Racism is a virus that is growing clever at avoiding detection. Race consciousness is real. Racial assumptions and prejudices are real. And racism is real. But these realities can operate without articulation and beneath awareness. For those reasons, some can see racism where it is absent, and others can willfully ignore any possibility that it could ever be present.–Charles M. Blow, NY Times columnist (I would add that this quote fits any form of prejudice, not only racism.)
We are many parts, we are all one body.–Verse from a Catholic Hymn
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is a 1967 movie about a family in which the daughter of an upper-class white family brings home her fiance, a black physician, in a time when interracial marriage was still illegal in various states, and the family’s struggles to accept the relationship. The cinematic family has been conditioned, through the racist and segregated society of the times, to not accept the daughter’s love as an equal whom they would love to invite into their family, willingly taking him into their homes and hearts, let him sit in equality around the same table. The movie stars Sidney Poitier and Katharine Hepburn, and is worth the little over an hour-and-a-half it takes to watch.
Now we step into these days of the 2000s, where we have come so far. So far in breaking down the myths and hatred of prejudice that have over time allowed us to build up heavy walls around each other, with the notion that these walls are safety measures, their job to keep us safe from those different others. In reality, every prejudice we have against a group of “others” is a metaphorical apartheid wall that harms both “us” and “them” with its segregation as much as any true, physical, concrete wall built between groups of people.
We have come so far, but still need to keep going. A recent Cheerios commercial evidenced this when it received criticism–including hateful remarks in the realms of racism–simply because it featured a biracial couple enjoying their morning together; a black father, white mother, and their biracial daughter. In New York, nine recent victims of a particularly hideous crime against humanity which the perpetrators are calling a “game,” specifically the Knockout Game, have been Jewish. Although people of various races and cultures have been victims of this assault in cities throughout the United States, there is concern that the number of Jewish victims in New York is based in anti-Semitism. It may not be, but there is still anti-Semitism in the world, just as there is anti-white, anti-black, anti-anyone-anywhere.
It is a stubborn facet of the human condition wherever you go: we are still in need of protecting each other’s human rights fully, continuously, and with genuine compassion.
This is not a rant, just a nudge. This is not a judgment, just a request to look into yourself and see clearly how you relate to others, where your strengths and weaknesses are, where you are helping and where you might be hurting others. We all need nudges and times to reflect on our our actions.
And now for the post-9/11 world’s version of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner: my family has always been fine with the husband who now attends dinner with me, so there’s no issue there. I feel fortunate to be from a family with much cultural diversity, with “intermarriages” between this or that racial/ethnic background; it seems to make it easier for myself and for those in my family, and for others in similar families, to see compatibility among diverse people as nothing more than the usual nature of people, not as a cause for concern, fear, or hatred. Not as something out of place or strange. It’s difficult for me to comprehend how we can’t all see things this way, and I have at times been tempted to think that maybe some people are just “seeing racism where it doesn’t exist” too much–which can be tempting to think when you have never had prejudice directed at you, never felt the discomfort of being singled out simply for your genetic or cultural origins. But I have now had a lesson in prejudice on a personal basis, and see how it is alive and well in modern days. It has been a good lesson, eye-opening and inspiring, prompting me to continue reaching out to others by joining in with peacebuilding and coexistence efforts as much as possible.
I had never had the experience before of being harassed in a prejudiced way at any point in my life. Not for being white (which is mostly my heritage background and my coloring, I am a pale and green-eyed 3/4 German, Irish, Polish woman who is also 1/4 Mexican), not for being Polish or Irish or German or Mexican, not for being Russian (which I’m not at all but, for some reason, people have often guessed that I am), not for being Catholic or Midwestern, not because my family lacked financial wealth and luxury cars and not because my family was financially stable enough to send three children to private school, own two cars, and own a house. Nothing. Prejudice was not an experience I knew other than through compassionate instincts when hearing about or seeing it affecting others.
