By Guest Contributor Asia al-Massari
The first time I strapped into a snowboard, I was twelve years old. I remember being the only girl in my younger brother’s group of friends, and we all took turns hitting a little jump we had built using the lid of a trash can. The first time I ever went to a resort, I noticed something else. I was the only Arab there. This is something I became used to, being the only brown girl on the mountain. I remember going into the demo center, cash in hand, ready to pick out my very first board. A board that would be all mine, ridden only by me. No more rentals, no more borrowing boards from guy friends that were much too big. All mine. I bought a Burton “Clash” board and the rest was history.
To say I’ve been a loyal Burton customer ever since is a huge understatement. If it had that little bent arrow logo on it, it had to be mine. I felt a loyalty to the brand. They were the only company at the time that made women-specific bindings, that made clothes that fit my awkward body. I liked the message the company propped itself up on. Burton prided itself on being about bringing snowboarders together, creating a community, being inclusive. Being Arab-American, I was having an extremely rough time with being included in post-9/11 American Society. I was an outsider now. And Burton was about creating a community of outsiders. I could finally belong again. I could finally go back to “normal”, back to what I remembered, back to being human.
I grew up with that company. Burton made winter my favorite season. Every year they would put out these amazing products and videos, and I was more excited for them than I was the previous year. I followed them the way a football or hockey fan follows their favorite team. The Burton team was my team. I bought the snowboarding films It’s Always Snowing Somewhere and The B because I wanted to know what my team was up to, what new tricks and runs they were stomping. I eagerly awaited the new catalog because I want to see what gear is good enough for my team to shred all over the world in. Even though the glossy pages were only filled with white kids, that was okay! They were outsiders, just like me. Somehow, they were just like me. I let myself believe that for so long. The Burton team riders were my heroes. I looked up to the people in those glossy catalogs and magazine spreads. Not once after watching a video part or live feed from a contest did I feel disappointed. They always left me blown away, thinking “That’s how it’s done. That’s how you do it”.
So, imagine my surprise upon seeing one of my idols, Burton team rider and Urban/Rail riding legend Jeremy Jones, referring to Arab-Americans as “towel heads” in his personal blog. Being an Arab-American, that hurt me so deeply to know that someone I hold in such high regard only sees me as a racial slur, as some lesser person based on my ethnic background. And he’s doing it, hiding behind the shield that’s shaped like a crooked arrow, behind that name that told me for years and years that I was just like them. Suddenly, everything was back just as it was before. I was excluded and different and worth nothing. And I recalled all the mean looks and whispers thrown at me every time I got in the lift line. Glares and words I was willing to just brush off because I was part of something, and no one was going to take that from me. No one was going to take my escape. Suddenly, I realized just how unwelcome I was, had been. And that shook me. It shook me and hurt me and made me sick.
I wrote a letter of concern to Burton. It took me so long to decide to send it. I was intimidated by Jeremy Jones’ fame, by Burton’s gigantic mark on the snowboarding industry. I was scared I was going to be laughed off as I so often am, to be ignored as I so often am. The snowboarding community is so small. What if someone found out I “tattled” on one of snowboarding’s biggest celebrities? I wrote to Burton, knowing that I could be shunned out of the snowboarding community, knowing that I could be effectively ending my snowboarding career before it really began. I could be snuffing out my dreams of being a professional snowboarder, something I’ve always wanted and I’ve spent years working towards. I thought I could just let it go; I mean, he didn’t mean me, right?
Except that he did. He did mean me. Every time someone decides to throw out a slur, they do mean me. They mean every brown-skinned person, every caricature of the goofy Indian man running the 7-11, every Jihadist with a vest of dynamite, every bent over nanna from the old country with her black chadore pulled tightly under her chin. You didn’t mean me? What makes me so special? Am I from a more desirable country? Is the food of my people better? Is it because I speak English “perfectly”, because I’ll wear a bathing suit at the beach, awkwardly laugh at every version of the 40 virgins joke? When someone throws around epithets like “towel head” or “camel jockey”, they mean me. They may not think they do, but they mean me. Jeremy Jones was addressing me. He was addressing everyone who dares to be born with brown skin, whether they’re from Lebanon or India or Omaha, Nebraska. I will not allow Jeremy Jones or Burton to decide who is us and who is them.
I wrote to Burton because I couldn’t stay silent. Silence is acceptance, and I do not, under any circumstances, accept being referred to as a “towel head” by someone who is being paid to travel around the world to snowboard with the money I use to buy the products he backs. I don’t accept being called that by anyone. Burton hasn’t responded, and the blog post is still up, its hate speech is still glaring back at me through my computer screen, screaming at me “You are less, less, less. You are worthless”. And I don’t accept that, I will never accept that.
And because I believe in the power of speaking directly to those who wrong you: Jeremy, if you have a problem being driven around by a “towel head” in a cab that isn’t up to your standards, fucking walk.