Posts Tagged ‘diversity’

Black, white, tan.

October 4, 2008

I love this song. :]

When you think of Americans, how do you picture them? Do you think of people with an American family history a foot long, or people who still only know a few English words? Do you think of people whose ancestors worked hard to establish themselves as newcomers to this country, or people who are working to establish themselves here now? Do you see it as either/or?

Wherever you stand on illegal immigration, it never fails to amaze me how downright mean people can be to immigrants themselves. When you see a Mexican family at the grocery store, congratulations! You now know that they’re a Mexican family! When you see someone jabbering on their cell phone in Spanish, congratulations! You now know they speak Spanish! You don’t know these people, you don’t know their legal status. You don’t know anything about them. And if you choose to discriminate against them or treat them as if you’re sort of unsure of their right to be walking on this ground, congratulations! You’re either ignorant or racist or both. And let’s say you’re right. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, your suspicions are correct, and the folks you’ve run into arrived here illegally. Does that give you a right to treat them differently? I hope not! They’re still people, and this is still America.

My great-grandfather got here by lying about his age. That’s not exactly “legal immigration,” if you catch my drift. And he was by no means the only less-than-legit immigrant by way of Ellis Island. If you’ve ever read anything about historical immigration, you should know there were all kinds of tricks to get in when they meant to keep you out, and there were tons of people who perfected them. Lie about your age. Lie about your friends and family. Lie about the job you have waiting. And don’t forget, if they mark your coat with a white letter, turn it inside out and put it back on. But he was from Greece, so, you know. Somehow it’s different. Only it’s not. Remember the 1800s? Okay, stop, you know what I mean. When multiple forces combined and drove the Irish to emigrate to American in large numbers? Good. It’s good to be on the same page. All right then. The “real” Americans resented the Irish coming and filling jobs. People rioted and fought and discriminated to the moon. Employers put “No Irish Need Apply” signs in their windows. NINA was a catchphrase, and it was somehow considered “patriotic” to dislike the Irish, to fill your speech with racial slurs against them. Sure, there were problems back in their home country, but they weren’t your problem, now, were they?

Check out this exerpt from Tom de Haven’s 2005 novel It’s Superman! which is set in 1930s rural Kansas:

“Our friend Mr. Jiggs?” says Dutcher.
“Yes, sir.”
“Wanted a candy bar, did he?”
“I don’t know what he wanted,” says Clark. “It never got that far.”
“So how far
did it get?”
“He started in calling Alger names.”
Said, “You expect to find woolly-heads in Kansas City, but you got ’em
here, too?”
Said, “Why somebody in these sad times got the
gall to go and let a nigger work a job could be done by a white boy is just something that burns my ass.”
Said, “And why ain’t he wearing gloves, anyhow? Touching food.”
Dutcher passes a hand over his eyes, gets up, and stretches. “That’s what he said, huh? With no provocation?”
“He just started talking.”
“How did Alvin react?”
“Alger. And he didn’t.”
Not at all. He merely looked back over at Clark and said if there was nothing else, that’d be forty cents, please.
“You ignoring me, sonny?” said the man.
“I didn’t think you were talking to anybody in particular,” said Alger, but he was still facing Clark, saying that like he was saying it to him….
“So Alger mouthed off and Makley pushed you away to mix it up. That it?”
“Alger didn’t mouth off. He just said he didn’t think the guy was talking to anybody in particular.”
“Funny boy, huh?”
Alger swallowed, but never blinked. Addressing Clark again, he said, “Your total’s forty cents. Sir.”
“You think you’re a funny boy,
that what you think? You come on out from behind there, hear me? And you, sonny”–the man Clark had recognized as Jiggs Makley was glaring at him now–“you go on back and take his damn place. I don’t want to be waited on by no woolly-head thinks he’s a funny nigger boy. Hey. What’re you looking at?”

To think we as a country have moved past this is absurd. If it’s not blacks (and sometimes it is), it’s Mexicans. Or Arabs. Or fill in the blanks. It makes me sad to be a part of this place. I think we’re better than this, but as long as we keep marketing prejudice and racism as patriotism, we’ll never get where we need to be. America used to be proud of its melting-pot image. We used to be what other countries dreamed about. We were the land with golden streets.

We are NINA, we are segregation all over again.