The post-9/11 Western world. Many people in the West were interested in learning about the differences between themselves and the stated Muslim fundamentalist enemies. They wanted to know who the Muslims are and who the Arabs are in order to differentiate between the “regular” people–regular here as all those people who live like anyone else in the majority–and the terrorists. John L. Esposito, a Georgetown University professor of Religion, International Affairs, and Islamic Studies, and an Italian-American Catholic, says it well in his book Who Speaks for Islam? when he explains that Islamic fundamentalists make up merely a “fraction of a fraction” of Muslims. Consider that there are about 1 billion Muslims on this earth; consider, if Islam were the problem, or Arab Muslims, how much more pronounced the problem would be. Consider how the majority, the great and vast majority of all Muslims, including Arab Muslims, are just living the way anyone else is: waking in the morning, showering, having a breakfast, going to work, going to school, taking care of their families, watching movies, running, laughing, buying groceries, planting gardens, sleeping and dreaming and figuring out the best ways to spend their time in this life. Nothing more.
Media does strange things, however, and when you combine lack of awareness with negative and unbalanced media stories, it’s a perfect mix for increasing fears which increases prejudice and hate and, at worst, hateful actions.
Some quotes from my experience, and although maybe it shouldn’t, it amazes me that these are true quotes: Your husband is Muslim, and Arab? So, he’s in Al Qaeda? You converted to Islam? Your husband either threatened to beat you or leave you if you didn’t, right? (It wouldn’t matter had I converted before or after meeting him, but it was before, and my decision alone.) Don’t go overseas with your husband, they like to marry American women to take back to the Middle East and sell into sex slavery. Don’t go to your husband’s homeland, they won’t like you because you’re American and they’ll probably end up stoning you to death, or kidnapping you. When wearing the hijab–the Muslim headscarf–in public, I’ve heard shouts of raghead, sandnigger, terrorist, Go back to your own country! (Already here, that was a short trip!), and once, while shopping at Kohl’s, a fellow shopper walking somewhere behind me remarked loudly to her companion, “I didn’t know they let terrorists shop here.” Which I felt was a good time to turn around, appearing frightened, and exclaim, “Oh my God, me neither!”
These experiences are in the minority for me; like the percentage of Muslim terrorists, they are a fraction of a fraction of others’ reactions to Muslims, to me, to my husband, and to the love my husband and I have between each other as American Westerner and Arab Middle Easterner. Most people who have heard my husband is from the lands of Palestine/Israel are interested in knowing more about his homeland. Most people who have been compelled to comment on my hijab have done so to ask questions about it or compliment it. Some have gotten large, welcoming smiles upon seeing me approach and have even held doors open for me, possibly for the image of holiness one might say the headscarf can create–I have been asked a few times if I happen to be a nun.
Most people on this earth are eager to be kind and act in goodness toward others, I believe this fully. And for those who aren’t and don’t, I am sure there are a number of reasons to the psychology of why they act in the negative ways they do. Prejudice is always fear-based, always starting in a fear we have for how the differences of others might affect us. Taking the initiative to meet with others so that you can understand them more as people just like yourself is among the easiest ways to start building more peace among everyone.
The comments I have received are from people I am not willing to judge. While their choices of action aren’t healthy or helpful in keeping the world a peaceful, accepting place where all can thrive knowing their universal rights to life are protected, they are likely perfectly respectable human beings who simply need to improve their awareness of others to decrease any fears they have of any type of person. The hurtful, harassing, fearful reactions have also inspired me to look at how I treat others, testing whether or not I am living up to my standard of making the world a better place through kindness and acceptance, My promise to myself and the world I share with everyone else: I will always strive to live up to this standard, because every tiny fragment of kindness adds to the great, big whole of positive healing energy in this world.
*Who is going to sit with you for dinner, or who will you sit with? Hopefully, the only thing that will affect this decision is the fact the person is good and kind and you can bring meaning into each others’ lives.
Meanwhile, in other parts of the animal kingdom, it seems hamsters are next in line for risk of stereotyping: