As stated above, this is a blog post I wrote almost 5 years ago on a parallel blog. If you follow caterpillar.blog, you’ll have noticed I’ve been very quiet the last few months. Other than a quick article I wrote about homeschooling during the lockdown, I haven’t added much to any conversation happening. This is for many reasons, partly because I have been busy with my family, partly because I started purging my closet (again) by selling on Poshmark, but mostly because I have been very perplexed about the world lately. With the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s been dawning on me how slow change happens. How righteous ideas take so incredibly long to be even considered as a possibility. As a caterpillar/Dear Sister reader, you already know that I completed my PhD in literature, studying the construction of a maligned minority at the height of the most prolific literary period in one of Europe’s nations. That was almost 20 years ago. Post-colonial analysis was just starting to come around. I’ve written on here about some of the discussions I had with fellow graduate students on the inherent injustice contained in the “generosity” that white Christian, upper class majorities display towards what they considered to be inferior groups (be it by race, creed, or social status). It was astounding to me that such intelligent, sophisticated, educated brains could fail to grasp the idea that they were being discriminatory. Now, after Ibram X. Kendi, after “White Fragility,” after “Black Panther,” after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada and its 98 recommendations, and TODAY on “Orange Shirt Day.” I remain bewildered at the astounding lack of awareness in the wider population.
People of color, religious minorities, marginalized and Indigenous groups all over the world, still are at the fringes of society. They have to scream to get any attention, and they have to die in unconscionable numbers to get a blip on the news. Still, after all that noise, and that senseless suffering and death, they are considered a nuisance. And only recently, perhaps, a nuisance to be contended with. But not equally. Not because it’s right. But because the buzzing of their voices, and the frequency of the blips are wearing us down. Still, people feel they’ve done their job by wearing orange on Residential School Day, but still feel completely OK about not remembering that TOMORROW is Treaty Day, a day that should remind us all of the broken promises, the ignored pacts, the betrayal over centuries of a friendship that made it possible for white people to exist on this continent. Tomorrow should be a day to recollect, to renew our intention to respect the treaty that the founder of our country thought apt to rip to shreds.
I am too sad for words. I am not sure my words are heeded. I don’t want to just add to the noise, although all the little additions seem to be having some effect. Too little too late? Definitely not. It’s never to late to get better. But it’s tiring to come to the realization, every year, of just how insignificant our discontent, our oppression, our suffering is.
On this note, I thought I’d share these older thoughts I shared with my readers half a decade ago. Just to consider, how not so far we have come, but to continue renewing the flicker of hope I have that at some point all the noise will compound enough to actually make a lasting difference. Salam/Peace to you, those you love, and those you may not love as much.
A few days ago I read an article by a Muslim American Doctor who was trying to prove to her readers that she is doing a great service to her adoptive country and should not be discriminated against because of her faith. It left me perplexed and saddened, that such an accomplished person would have to put in print every good deed she did in the recent past to convince people of her rightful place in the society in which she lives.
Today I read a blog post, by a fellow mom, who posted a picture of herself and a Muslim lady she met in a grocery store, with whom she started a conversation that she felt was worthwhile sharing with the world. This is great, for a non Muslim American who has quite a following on social media to come out and share this special moment at a time when Muslims are being attacked and threatened with nothing short of expulsion and exile, it does need to be commended. However, and I don’t know if this is because she is being affected by all the hatred around her, or if she is genuinely afraid that she will suffer negative consequences for being completely un-partisan, but I read the article from beginning to end, and I kept hoping that she would say something uplifting, but the more I read, the more I felt bogged down by the heaviness of the rhetoric that was chiming behind every sentence. It was depressing.
