Mar. 29th, 2012

ciroccoj: (blessed is the norm)
Here's the thing: I don't like Arabs and Muslims. And I don't think that makes me a bad person.

Bear with me, because this is not an anti-Arab/Muslim post. At all.

I don't like them because when I was a little kid (ages 6-8), we lived in Morocco for a couple of years, and it was not a good place to be. We were very much foreigners, because of how we were treated and because of how we acted. Foreigners kept to themselves, mostly, and had few positive things to say about the natives. General consensus was that Moroccans were lazy, dirty, stupid, ignorant, dishonest, and rude. And they did not welcome us to their country; as far as I could tell, most of them resented us and were looking for any chance to cheat us. So even though I lived there for two years, the only Arabic words I learned were La' (no), Inch'Allah (if God wills it), Shukran (thank you), and Makeinsh Fulus (I have no money). Oh, and Sidi Harazem, which was the brand of bottled water we drank. I made no Moroccan friends. I felt no sense of belonging to Morocco.1

And I came away from the experience with a visceral negative reaction to people who looked or sounded Arab. The reaction has lessened over the years, especially as Ottawa has become increasingly Arabicized2, but it's still there if I pay attention: the sight or sound of an Arab person or Arabic-sounding language still makes me a bit uneasy to this day. I feel just a little less comfortable when speaking to a Muslim.

And this is my problem.

Not the problem of Arabs and Muslims. It is not their job to educate me, make me see that really, they're just regular folks, show me examples of good Arabs and Muslims, make sure they don't do anything to confirm my instinctive dislike - any of it. It's my problem. The onus is on me to educate myself, to be aware of my own irrational feelings, to make damn sure my problem doesn't become their problem. The onus is on me to make sure that when I have a conflict with a rude Somalian taxi driver, when I don't like my kid's Muslim friend, when I get pissed off at the obnoxious headscarfed lady in line ahead of me at the grocery store, that it's because they are being rude or bratty or obnoxious, and not because they're being Arabs.

It's on me.

It's also on me to not get defensive when it's pointed out to me that I've been racist. Or classist, or sexist, or homophobic. It's my responsibility to listen to the charge, and try to be objective and search my subconsious for motivations and prejudices. Sometimes I really think the charge is unfounded, but I have been shown up several times and I don't think it makes me a bad person - any more than I'm a bad person for not always being kind to my children, for being careless and losing important things, for having an often messy house. I'm human, and humans make mistakes, and I developed my self-esteem before leaving childhood and it can take a few hits. Finding out that I've unfairly prejudged someone, because of race, creed, gender, etc is just another example that I'm human and fallible. It's unpleasant as hell, and I hate it, but I try to see the positive in it.

Obviously I try hard not to be racist, but when I screw up, I'd really like to know. It's an opportunity for learning. More importantly, it's an opportunity to try to make things right, if I can.

Eg, that Muslim witness in court last year (not one of our clients), who said something I assumed was a lie because part of my subconscious equated Muslim with dishonest, and then it turned out he was telling the truth all along? I can't really apologize to him; I never even caught his name, and it wasn't my case so I had no influence on his life and did him no harm with my assumption. But I can make sure the next time a Muslim witness speaks, I remember my previous failure and this time decide trustworthiness based on something more than, "He feels dishonest to me." Because really what happened that time was that the guy felt Muslim to me. Because next time, my bias may matter. Because bias and prejudice, voluntary or not, matters.

***


And yeah, this rambling post is partly about Trayvon Martin.

It doesn't matter to me what was going on in Zimmerman's gated community, it doesn't matter if a lot of "unsavory" characters really had moved in recently because of real estate upsets, it doesn't matter if some of Zimmerman's 40 calls to 911 in the last year actually had resulted in thwarted crimes. It doesn't matter if Trayvon Martin was a perfect kid wearing a hoodie or a kid who'd been suspended a few times wearing a hoodie. It doesn't matter if Zimmerman thought he wasn't actually racist, and was friendly to blacks he knew to be neighbours, it doesn't even matter if he felt that he was out there protecting them too. It only matters that he felt justified in running down a kid who was on the phone with his girlfriend, wearing a hoodie and carrying snacks. Because the kid was black.

Oh and no, it doesn't matter that Zimmerman is half Hispanic. That does not mean he can't be racist.

I mean, ffs. Of course he can be racist. Jesse Jackson has said in the past that when he's out walking at night, if he sees a black man, he also tenses up a bit. Barack Obama's grandmother was sometimes uncomfortable with strange black men, despite being devoted to her black grandson. And I bet Obama himself reacts differently to an unknown young black man than an unknown white, because he also grew up in a culture where black means danger and violence and crime. It's out there. We're all steeped in it. Show me a single North American, black, white, rainbow-coloured, whatever, who hasn't internalized at least some kind of anti-black prejudice, and I'll show you a five-leaf clover, 'cause it's just as rare.

