muhammad needs to look more like U.S. runner Billy Mills – the Native American who won the 10,000 meters in ’64 in Tokyo. How about Bruce Jenner? He won the decathlon in Montreal in ’76 – and we all know how he, um, changed. Should Muhammad look a little more like some of our basketball players – maybe a Carmello Anthony, with more ink on his arms than this newspaper? Huh? How ’bout it,” I wanted to challenge the woman, “Just what in the hell should an American athlete look like?”

Yes, I was mad.

In fact, I was livid. Working myself into a good ‘ol fashioned rant.

I was mustering up the courage to insert myself into a situation where I really had no dog in the hunt, but instead of jumping into a conversation where I did not belong, I was trying to think of something pithy – a cute quip – to add. Of course that would only make me sound like as a wise-guy. And, after all, the woman has the right to whatever knucklehead opinion she wants to have – sort of like this column.

I was saved from myself by the teenager.

“Mom, it doesn’t matter what she’s wearing on her head, it only matters to me that she has the U.S. flag on her uniform. I think she’s fantastic!”

Muhammad won a bronze in the team sabre event.

The Mom got a good lesson in 21st century patriotism.

Me? I can barely pronounce “hijab” – but I don’t care if she’s wearing the mark of ‘Zorro’ on her uniform, if she’s slashing with a sabre for the United States of America, I’m cheering for Ibtihaj Muhammad as well.

By the way, a New Jersey native, Muhammad, the first American woman to medal wearing a hijab, will receive a hero’s welcome when she returns to her hometown of Maplewood.

Well deserved.