Austin, Texas prides itself on the mega-popular South by Southwest (SXSW) festival that is a celebration of arts and tech cultures through interactive sessions and meetings. According to the SXSW website, participation in this festival helps with ‘fostering creative and professional growth alike’.
Having very recently been in Austin and despite my hesitations about the ‘Open Carry’ policy of the state, I was pleasantly surprised to experience the warmth and generosity of SXSW’s host city. Austin is indeed a liberal oasis in the toxic conservative abyss of Texas. Or maybe not.
The great American sports shero, Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, was scheduled to speak at a SXSW session titled: “The New Church: Sport as Currency of American Life”. Her talk would include issues around racism and violence against women plaguing sports industries. As a Black and identifiable Muslim woman, fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad is a perfect panelist for this topic.
Muhammad, who has graced the covers of TIME magazine, and is sponsored by VISA, and just appeared on The Ellen Show, will be the first athlete to represent TEAM USA at the Olympics while wearing a hijab. It would seem perfectly appropriate for her to be attending the SXSW symposium in a progressive city.
But Muhammad ran into some difficulty while trying to register. She sent out a Tweet stating that a volunteer staff person demanded that she take off her hijab for the ID picture for her SXSW badge. “I can’t make this stuff up,” she tweeted, and elaborated that “Even after I explained it was for religious reasons, he insisted I had to remove my hijab for the photo to receive my badge.”
After Muhammad insisted that her scarf is for religious reasons, the volunteer relented only to give our shero the badge of a man with the same surname. Surely, all people named Muhammad are the same! A SXSW staff person had morphed one of America’s greatest fencers into an employee at Time Warner. Her initial Tweet was retweeted more than five thousand times. Was this really happening at SXSW? The highly regarded hub of safe space and progressive thinking in the South?
Major media outlets around the world picked up on the story: a world-class athlete who was featured as a panelist at a liberal festival but discriminated against based on her headscarf.
Mortified SXSW officials scurried to rectify the situation. Chicago Tribune journalist, Amina Elahi, reported that SXSW officials told her they apologized directly to Muhammad. Their statement came swiftly: “It is not our policy that a hijab or any religious head covering be removed in order to pick up a SXSW badge. This was one volunteer who made an insensitive request and that person has been removed for the duration of the event. We are embarrassed by this and have apologized to Ibtihaj in person, and sincerely regret this incident.”
SXSW did what it was supposed to do. They removed the offending party from the event and apologized to Muhammad in person. Coincidentally, the current SXSW homepage announcing Michelle Obama’s speech features a photograph of the First Lady surrounded by hijab-clad girls from a recent trip to a school in the United Kingdom. Well played, SXSW.
It can be argued that their response was appropriate and this is the end of the issue. But, I disagree.
SXSW should have committed to providing more enriched cultural sensitivity training for their staff. Perhaps this situation was the result of one rogue element in the happy belly of well-intentioned Hipsters, but SXSW has a responsibility to ensure that those who work for them are prepared for these situations. US citizens and residents are permitted to wear a headcovering for identification photographs if they can prove it is for a religious reason- which millions of men of women from Muslim, Sikh and Jewish faiths do. Was a volunteer unaware that freedom of religion might apply at SXSW? There is an entire industry created where agencies provide cultural competency training for different organizations. Perhaps SXSW should hire one.
Understanding and learning shouldn’t be at the humiliation suffered by a Black, Muslim woman, or at the expense of an athlete to speaking up against injustice.
When asked whether she feared being penalized by her sponsors for speaking out, Muhammad replied, “I had a crappy experience checking in. Someone asking me to remove my hijab isn’t out of the norm for me. … Do I hope it changes soon? Yes, every day. If a sponsor wants to walk away … they weren’t meant for me anyway.”
Her comments come at a time where celebrities and sports superstars are going public about the hurtful bigotry they encounter and the privileged systems that fuel it. Muhammad has no qualms about speaking out against sexism, Islamophobia or any type of discrimination thrust at her. She will fiercely strike it down with her saber-like, confident demeanor. Her powerful words from the Team USA Media Summit ring out loud and clear, “I feel like I owe it to my community. I owe it to people who look like me,” she says. “These struggles, this everyday of this fear-mongering and hate that we are experiencing – I owe it to all of us to combat these notions of hate and bigotry. I have to speak out against it, because there are people before me who did it for African Americans and did it for other minorities in this country – and I feel like I owe it to do it for us at this moment.”
Ibtihaj Muhammad represents exactly what the perfect American athlete ought to be: strong, dignified and unapologetic. She is exactly what cultural festivals like SXSW and the world of sports need.