Seriously, show me one3. I'd love to pick their brains and discover their secret. Ditto for anti-Arab, anti-Asian, anti-any random marginalized group.

***


Anyway, I know a lot of people who don't normally care about racism are all up in arms about what happened to Trayvon Martin. I think that's good. But some of the reactions to this have been pissing me off, because it's all been said and done to death before now, and the highest office in America is held by a black man and yet black kids still get harrassed and arrested and gunned down for the crime of being black, and I'm tired of hearing the same things said over and over about all of this crap, from other whites. It comes up every single time there's an issue of racism, and it's bloody annoying.

"But I'm not racist!" "So help me understand racism!" "If I didn't mean to be racist, I didn't do anything wrong!" "How can blacks assume all whites are racist? Isn't that reverse racism, and just as bad a regular racism?"

You know what?

Yes, you are racist.

No, it is not a black person's job to be your personal Black 101 tutor. Learn on your own time, or with black people who have volunteered for the job.

If you acted on your racist thoughts and feelings, you probably did do something wrong. What you meant to do doesn't matter. Eg that black woman you just condescended to doesn't have the privilege of seeing into your motivations; she just got dumped on by your behaviour.

Blacks can prejudge whites because they're human too.

Reverse racism as bad as regular racism? In a perfect world, anti-white racism would be as bad as anti-black. Because it would leave white people just as vulnerable to not being hired, not being promoted, being arbitrarily detained by the authorities, being gunned down by a random racist black guy, as black people are.

Until whites are just as vulnerable to damage from anti-white racism as blacks are to anti-black, I'm going to assume reverse racism isn't as bad. Theoretically, yes it is. In the real world, no it's not. If this black guy doesn't hire you because you're white, you almost certainly have far more job options available to you than the black guy who isn't hired because he's black.

And yes, I've been on the other side of reverse-ism. I've been condemned for my whiteness, I've been condescended to by gays, I have felt excluded and unfairly judged by other minorities. It's not pleasant, but the fact is that I can almost always leave the unpleasant situation and be right back within a culture where I am the norm and the people who treated me like crap are the outsiders. They usually don't have that privilege.

For example, I spent a lot of time among gays and bis in university, and I can think of a few situations in which I felt uncomfortable because I was the only straight person there. Because I didn't feel I could openly talk about my boyfriend among all these women who dated women, and because it was unfairly assumed that I was clueless about issues of homophobia. But I could leave, and be right back in Staightland, where the tables were turned.

It's just not the same. I'm not justifying the snide little put-downs I suffered through, or defending the snotty gay guy who got his jollies out of trying to embarrass me, but it's not the same as knowing that if you hold your boyfriend's hand in public someone might decide to punish your brazen perversion with a baseball bat.

***


Normally I'm more diplomatic than this. Normally I try to Feel the Pain of whatever white/staight/male person is currently feeling unfairly prejudged, or defensive, or whatever. But the gunning down of this kid has me feeling nauseated and angry, and I can't seem to take the blunt off what I want to tell some of my fellow whites. Namely:

  • Yes, you are racist. We all are. Get over yourself and work on your own racism.

  • Educate yourself. Stop asking blacks to do it for you.

  • Yes, blacks can be racist and whites can get hurt by that racism. Stop trying to make our pain equivalent to theirs. It's not.

  • That's not the same as saying anti-white prejudice is harmless, or acceptable. It's no more acceptable than being punched in the gut is acceptable. I'm just saying it's not as harmful as getting the crap kicked out of you.

  • Trayvon Martin's death is horrifying. The only way to make it less horrifying is to take a good hard look at ourselves and try to do something about the society in which his death happened. If that means demanding the police do something about his death, if it means taking a look at Stand Your Ground laws, if it means looking into ourselves and trying to be aware of our own frailties so we don't victimize more kids like Martin, that's what we have to do.

  • And by "we", I mean whites. Blacks shouldn't have to do a damn thing about it. IMHO.



::re-reading what I've written::


OK. Anger down to manageable levels again. Time to stop writing.



1: Which didn't bother me at all at the time, but which today I see as a horrible waste. An entire country and its people, entirely dismissed as too primitive to bother getting to know.

2: Realized once, upon landing in Ottawa after being away, that much to my surprise the sight of women wearing hijabs was coming to mean home to me, because where we'd been (Florida, I think) they were a very rare sight, and in Ottawa they're everywhere.

3: Non-racist North American, that is. Not five-leaf clover. Though seeing a five-leaf clover would be pretty cool.

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