A War of Race and Rhetoric
Generally, I attempt to stay away from sharing too many "political" posts on Facebook. I think social media can be a great place for informed and productive discussion, but more often than not the sensationalism can turn into a toxic feedback system that just further entrenches people in their own views.
You could say the past two weeks were the straw that broke the camel's back.
Between the acquittal of the police officer in the Philando Castile case and the assault and murder of 17-year old Nabra and the end of a twenty year old White House tradition that promotes diversity of religion and interfaith discussion, it has been hard to keep quiet.
I can speak about my experiences as a minority in the United States pretty openly now. But it took a long time to get to this point. In the depths of my closet, there is a box overflowing with papers and certificates from my elementary school years. There are journals filled with crude handwriting, made up stories with little plot development, and hand drawn portraits of myself colored in with the lightest shades of beige the Crayon box offered--instead of a more representative shade of slightly burnt toast. At this age, I often saw and portrayed myself as "white," the same as my peers and friends around me. I didn't recognize the differences until I was confronted by other seven year olds. "Your religion is wrong!" they accused. "You're not American!" they insisted.
And while the volume at which these accusations have been shouted has varied over the years, it has certainly increased over this past year. These exclamations reverberate throughout the country--attaching themselves to each "not white" person they reach in different ways. They are echoed in the rhetoric used by the media and politicians, the verdicts of the courts, and even the insults of school bullies.
I know that there are formal definitions of "hate crimes" versus "terrorism," but we seem to shy away from using this terminology when the perpetrators do not fit our national mental framework of "a terrorist." We often use "mental illness" as a cop out for as long as we can stretch it (see: Dylan Roof and London's Darren Osborne). Mental illness is obviously a serious concern that faces many stigmas throughout societies. But mental illness did not influence these people to feel that it was okay to target and attack a group of people that looked different than them. That was society's fault.
That was the fault of acquitting every single cop that was too quick to pull the trigger (four, five, six times on one person). That was the fault of validating rhetoric like "I think Islam hates us" and "The fear of Muslim people is rational" by voting or appointing those people into positions of power. (By the way, can we talk for just a second about how wrong those statements are? How can you promote and encourage a nation to be fearful of and hate the entire population of the second largest religion in the world because of the extremist acts of just a few? Do we blame the entire population of Germany for the inhumane actions of Hitler and the Nazis against Jewish, gypsy, and disabled populations?) It is the fault of thinking that the country belongs to only a select group of people. That you are right if you are the majority demographic, the traditional definition or pop culture's depiction of "an American" or a "Brit."
I think the only ways we can make progress is through individual action. It is slow work, but I pray that this domino effect takes hold as we impact each person we interact and communicate with. In the grossest oversimplification possible, we can combat ignorance and develop empathy.
1. Combatting ignorance
Donald Trump credits his victory to a divided nation. He's right about that. And his campaign showed us where that division lies. I think most of it stems from misunderstanding; this misunderstanding has often developed into hate. "2016 was an unprecedented year for hate," said Southern Poverty Law Center Senior Fellow Mark Potok. "The country saw a resurgence of white nationalism that imperils the racial progress we've made, along with the rise of a president whose policies reflect the values of white nationalists. In Steve Bannon, these extremists think they finally have an ally who has the president's ear."
Many of these sentiments are a result of pride and ignorance, and I think we can answer this with education. If there is something you don't know or someone you don't understand, it is better to engage in conversation or pursue that knowledge than to make assumptions. So much of our hate comes from the fact that we do not know the other side.
The White House missed out on an incredible opportunity to promote this type of discussion and understanding by ending the tradition of hosting a Ramadan iftar dinner this past month. (Ramadan is one of the holy months of the Islamic calendar, where Muslims fast from before sunrise to sunset by abstaining from food and drink. This month is spent in prayer and self-reflection, which has made the attacks committed by ISIS as well as those against Muslim civilians this summer even more difficult). Many applaud the administration for this decision, admiring his discard of political correctness in interacting with the "terrible and hateful religion." But this just entrenches them in a misguided view. The president says he wants to unite the country, but he just pushed 3.3 million Muslim Americans further away by sending them yet another message that they are not welcome and they are not to be celebrated.
2. Practicing empathy
We need to stop thinking we know everything. We need to stop thinking that we have every solution and that if only X did Y, ISIS would be defeated and the world would be a better place for everyone. It is not that simple. And the point I am trying to make here is not how to stop terrorism or how to physically end violence against minorities in America--because at the end of the day there are always going to be people with hate in their hearts that don't want to listen. The point is to understand the secondhand effects these actions have on other people around the world--Muslims, non-Muslims, white people, brown people, and everything in between. The point is for the people that can, the people who are even just a tad open to listening and learning from other perspectives, to please do that. To check your privilege and think before you speak. To remember that you are just one tiny piece in the world and that there is another person oceans away who is just as significant as you are. To just try for thirty seconds to understand what it would be like to have lost your entire family, to be forced out of your home, and to have nowhere to go. To believe that their faith, their true faith and not some extremist and baseless version of it, can be just as legitimate and fair as your own.
Empathy doesn't mean being blindly sympathetic to anyone facing hardship. Sometimes it requires recognizing and acknowledging that some hardships may actually be a result of differences you are unable to understand. And that is okay. Despite the many surface level differences we can point to--whether that is race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or socioeconomic status--at the end of the day we are all unified and equal in the human race. It would do us all well to remember that.