I am no stranger to racism and discrimination, I have seen and heard fellow citizens discriminate and say the unthinkable when they thought they were “among themselves” and I have seen a very clear difference in the way people talk, look and deal with me ever since I started wearing the headscarf, but beyond that, I have lived the residue of discrimination and its fear because I am Native American. I wasn’t taught the language, but I was taught the traditional stories, I didn’t live the traditional life but I was always fiercely proud of being Native. Despite having gotten into fights at school over my heritage, or race, I never once thought it was something I should hide or be ashamed of, until I moved to North America. I would get questions like: “Do you feel safe? Are you comfortable with them? Do you identify with their way of life?” As though I was being disassociated from the stereotype everyone else supposedly belonged to. I was constantly being slipped out of the lump, just so they could justify staying friends with me and simultaneously maintain their stereotypical views. It was an acrobatic feat to watch and quite awkward at that.
It gets silly after a while, why do they insist in this exercise? Shouldn’t there be a certain boundary for silliness beyond which you stop and reconsider your notions? Shouldn’t the racists be willing to prove their arguments? Shouldn’t we all be held up to a higher standard of scrutiny, rather than be satisfied to name such people ignorant? Simply allowing anyone to blurt out whatever association their minds can concoct is probably something we all put up with, but sometimes it goes too far, sometimes there are just too many people saying too many things that are just too nonsensical to ignore. Maybe this is why the Muslim Doctor felt compelled to write her article, maybe this is why the mom blogger felt she needed to post her encounter, all the while fiercely maintaining her love of country. Then, maybe, it is no longer enough to just label racist comments as being mouthed by ignorant people too lazy to do any actual research. When has it become acceptable to want to strip one’s affiliation to any particular group just because one doesn’t fit within the standard stereotype? Who decides if I am who I say I am and not who you think I am? Why is the onus on the accused to prove they aren’t guilty by association? Why is it even relevant to any conversation? Why do people feel the need to blob together perceived difference from the self? And why should we “others” try to find ways in which we are not that different?
This woman, writing the blog in defense of the Muslim woman at the grocery store, states that she tries to teach her children not to discriminate. But how does she do it? How do we do it? Do we ask people’s religion (like she did) and then decide to be nice to them even though people around us say they’re not good? Or do we treat everyone with dignity and respect, assuming the best from the get-go, not knowing and then continue to treat them with the same respect and dignity when or if they reveal their “identity” to us? Or do we try to figure out “where they fit” and treat them accordingly, until we ascertain our “suspicions” and then try to give ourselves the credit for having been nice, despite this “difference?” Should we pat ourselves on the back for “being nice?” Or should we question why we think we are “being nice?” Is this not distinguishing on a superficial basis? Is this behavior really worthy of praise?
On social media it happens too frequently to ignore: some people will say “I have a Native friend,” “my sister is married to a black person,” “my best friend is gay,” “my neighbor is Sikh,” to somehow absolve what they inevitably say right after, which is usually prefaced by a “but” or “however.” This is really an attempt to justify some generalization they are about to make, which they know is wrong and thus warrants a formal explanation that will supposedly exclude them from the group of people who would normally state such sweeping generalizations: bigots. People preface such bigoted comments with “exculpatory notes” in order to gain credence for the statement they are about to make. Now, isn’t this actually worse than coming out and saying something stupid?
I always maintained that “tolerance” is no good, I don’t want to be “tolerated” for being Native, or Muslim because people around me feel “charitable” towards me. I never asked for this charity, I don’t want it. But I’m not desperate, perhaps, if I were, I would feel differently. Like someone recently pointed out, if you are in a dark hole and sinking deeper and everyone tries to keep you there or push you further down, if someone hands you a stick, or gives you a hand, you take it, you don’t ask what they want in return, you don’t check who is giving it to you, you just take it. And often, unfortunately, it turns out that it wasn’t a help you would have taken if you had known the purpose behind it. Unfortunately, sometimes, some people will seek out opportunities in which to take advantage of desperation, for their own gain.When people throw coins at beggars for entertainment, does that count as charity? Do the beggars participate in the charade by running after the coins out of sheer desperation, or are they admitting that this is a fun game they want to partake in? The exchange has occurred, the players plaid, but what is the net result? Is one diminished and the other exalted?
