Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Too?

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.

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Meanwhile, in other parts of the animal kingdom, it seems hamsters are next in line for risk of stereotyping:

terrorist hamster

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Is That Cheetah Print…or Cougar? A Tale of Cats, Women, and Pop Culture

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Popular culture sometimes creates strange, insulting, or ridiculous trends. I would like to nominate the “cougar” phenomenon for all three categories.

I have not a thing against what any consenting adults’ preferences are for relationships; we all exist to know the beauty of free choice, especially in terms of who we choose to share life with, or to date, or to dance and have fun among other things with. Let me tell you something about love–I know just as much as you or anyone else, and no more than that. I know if I fit or not with someone, I know how it feels to be in the right place–peaceful, healthy place that can overcome disruptions and always return to a sanctuary–with the right set of arms curved around me. That is all I know and need to know about love.

When love comes into existence between two people, it is a decision whether to honor it or not–you can stay with it and build that connection, or leave for whatever reason and never find out what whole, completed structure that connection might take. This we choose, keep it or not, but those first flickerings of attraction, curiosity, and connection that opened the doors to love are not by choice. They just are. Whether you think in terms of biological chemistry or in notions of soulmates, we all know we cannot force ourselves to either be attracted or not attracted to a particular person. It is there of its own intention, a force acting upon us.

Of course the cougar lifestyle that has been gracing pop culture vocabulary and media for several years now doesn’t speak much of love. It speaks of older women looking for excitement from much younger men. The exact definition I have extracted from online is “a woman in her forties who dates or has sexual relationships with men in their twenties.” A cougar, in essence, is the term for modern women taking up the look-at-me-I’m-worthy-because-I’m-with-a-hot-youthful-mate-young-enough-to-be-my-offspring role more traditional to men in a mid life crisis.

The cougar is commonly described as a fun yet desparate animal; typcially divorced and seeking new adventures; superficial and fearfully noticing the disintegration of her youth and physical attractiveness; immature on both the emotional and intellectual scales; lacking class and a sense of reality. They are generally pack animals: they gather on cougar dating websites and at cougar meet-up clubs, live in places such as Cougartown, and exhibit their varieties and habits on Facebook and other social networking sites. I know this because I did the research. My favorite research habitat, and one of the most informative for me, was a Facebook page dedicated to the glory of being a cougar. Many of the women posing in their cougar personas (a display not unlike a National Geograpic photoshoot) were quite attractive and appeared down-to-earth, yet there was still something a little amiss in their expressions: their eyes were perhaps a little overlyfocused, bearing the look of a creature both too hungry and too vacant at the same time. I remember breathing a sigh of relief to be able to tell myself I am not this type of animal.

Thank God, I would fit much better in the unicorn or phoenix category. Even the skillful, agile, and playful little rat category.

This relief brings me to a question that may have crossed your mind: Why must I be so negative and demeaning about the idea of a Cougar Culture, so unkind to other members of my gender instead of accepting all other women as my sisters? I’m only knocking the culture, the notion, the trend, not the actual women. It’s a personal issue that has drawn me into culture’s cougar territory; my husband is younger than I am, and I have incorrectly been summed up one too many times with the C-word. And in all honesty: I’ve grown weary of laughing about it while performing one of those calmly dismissive hand waves to indicate it’s okay, it’s all in good fun, I don’t mind if you think I’m a desparate old lady on death’s door trying to extend my mortality with young blood and my relationship is silly like a clown with oversized shoes and more oversized hair. I might find it within me to laugh with you a little more, but it seems sense of humor is sometimes one of the first things to go amidst the seriousness of old age.

Let me tell you something about love–personality is key. It is the one and only, both magical and practical key to how you mix with someone, determining whether you blend aesthetically together or turn a muddy, cloudy, unintelligible and unpleasant hue with. It’s a fact of our natures that we simply fit better with some friends, family members, colleagues, and potential mates than others.
heart key

What I have found–age does stand out even to the couple when there is a large difference, but no more than when cultural or religious or educational backgrounds are different. I have seen couples evaluate such differences between themselves and more often than not reach the same conclusion my husband and myself, and countless others, have reached about age; that it is a superficial difference, just a surface thing. What we are as a body bound by biological processes of time, but not who we are as a soul. And soul, whether you believe in the soul as our immortal essence or as our emotional self bringing purpose to our mortal existence, is where we humans connect fully to each other, especially in love.

When I worked for the first time as a CNA, I cared for a man I will call “Dunn.” Dunn was in his 60s, bedridden, and like many of our patients, especially those who could rarely leave their rooms, loved for staff to stay around and talk. I used to sit on a chair across from Dunn in my down time at work, eating the chocolates he stored on the sly in his nightstand, and being a good listener while he mapped places of his history for me with stories from his life. One night he told me about his first wife, fifteen years older than Dunn. I had interrupted him to ask if the age difference was what destroyed the marriage (cougar relationships are said to lack longevity, generally ending when either the boy-toy or the cat-woman returns to his or her senses and recognizes that age-inappropriate relationships are merely flings, fun, or temporary insanity), but Dunn denied this as the reason. “I loved her very much,” he had said, “even the first time anyone ever asked if she was my mother. I always loved her.” (In her defense, Dunn at sixty-four looked about forty-four; it’s likely she was mistaken for a young mother.) Dunn went on to say that as time proceeded, “her loud to my quiet” wasn’t working. He described her as a vivacious, extroverted soul and labeled himself as a prototypical geek, validating his label with, “I’ve worn pocket protectors fully stocked with pens most of my life!” So eventually, it didn’t work, but Dunn swore that if it had he would be a sixty-four-year-old man loving his seventy-nine-year-old wife.

