I grew up in Orange County, California - it has beautiful beaches, sunny skies, and numerous Nazi organizations. Just last year, OC declared racism a public health crisis within the county, though the region has notoriously focused on other public health issues, with its 2020 rallies against the Covid-19 “stay at home” orders. Overall, Orange County is predominantly white and Christian; not to mention, home to some of America’s largest mega-churches. The white Christian-normative culture permeates just about every aspect of social life in this region of Southern California. So, growing up as a Jewish student in Orange County was not always a walk in the park.
Relative to the rest of OC, I went to high school at a fairly liberal and diverse charter school in Santa Ana, California. But, I wasn’t zoned for this school. I spent my elementary and middle school years in Lake Forest, California, where all of my peers went to Saddleback Church and all of their parents voted Republican. For a little context, Saddleback Church is ranked 11th in the country’s largest mega-churches. So when I say that everyone else went to Saddleback Church, I’m not exaggerating by much. There were few other Jewish students at any of my schools, with most of OC’s already small Jewish population residing in Irvine, California. There were even fewer Muslim, Hindu, or Sikh students.
At my Santa Ana high school, I met Tash Hussain. Tash was also zoned for a different school - she is originally from Anaheim, California (home of Disneyland!). Tash is Muslim and we bonded over growing up in Christian-normative spaces around Orange County. Anaheim is equally as conservative as the rest of Orange County, and Tash didn’t find herself among many Muslim peers growing up. Neither of us had experienced much religious community outside of our houses of worship, but we found comfort in our shared experiences. Now, as juniors in college, Tash and I are still incredibly close. Neither of us go to university in Orange County.
While Tash experienced different obstacles as a Muslim student and person of color, we have always bonded over our religious minority status in Orange County. I sat down with Tash to discuss some of our experiences.
This interview has been condensed for clarity.
Do you mind introducing yourself - where you go to school, where you’re from?
Hi, my name is Natasha Hussain. I am 20 years old and I go to California State University of Long Beach. My pronouns are she/her and my identification as far as a religious minority is as a Muslim.
Great! We’ve obviously talked about this a trillion times, so I’ll be asking you things you’ve already heard.
Do you want to start with your high school experience as a religious minority? You know, at our school I was one of a few Jews, but you were one of very few Muslim students.
Ok, I guess to kind of summarize - in middle school, there were a couple of Muslims who went to my school. But, for safety reasons, the more religious students stuck to themselves. You know, conservative Anaheim Hills. It was already hard enough. So, there probably was a much bigger Muslim community than I realized, but I never really found myself being a part of those circles.
Then, coming into high school, I really wanted to change that and build that community. But it turns out I was one of maybe five Muslim students total. It was pretty difficult in the sense that, outside of school, I didn’t really have a Muslim community that I could turn to. Those communities had already existed before this, and were not really inclusive of who I was becoming as a person - be it through my sexuality or struggles with gender. So, that was my reasoning for wanting to build my own community. But that wasn’t really an option, with so few Muslim students.
So, that was a little isolating. Especially with my peers, I felt like they tried to be understanding and they definitely asked questions. But, it was hard to not have people I could really relate to. Having to answer the “not even water?” question like fifty times a day during Ramadan is not fun. But, when I was people’s first Muslim encounter, I would do my best to make sure that it was positive.
Regardless of how it was with innocent questions from kids, it was a real problem with faculty.
Right. I was going to ask you about this.
Our high school really did try to promote inclusivity, but I had to fight for basic accommodations. Especially during Ramadan. And outside of that, I didn’t even bother to try and pray on campus. I knew if I did, I would get stared at because I was forced to do it in public spaces. Or if I tried to request a room, I would always be denied.
Not feeling religious accommodated - and this may sound a little extreme - but I do feel like it pushed me away from my faith a little bit. I figured, if this wasn’t even going to be available to me and I wasn’t even trying, what is the point of trying to pursue any religious knowledge or practice? That was definitely disheartening. It took me going to college and building a Muslim community here, or being a part of one, to realize that not every school is like that. And it definitely shouldn’t be that way.