Here’s a bit from my blogging friend Travis: “America has come a long way when it comes to race relations: slavery and segregation have been abolished, most employers are equal opportunity, etc. And yet in the 21st century, Dr. King’s dream has not been completely fulfilled yet. The immigration debate never fails to stir up strong emotions. I understand both sides of the issue, but what disturbs me is how too often the debate switches from just illegal immigrants to all immigrants. One of my Christian friends did a MySpace survey not too long ago, and one of the questions was, ‘What do you think about Mexicans?’ I was shocked when my friend answered, ‘Keep some of them here, but send the rest back.’ Let me remind you that the question did not ask about illegal immigrants: the question was specifically about Mexicans! First of all, not all Hispanics are illegal immigrants. Second, America was founded by immigrants (pilgrims, anyone?). Third, where in the Bible does it say anything about God favoring one race over another? ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ (Galatians 3:28)”

Most of us are familiar with a poem called The New Colossus. It’s engraved on the Statue of Liberty, for heavens sake. Take a minute to read it if you haven’t in a while:

The New Colossus [by Emma Lazarus]

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Look at her! Isn’t she wonderful? I got to see her once. It was amazing! Interestingly, most of the words flying around that day weren’t English. There were more Spanish-, Japanese-, German-speaking families and photographers than there were your stereotypical Americans [like us]. I didn’t know any of them; I don’t know if they were Mexican-American and Japanese-American and German-American, or if they weren’t American at all. Maybe they were visiting friends and decided to drop in on Lady Liberty before they flew home. They were all so excited, and no matter where they lived, it was pretty clear that they were proud of the Statue, proud of what it means, proud to get to pose in front of it for their Christmas card photo. Sometimes I think they value our own Statue of Liberty more than we do. Sometimes I wonder if we believe in her at all.


“To Any Would-Be Terrorists:”

January 3, 2008

To Any Would-Be Terrorists:

I am sorry I have to call you that, but I don’t know how else to get your attention.  I hate that word.  Do you know how hard some of us have worked to get rid of that word, to deny its instant connection to the Middle East? And now look.  Look what extra work we have.  Not only did your colleagues kill thousands of innocent, international people in those buildings and scar their families forever, they wounded a huge community of people in the Middle East, in the United States and all over the world.  If that’s what they wanted to do, please know the mission was a terrible success, and you can stop now.

Because I feel a little closer to you than many Americans could possibly feel, or ever want to feel,  I insist that you listen to me.  Sit down and listen.  I know what kinds of foods you like. I would feed them to you if you were right here, because it is very very important that you listen.  I am humble in my country’s pain and I am furious.

My Palestinian father became a refugee in 1948. He came to the United States as a college student. He is 74 years old now and still homesick. He has planted fig trees. He has invited all the Ethiopians in his neighborhood to fill their little paper sacks with his figs. He has written columns and stories saying the Arabs are not terrorists, he has worked all his life to defy that word. Arabs are businessmen and students and kind neighbors.  There is no one like him and there are thousands like him – gentle Arab daddies who make everyone laugh around the dinner table, who have a hard time with headlines, who stand outside in the evenings with their hands in their pockets staring toward the far horizon.

I am sorry if you did not have a father like that.  I wish everyone could have a father like that.

My hard-working American mother has spent 50 years trying to convince her fellow teachers and choir mates not to believe stereotypes about the Middle East. She always told them, there is a much larger story. If you knew the story, you would not jump to conclusions from what you see in the news. But now look at the news. What a mess has been made.  Sometimes I wish everyone could have parents from different countries or ethnic groups so they would be forced to cross boundaries, to believe in mixtures, every day of their lives.   Because this is what the world calls us to do. WAKE UP!

The Palestinian grocer in my Mexican-American neighborhood paints pictures of the Palestinian flag on his empty cartons.  He paints trees and rivers. He gives his paintings away. He says, “Don’t insult me” when I try to pay him for a lemonade. Arabs have always been famous for their generosity. Remember? My half-Arab brother with an Arabic name looks more like an Arab than many full-blooded Arabs do and he has to fly every week.

My Palestinian cousins in Texas have beautiful brown little boys. Many of them haven’t gone to school yet. And now they have this heavy word to carry in their backpacks along with the weight of their papers and books. I repeat, the mission was a terrible success. But it was also a complete, total tragedy and I want you to think about a few things.

1. Many people, thousands of people, perhaps even millions of people, in the United States are very aware of the long unfairness of our country’s policies regarding Israel and Palestine. We talk about this all the time. It exhausts us and we keep talking. We write letters to newspapers, to politicians, to each other.  We speak out in public even when it is uncomfortable to do so, because that is our responsibility. Many of these people aren’t even Arabs. Many happen to be Jews who are equally troubled by the inequity. I promise you this is true. Because I am Arab-American, people always express these views to me and I am amazed how many understand the intricate situation and have strong, caring feelings for Arabs and Palestinians even when they don’t have to. Think of them, please: All those people who have been standing up for Arabs when they didn’t have to. But as ordinary citizens we don’t run the government and don’t get to make all our government’s policies, which makes us sad sometimes.  We believe in the power of the word and we keep using it, even when it seems no one large enough is listening. That is one of the best things about this country: the free power of free words. Maybe we take it for granted too much. Many of the people killed in the World Trade Center probably believed in a free Palestine and were probably talking about it all the time.