Personality is key. If the key is cut wrong, don’t expect it to work no matter which way you turn it. I was married a first time also, to a man my age. Our formative years shared a time in history: we remembered Reagan as president and hearing about the Cold War and Star Wars on the news and at school; the Challenger disaster; the fall of the Berlin Wall; 80s music, neon clothing, and parachute pants; Atari; televisions you still had to touch to adjust channels and volume; the lack of cell phones and internet. We even shared time in the same high school together, walked down the same hallways, cut class here and there with the same group of friends. We went on to have a relationship and a daughter together. We made an amazing team as parents and were very age appropriate. Being age appropriate is not what made us a good parenting team, however, and ultimately it did not make up for the connection we always seemed to be lacking between each other. We clashed the way one might consider Titans to, and were one of those couples where each person is a very good person individually and among all others, but not necessarily with each other. Sometimes, no matter how much you see the good in someone, getting close is not going to work when the chemistry equation never figures out right. You need to find equilibrium at some point.

All relationships have their worries, and age is quite often the least of them. I can laugh about cougar jokes and comments at times (including the comment once posted on a social network site picture in which I wore a leopard-print dress: Is that cheetah print…or cougar? Classic, I have to admit) but I also find it a tiresome and unfair label to throw at a woman because she is older than a man she loves. Popular culture has somewhat effectively conditioned people to think that a relationship where the woman is much older is not a serious, genuine, actual relationship. My husband and I considered this point a little bit, at least in the beginning; we shied away from the possible discomforts and stayed “friends,” a more socially acceptable status. But, whether you believe more in chemistry or in soulmates, you don’t choose physical, intellectual, and emotional attraction. It just shows up. When love begins to show itself, you decide where to go with it, and if there are differences, you decide how important or not they are. When love exists, outside opinions lose their force.

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I’ve met other women unfairly tallied into the cougar category, and each has lamented that it’s a bit silly for people to make comments such as, “Don’t you worry your husband will leave when, you know, you get older? Won’t he want someone with, well, less wrinkles and who, well, let’s just say, looks better in lingerie?”

It’s a curious thing, that desire to express negativity to others about others’ relationships; how can a species of thinking, emotional beings with such capacity for compassion sometimes become so snide to one another? I always hope our species will reach a point where we don’t worry about couples with age differences, with gender similarities, with different racial or cultural or religious backgrounds. I hope we can see a time, considering how far we have actually come along in time, when there isn’t so much controversy over something such as a Cheerios commercial featuring an interracial couple. How do we still fail to see each other as equal beings of the human race deserving equal, universal rights of love and respect in our earthly existence? Regardless of age, sex, color, creed, and who we love despite his or her age, sex, color, creed, and all kinds of other traits.

Something about love–we all need, desire, and deserve it.

A cougar is a large cat of the Felidae family, also known by the names mountain lion, puma, panther, and catamount. It has four feet on which it runs with agility, it has whiskers and a wet nose and tan fur. It is not a woman who loves the man she is with despite the fact that she had already accumulated a lot of life experience before he was even born. As adults, he has likely caught up with her on experience (in a number of ways) anyway.

Don’t be so quick to cry cougar if your daughter, sister, mother, aunt, grandmother, best friend, or any other woman in your life shows up happily involved with a man who is younger. Don’t assume it is only a phase or only fun or a disillusioned attempt to avoid reality and will end in either the man packing up to find a younger lady, or the woman making a run for an older gentleman.

Demi Moore, Jennifer Lopez, and Madonna are three women who, due to their fame–and the obsession culture has with fame–have been offered to the world as studies of the cougar species. (And they are definitely not the first well-known women in history to have had a reputation for being with younger men.) What people forget is that these are real women who have (or have had) real relationships with a real history of partnership and love, and real heartbreak if the relationship ended. What the media has ceated by criticizing, mocking, and trivializing the relationships of these women so publicly–or likewise calling out Way to go, ladies! You found yourselves a younger man! You are hot! You are worthwhile!–is a negative chain reaction in which we think we can diminish these women to superficial or ridiculous or desperate creatures. Next, we think we can do the same to every woman in a similar situation.

And, of course, once we start negatively judging one type of couple, we feel justified to move on to another type, and then to various groups of people, and various individuals, and we find others doing the same to us. The cycle of judgment is neverending; at the very least, though, we can avoid strengthening it by avoiding calling each other out on the most trivial of differences that are really not hurting anyone.

In all honesty, it doesn’t hurt my sense of who I am as an individual or in my relationship when I get the occasional negative comment about our age difference. (I admit it’s a little easier now, given people most often think I’m younger than my age, therefore closer to my husband’s age. We’ll see how it is if my slow aging speeds up within the next years.) As with any relationship securely structured with love, what the outside world has to say about our preference remains unimportant–as stated before, those outside opinions simply lose force.

Still, it is nice to be recognized as just another regular, human woman, not a strange hybrid of succubus and cat. I’m sure their are other woman who agree, and possibly a few tan, agile, Felidae cats who would agree as well.

Cougar Image shared from images.fineartamerica.com. http://images.fineartamerica.com/images-medium-large-5/cougar-smile-athena-mckinzie.jpg