Thursday, 23 July 2009

A Moment on Racism

(Alright, so it's well more than a moment.)

I'm going to spoil a story that I some day intend to write by telling you something I heard today. If you really care about not having this story spoiled, I suppose you oughn't read this.

Today during break my co-worker and I were in the galley where we usually take break when the supervisor comes in. We start chatting, and my co-worker, with his usually blithe unconcern for whoever we're having a conversation with, starts telling racist jokes. Not racist in a sort of silly sense that makes fun of racism more than a race, but the sort of joke which actually targets an individual. To his good luck, the supervisor finds it funny. The talk turns to race and to the degree to which affirmative action has gone too far, and my co-worker says something which comes off as more racist than anything anyone has said so far. (Incidentally, I am withholding names on purpose, not that who these people are couldn't be deduced by those in the know; I am not, however, being deliberately vague about what has been said. I actually cannot remember the jokes or the comments I'm alluding to.) The supervisor then said that he has no problem with Indians, Mexicans, etc., but... the most racist he has ever been was after 9/11. He does not trust Moslems. (That's how he pronounced it-- MAWS-lems.) Then he adds, "Not after what I've seen."

This struck an odd cord in me; what had he seen? Later on in the conversation he told us what he had seen to make his opinion of Muslim people change.

There was some preamble, but the brunt of the story is this: in the afternoon of September 11th, 2001, the streets of Fort McMurray were dead. He, knowing full well what the events of the morning were, happened to drive by the local mosque on an errand for his friend. Along the street next to the mosque, a half-dozen or so cabs were parked (as in many multicultural locations, taxis are often driven by people of some visible minority; I'm not sure why, come to think of it). In the soccer/picnic/recreation field behind the mosque were a half a dozen people, dressed in traditional Muslim clothing.

And they were celebrating.

Dancing, kissing, hugging, shaking one another's hands, pumping the air. Celebrating.

My supervisor told other anecdotal things afterwards which did not pertain much to the story or his feeling so much as allow him to vent some frustrations. His story is not actually what I am blogging about. I am more blogging about my reactions. At first I was skeptical that anything he saw that day would really be all that bad. His concerns about the events of the morning were colouring how he saw things for that afternoon. When I heard what he had seen, though, I was horrified. That there are people, living among us (that seems to be what angered him most), who would celebrate the deaths of thousands of presumably innocent people, is truly sickening. Of course, they may not have viewed these people as innocent...but in that case, who else do they think worthy of violent death? What are they celebrating?

Of course my supposedly rational, university trained, liberally biased, PC mechanism in my brain kicked in right away and said that what he saw was no reason to distrust all Muslim people. The rest of my brain agreed immediately. What I did feel, though, is an added sympathy toward someone who does harbour these feelings. I, after all, did not actually see people celebrating the deaths of people who could have including myself, or my loved ones. I was not in a moment of cultural shock and then witness to the depths of human depravity. Presumably particular chemical emotions flooded my supervisor's brain which are not flooding and have not flooded mine. I have not met a single Muslim person who was in any way hostile or unfriendly to me. Indeed, my interactions with Muslim people have been more uniformly positive than with almost any other religious or ethnic group, barring only Buddhists. My response to the Ontario Science Centre having a Muslim science exhibit thrilled me. I'm about as pro-Muslim as a normative Christocentric Christian can be (if you care what normative Christocentric salvation theory is, ask me). So of course I will respond with a sort of anti-racist response to his story... and recognition of the fact that my political correctness is, in this case at least, a knee-jerk response allows me to also recognise that if I were brought up in a different generation and saw different things, it wouldn't be. If I were in his shoes, I hope that I would not allow my experiences to negatively taint my perceptions of Muslim people; I hope this, but I know I would have to at the least fight myself to attain this fairness. I grew up pretty colour-blind, but that's easy to do when you can count all the non-white kids in your elementary school on one hand and you know them all by name. Going and putting it in practise in the multi-ethnic world can be harder if this is your situation, and having to deal with a mass of people who were all Muslim and who were all defined primarly by hatred in my mind would not be condusive to loving everyone equally.

To cut the rambling, I mean to say that, while I do not believe my supervisor is justified in mistrusting all Muslim people because of what he saw, I can approach understanding how he might respond that way. On the one hand this makes him fundamentally more human to me, which is important to me both as an author-aspiring and as a Christian. On the other hand, realizing I work with racists makes me uncomfortable, and the thin line between political correctness and bigotry is scary in itself.

As is, by the way, the fact that eight years ago there were at least two dozen people who were overjoyed by the news that terrorists had killed thousands of Americans--and these people lived here in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada. Home of the oil fields and largest distributer of oil to North America. One of the highest Canadian targets of terrorist attack. (I have heard that the 'sands and the bridge in town are on North America's top ten, but I'm not sure how true that is.)

Question: How does one love these people? How?

Tentative answer: Try to sympathize with them the way I sympathized with my supervisor?

(I had another rant to post today, but I forget what it is. Sorry. Was it something literary-theory-ish? I'm not sure.)

(I am labelling this with "hope" not because I feel hopeful, but because I need it.)


yolanda said...

good post. all i might at is that there is no guarantee that the attacks are - it may have been that they won the soccer game, or got a job, or engaged or any number of other things that people would celebrate.

Christian H said...

Of course it may be such a thing. According to my supervisor, they stopped celebrating the moment they noticed him, and he had heard from the RCMP that similar reports were made about other mosques... but then that is all a bit circumstantial or a bit to much hearsay.

NC Sue said...

About 2 years before 9/11, my husband and I (both Catholic) had a Muslim family from Pakistan stay with us for a few months while their son was being evaluated for a medical condition that could not be treated in their country. We learned much from each other.

One of the few positive memories I have of 9/11 is receiving a phone call from them that night, offering their condolences and sharing our sorrow.

I still feel great sadness at the rift that exists between many Christians and many Muslims. Certainly there are evil people on both sides. But I can't agree with generalizing.

Unfortunately, I also understand the suspicion with which many Christians view Muslims and, for that matter, the suspicion with which many Muslims view Christians.

I'm tempted to offer a bromide: pray for peace. But I confess to having little hope that I will see it in my lifetime.

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