But this tragedy could never help the Palestinians. Somehow, miraculously, if other people won’t help them more, they are going to have to help themselves.  And it will be peace, not  violence, that fixes things. You could ask any one of the kids in the Seeds of Peace organization and they would tell you that. Do you ever talk to kids? Please, please, talk to more kids.

2. Have you noticed how many roads there are? Sure you have. You must check out maps and highways and small alternate routes just like anyone else. There is no way everyone on earth could travel on the same road, or believe in exactly the same religion. It would be too crowded, it would be dumb. I don’t believe you want us all to be Muslims. My Palestinian grandmother lived to be 106 years old, and did not read or write, but even she was much smarter than that. The only place she ever went beyond Palestine and Jordan was to Mecca, by bus, and she was very proud to be called a Hajji and to wear white clothes afterwards. She worked very hard to get stains out of everyone’s dresses — scrubbing them with a stone.  I think she would consider the recent tragedies a terrible stain on her religion and her whole part of the world. She would weep. She was scared of airplanes anyway. She wanted people to worship God in whatever ways they felt comfortable. Just worship. Just remember God in every single day and doing. It didn’t matter what they called it.  When people asked her how she felt about the peace talks that were happening right before she died, she puffed up like a proud little bird and said, in Arabic, “I never lost my peace inside.” To her, Islam was a welcoming religion. After her home in Jerusalem was stolen from her, she lived in a small village that contained a Christian shrine. She felt very tender toward the people who would visit it.   A Jewish professor tracked me down a few years ago in Jerusalem to tell me she changed his life after he went to her village to do an oral history project on Arabs. “Don’t think she only mattered to you!” he said. “She gave me a whole different reality to imagine – yet it was amazing how close we became. Arabs could never be just a “project” after that.”

Did you have a grandmother or two?  Mine never wanted people to be pushed around. What did yours want?  Reading about Islam since my grandmother died, I note the “tolerance” that was “typical of Islam” even in the old days. The Muslim leader Khalid ibn al-Walid signed a Jerusalem treaty which declared, “in the name of God, you have complete security for your churches which shall not be occupied by the Muslims or destroyed.” It is the new millenium in which we should be even smarter than we used to be, right? But I think we have fallen behind.

3. Many Americans do not want to kill any more innocent people anywhere in the world. We are extremely worried about military actions killing innocent people. We didn’t like this in Iraq, we never liked it anywhere. We would like no more violence, from us as well as from you. HEAR US!  We would like to stop the terrifying wheel of violence, just stop it, right on the road, and find something more creative to do to fix these huge problems we have. Violence is not creative, it is stupid and scary and many of us hate all those terrible movies and TV shows made in our own country that try to pretend otherwise.  Don’t watch them. Everyone should stop watching them.  An appetite for explosive sounds and toppling buildings is not a healthy thing for anyone in any country. The USA should apologize to the whole world for sending this trash out into the air and for paying people to make it.

But here’s something good you may not know – one of the best-selling books of poetry in the United States in recent years is the Coleman Barks translation of Rumi, a mystical Sufi poet of the 13th century, and Sufism is Islam and doesn’t that make you glad?

Everyone is talking about the suffering that ethnic Americans are going through. Many will no doubt go through more of it, but I would like to thank everyone who has sent me a consolation card. Americans are usually very kind people. Didn’t your colleagues find that out during their time living here? It is hard to imagine they missed it. How could they do what they did, knowing that?

4. We will all die soon enough. Why not take the short time we have on this delicate planet and figure out some really interesting things we might do together?  I promise you, God would be happier. So many people are always trying to speak for God – I know it is a very dangerous thing to do. I tried my whole life not to do it. But this one time is an exception. Because there are so many people crying and scarred and confused and complicated and exhausted right now – it is as if we have all had a giant simultaneous break-down.  I beg you, as your distant Arab cousin, as your American neighbor, listen to me. Our hearts are broken, as yours may also feel broken in some ways we can’t understand, unless you tell us in words.  Killing people won’t tell us. We can’t read that message. Find another way to live.  Don’t expect others to be like you.  Read Rumi.  Read Arabic poetry. Poetry humanizes us in a way that news, or even religion, has a harder time doing. A great Arab scholar, Dr. Salma Jayyusi, said, “If we read one another, we won’t kill one another.”  Read American poetry.   Plant mint.  Find a friend who is so different from you, you can’t believe how much you have in common. Love them. Let them love you. Surprise people in gentle ways, as friends do. The rest of us will try harder too. Make our family proud.

[Naomi Shihab Nye]