We are not here to be bystanders

Linda Sarsour’s memoir, “We Are Not Here to Be Bystanders,” is, by turns,  trenchant, painful and amusing, Sarsour’s memoir is packed with hard-learned lessons from the front lines of the social-justice struggle. It’s a book that speaks to our times, tackling issues of racial injustice, economic inequality, criminal justice reform, the surveilling of Muslim communities and the shortcomings of white feminism. Its strength lies in its discussion of intersectional activism as an answer to the rise of the illiberal far right, with well-documented examples of how intersectionality has served to bring about real change.

Sarsour begins by briefly recounting her background as a Palestinian American born in Brooklyn and raised in the multicultural neighborhood of Sunset Park, all the while remaining firmly grounded in her personal history and heritage. Her consciousness of Palestinians as a dispossessed, colonized people whose human rights are continuously under assault is key to her rise as an activist and to the hate she has endured.

Her memoir speaks out against the normalizing of hate while laying out the real-life consequences of rhetoric such as President Trump’s remark that there were “very fine people on both sides” of a white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville in 2017. Sarsour condemns the killing of black people such as Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014. She notes that Brown was close in age to her own son, and she hardly could imagine if Brown’s fate had befallen her son. “This was the problem with our country, I realized then,” she writes. “We failed to grieve for other people’s children as if they were our own. We failed to see that injustices visited upon ‘the other’ had also been visited on us, which was why as a nation we were so splintered. We had dehumanized certain segments of our society to such a degree that we could not feel each other’s pain.”

Sarsour’s Palestinian American background intuitively shapes her belief that a sense of belonging can be multilayered and nuanced — that there can be more to a person’s humanity than the issue of nationality or borders. To that end, Sarsour stands strongly on the side of the undocumented.

Sarsour puts the matter in the context of tensions over how to demonstrate genuine intersectional feminism by addressing the needs of marginalized women. “White feminists had viewed their liberation only through a white lens, and as far as Black and brown women were concerned, that myopia had persisted to the present day,” she writes. “While looking at issues through a racial justice framework was natural for the women of color in our group, it was brand new to many of the white women.” Making the concerns of marginalized women a priority was considered divisive by some of Sarsour’s white colleagues. As she explains in the book, focusing on “the experiences of marginalized women was not about upsetting white women; it was about helping them to recognize how they were consciously or unconsciously aiding and abetting the very patriarchy they claimed to be fighting against.”

The causes Sarsour has championed have taken a toll on her personal life but not on her determination. “We Are Not Here to Be Bystanders” is a tribute to the tenacity and fearlessness needed to stand against injustice.