I may be an idealist, though I doubt it, I just kinda have read, heard and seen it often enough to want to believe in it. I believe that help, charity, smiles, compliments and all good acts should be given freely, without any expectations. These ought to be given not just because one wants to contribute to the betterment of society, but because one believes that sometimes people are in circumstances beyond their control and just need a little something to get back on track, for their own sake. I don’t want to change them, I don’t want them to pay me back, I don’t expect anything in return, and I don’t think I am better than them for being on the giving side rather than the receiving end. The roles could very well be reversed and there is very little worse than being reminded of favors one has accepted in times of hardship. I believe I have a right to exist and prosper, like anyone else, it’s not a privilege that I can be given by “nice” people around me who think I might be worth the risk. I don’t think I’m being charitable when I refuse to use race, ethnic, religious or class definitions when describing people, I simply happen to believe that there are better ways to describe people that don’t cluster them and confine them into artificial categorizations.
I don’t like to be smiled at by people because they fear me and want to “keep me on their good side,” or, perhaps worse, because they pity my circumstance and hope that I will “overcome.” I don’t mind people smiling at me, much better than a frown, sure, not that I pay much attention to how people look at me… but a fake smile? What am I supposed to do with that? Sneer? Give a fake smile back? Wonder why they feel obligated to smile at me even though they don’t want to? Wonder why they don’t smile sincerely? Feel happy that they are smiling and not frowning, even if it is forced? This is how I felt after reading the mom blogger’s article, I really don’t know if it was intentional, but I kept wondering about their conversation, was she being asked about other Muslims (all 1.6 billion of us) and trying to seamlessly slip her away from everyone else? Maybe not, but she didn’t share the details of the conversation in the blog. I still haven’t figured out what the most self respecting, decent, unequivocal, uncompromising, non-confrontational yet honest way to deal with unwanted charitable smiles is, so I just avoid looking at the people that I know have done that before, and avoid those who do it, the next time around. I have decided that I will smile if I am in a good mood and feel like I want to smile, regardless of who the person in front of me is, and not smile and simply look at the environment around me rather than the people around me when I am just not up for anyone’s “charitable smiles.” There are, of course, genuine smiles, and I am sorry that I miss some of those some times, but I do try to maintain good relations with those around me who have responded well to my approaches or who have shown a genuine interest in trying to get to know me.
I sometimes can’t help wonder, though, if I am not giving more credit to the few bigots than the neutral, and even worse, the ones who actually give a hoot? That’s not fair, is it? These fake smiles should not change me, they are false, just like the premise behind them is, and if I am going to be honest with myself and the world, I should continue to be who I am, regardless of what’s around me. And I know many people in Libya can relate to this sentiment. Even, and perhaps especially when there is a lot of that falsehood going around, I… WE must continue to be true to ourselves and see ourselves in the eyes of those who really see the individual and believe them when they stand by us, not because their voice counts more than ours, but because when falsehood and egocentricity abound, efforts based on sincerity, honesty and humility mean so much more. Maybe this is the motive behind the many patient testimonials in the Doctor’s piece. Desperate times can make people do extraordinary things, and I will not judge them, but I do wonder about those who exacerbate the pain of the downtrodden, under the guise of a charitable act. I wonder about those who believe they are above the desperate, simply for being in better circumstances. I wonder about those who take advantage of an unfortunate situation to boost their own ego. That I do wonder about.
Philosophers have talked a lot about the silent majority, about how ignoring injustice is tantamount to oppression. I guess we should be somewhat grateful for the small gestures, for the appearance of solidarity, for not being in the worst shape possible. Sure. That’s better for our own mental health than focusing on the inherent injustice. But we should not be satisfied that this is as good as it should be. Because it isn’t. We need to expect more from people. It’s never been enough for people not to actively harm, and it’s not enough for them to hand out charity with one hand while they hurt you with the other (as Anand Giridharadas so skillfully pointed out in “Winners Take All”). We should be able to expect more. The charade benefits nobody but a few, and if we don’t all get it, we’ll all pay, at some point.