I speak for myself, not an entire culture

We need to stop relying solely on friends of different backgrounds for knowledge of other lifestyles.

by Alia Jeraj

Last week, I made a new friend. We had just become “Facebook official” when we noticed the two of us shared a single mutual friend.
“How do two you know each other?” my new friend asked. I explained we had grown up going to the mosque together.
“Very cool,” he said. “If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t be properly educated on Islam.”
“As is true, I’m sure, of many of our friends,” I wryly replied; though the attitude seemed to get lost among the computer screen’s pixels. He turned the conversation to a new topic.
I appreciated my new friend’s honesty about his relationship with and knowledge of Islam, and I would guess that many of my old friends carry similar sentiments about having me as their access point into the religion. However, it is extremely frustrating to hear someone say that, without a Muslim friend, they wouldn’t be properly educated on a religion that nearly a quarter of the world’s population practices.
This bothers me for many reasons. Above all, asserting that having a friend with a different cultural or religious background is your only access point into that culture or religion is flat-out lazy.
We live in a world with the Internet. Search engines can provide us with the answers to seemingly every question we have. Of course, when conducting research online, one must be aware of source bias, but with billions of pages available at the touch of a button, there’s little room to excuse ignorance.
In addition to the ease of the Internet, the Twin Cities provide many opportunities for learning about other cultures, including cultural and religious studies classes, art experiences and restaurants with food from around the world.
Relying on friends from nondominant cultural or religious backgrounds for personal knowledge about those backgrounds also puts immense pressure on the people closest to you. You suddenly thrust your friends into the position of representatives and knowledge-bearers for an entire culture, an impossible position for any single person to responsibly accept. This can feel isolating and tokenizing. 
My experience with Islam comes from an extremely small, fairly unknown branch of the religion. Thus, when people ask me about Islam, in general, or its different branches, I’m often unable to answer their questions. This also disservices any friends relying on me for answers, as I can only provide them with what I know, which greatly limits their perceptions of the religion to my own experiences.
I’m not trying to discourage people from asking their friends about their religious or cultural backgrounds. Friends can be an amazing source of knowledge. They provide safe spaces for people to ask questions and have productive conversations about unfamiliar ideas.
However, we need to make an important distinction between drawing from friends as one of many resources and relying on them as your only resource on different cultures.
When asking questions, we must look at each other as individual people with unique experiences rather than as representatives of entire cultures or religions.
Alia Jeraj welcomes comments at [email protected].