I guess in a long-winded way, if I had to explain my high school experience as a religious minority - and a minority within a minority - it did feel very isolating. I didn’t feel heard as an individual and I felt like I had to speak on behalf of all Muslims. And even then I wasn’t being heard. It was a lot.
It also made me aware of what other religious minorities had gone through. I don’t know if in your article you might talk about your experience, but that was also along the same lines. Teachers were not accommodating, and there wasn’t that kind of sensitivity training.
Right. I mean you remember when Ms. (excluded) wouldn’t let me make up exams that fell on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. And I recall big testing periods always being around Ramadan, but no faculty making an effort to be accommodating for you. I don’t remember there being any services that supported Muslim students during that.
Nowadays, you see that schools are sending out newsletters to teachers talking about Ramadan and its effect on students. And I hope that they’re doing that with other religious minorities. Now, in college, I don’t even have to explain myself.
Going back to building your own communities, I remember you heading the South Asian Student Association at our high school and being a part of some inter-religious groups. Can you tell me a little more about that?
Going into creating the South Asian Student Association, I realized that because South Asia is so broad, I wouldn’t find people who were exactly like me. But, I think having that cultural space of understanding where we could relate on a lot of things was good. And through that, I could meet some people who would sometimes fast or would know what I was talking about. And that was nice. But, I think overall, that kind of sparked this fire in me to always build those kinds of communities. So even in college, I’ve been trying to start organizations like that. So that certain communities can feel heard and understood, and can be among people who will uplift them.
At our high school there was never a Muslim club. And I never really questioned that, because I don’t think there were enough Muslim students to start that. And I don’t think there was anyone who was willing to come out and put that title on themselves, as the head of this religious group. Maybe they didn’t practice as strongly, which is why I didn’t do it myself. So, it became a time for me when any religious closeness happened outside of school. And even then it was pretty minimal.
It was a good time for me to realize that I am intersectional - I am queer, I’m South Asian, I’m Muslim, I’m a lot of different things. So kind of exploring those different kinds of my identity. Going forward into the world, it was nice to find other people who shared that intersectional aspect. Sometimes the South Asian Muslim community can be ostracized from the greater Asian Muslim community or the Arab Muslim community. Having that understanding was nice. But, overall, I took whatever community I could get. (But they were all incredible people!)
Speaking of religious organization in general, I remember being asked to join a lot of Christian-centered organizations. That’s potentially because I’m white and anglo-looking, and so I fit the standards of Orange County churches. But, Orange County does just have a massive super-church culture, with churches like Saddleback and Mariners. Did you ever feel like that was an intimidating presence? Did people ever try to get you to attend?
In middle school that was more of an issue. I was mostly friends with Christians because I didn’t know the Muslim community. They would offer for me to come to church. But in high school, I think teenagers don’t really care about that as strongly. And, I wasn’t really surrounding myself with people who went to church that frequently.
But that’s in school. Outside of school, there’s always that looming presence of Christian normativity. It required me to always explain to people what a Muslim is, why I’m not a terrorist.
There was one instance in high school, and it was kind of a reminder of how some Christians would look at me. I had someone in an argument tell me - “you worship Muhammed and we worship an actual God.” And no one around me stepped in, because no one was really informed on what that really meant. But at the same time, everyone had that Christian knowledge of Jesus Christ, and the Holy Trinity, and whatnot. So, even if there weren’t Christians up in my face dragging me to church, the atmosphere around Orange County was definitely so Christianity-heavy that you always felt out of place. Even amongst people who weren’t all up-in-your-face about it. That’s really the norm, and they’ll never really understand you.
I definitely got some weird comments, like the “you killed Jesus” one. I know you were always fielding off those sorts of remarks.
Did people ever ask you about our friendship? Were people ever surprised?
Yes, actually. Not even our friendship specifically, but any friendship I had with a Jewish person. I do have my own views on the issue that always seems to come up when a Muslim and a Jewish person are friends, with Israel and Palestine. But, every time I mentioned being friends with Jewish people, or I was knowledgeable about a Jewish subject because of you, it always kind of felt like there was an underlying question. I think I was asked one time, “would you ever be friends with Jewish people?” And I said, I am friends with Jewish people. So that was an interesting experience.
Yeah, I remember - not being questioned about it - but general surprise at my wanting to be knowledgeable about your religious life. You always made it clear that I was welcome in your Muslim community, and I hope I made it clear that you were welcome in my Jewish community. And you were always a huge advocate for Blaze It Forward.
People being confused about that was crazy. People just put these labels on religious issues. Yes, Blaze was Jewish and yes, it was a targeted attack. But I don’t have to be Jewish to say that you should not kill Jewish people.
Orange County is pretty notorious for its Nazi activity. I feel like people should expect that religious and ethnic minorities are going to take a stand against that. I know it always kind of scared me to be in certain places, or around certain groups of people. Was there anywhere you avoided? I know I didn’t love going to Huntington.
If you’re not visibly Muslim, people don’t really take the time to figure it out. So, because I wasn’t visibly Muslim, I maybe wouldn’t feel safe going to certain places because of my skin color. But I’m not very dark-skinned, and I can pass as different races. So maybe that confuses racists enough to leave me alone.
But now I’m a visibly Muslim person, you can see I’ve started wearing hijab. The reason I put it on in the first place is, not even a closeness with God, but what it represents for Muslim women. So even though it puts a target on us, we’re doing it for our religion and it's a sign of strength. So, now as a visibly Muslim person, it’s definitely something that I think about. That was one thing that I think I had privilege in. As a religious minority, if it's not visible, people don’t always take notice.
But, sometimes I do feel skeptical about going to Newport Beach, or other beach cities. I wonder if people are looking at me weirdly. But definitely when I’ve gone to political protests in Orange County, seeing the other side of the protests - like that one strip in Huntington Beach where there have been Trump rallies and, I think, even a Nazi rally - really stuck with me.
Oh yeah. And there’s definitely a little bit of a division between Southern and Northern Orange County. There are definitely pockets of Orange County that are whiter than others, more Christian than others, and safer than others. Navigating that is tricky too.
My final question is: how do you feel like you’ve been able to embrace your religious identity in college?
College has been great, and incredible for my religious journey. We have a great Muslim Student Association on campus (shoutout MSA). It’s been incredible because, not only is it the first time that I’ve been around Muslim people my age on a regular basis, but it’s incredibly diverse. You see Muslims of every skin color in our group. It has allowed me to see Muslims in practice, not just what I’ve seen on TV or older generations, who are maybe a little too strict for my liking. Just seeing regular, everyday Muslims going to school. Hanging out with their friends.
Having that community around me has allowed me to become closer to my faith. The Muslim women in the club are pillars of strength and really active in the community. They’ve inspired me more than anyone else - they’ve inspired me to take on the headscarf, and they’ve inspired me to take on Muslim advocacy. It’s been an incredible experience.
It feels good. All of that community that Little Tash wanted and all that belonging is coming to fruition. It feels good to feel like I’m a part of something bigger than me. I don’t feel ashamed, I don’t feel like I have to explain it to people. There are enough of us on campus that I think the greater student body understands us better. It’s been nice to have people that have other questions - rather than “not even water during Ramadan?” or “are you oppressed?” They have meaningful, valuable questions.
And I think as I’ve become closer to my faith, I appreciate other faiths too. There’s something bigger brewing in my brain, and we’ll see where things go. As of now, I’m happy where I am and I’m praying for the best!
Any last things you want to add?
Just the simple message: if anyone else is struggling to find their community or feels like they have to check certain boxes to be in their community, know that there will always be people out there. You don’t have to change parts of yourself to fit into a little box. There will always be multifaceted people out there, and you should try to find them. Once you do, the world becomes a smaller place and you will feel less alone.