Do you ever wonder what the world would have been like if Pangea had never broken apart into the continents we know today? What if we were all just smushed together into one big pile of people and land? Would we have passports form
How cool would that be? We would all be World Citizens. That is my new life goal in fact, Pangea or no Pangea. When someone asks me where I’m from, I want to be able to say, “Same place as you: Planet Earth!” I suppose I could say it now just for kicks, but I don’t think I’m quite there yet. I want to be there, but I’ve got some time left yet before I can be of the World and not just of Los Angeles or California or the United States.
I have found a running theme this summer in the conversations and issues that have arisen throughout my stay here, that theme being how as a society we focus on our differences rather than our similarities. In a recent dinner conversation we pondered whether or not it is better (at least within the United States) to emphasize how we are different or how we are the same. It’s an interesting question, and one that has sat in the back of my mind for quite a while.
To preface, does America have a national culture? I have a friend who is often bothered by the fact that her significant other is partially attracted to her because she is of another race, another culture. He sees her, as she puts it, as exotic. While I understand her frustration completely, I can understand where he finds this appeal and why: it is hard sometimes to identify where my American tradition and culture lie, mostly because America is just an infant finding its legs in a world saturated with language, culture, history, epochal billows of life. I think it’s interesting how much I am fascinated and attracted to other cultures, people and places that are different than me, mostly because they are different. And also because, I think, it is easy to feel void of a specific culture in the United States. What is beautiful, yet confusing, about this country is that it is such a smorgasbord (I’ve always wanted to use that word) of flavors and colors and sounds; people have traveled from every single country in the world to live in the United States, to translate their way of life into new phrases and forms, mixing, matching, swinging and singing with everyone else….
Case in point: I attend the Fourth of July parade in Washington D.C., a parade celebrating the Independence of the United States of America, and 80% of the parade’s attractions are multitudes of culture groups from Filipinos to Peruvians displaying dance and song of their homelands. This is interesting because this has nothing and everything to do with American independence; hence, why I am confused about my own culture and tradition within my homeland. Perhaps part of American culture is the fact that we are all different, I don’t know. I will save this conversation for another time, and move onto the idea of whether or not it is right to be obsessed with differences among our neighbors, friends, and strangers.
While it is painful for me to consider a world in which we did not celebrate our ancestral heritage and gather around in various cultural celebrations, perhaps the key to peace in this world is just that situation. Perhaps in order to fully acknowledge that we are all human beings with the same base needs and desires, we must forget that we have different backgrounds, different skin colors, different understandings of language and environment. Instead of celebrating what the past has endowed upon us in the form of food, music, song, and language, we parade down the street with the achievements we ourselves have created, those that come from an anticipation of the future. While I was watching the 4th of July parade, I consciously looked at everything from the context of it being different: I looked at the Chinese drummers and observed simply that they were Chinese drummers. When the Latino dancers trotted by I recognized them as Latino dancers. I gave them a label, because that is how we as a society are trained to think: in labels. We organize things into different piles and drawers. This is problematic.
We had an Ashoka Fellow visit today; her name is Caroline Casey and she has an organization that promotes the rights of people with disabilities. She is legally blind. One of the things she said that really stood out for me today —-
Labels are for jam jars, not for people.
That statement could not be more true. When we allow ourselves to think in the context of labels and differences, something bad happens. This thing called racism happens. Labeling people, focusing on how they are different, how we ourselves are different, perpetuates racism. It perpetuates stereotypes. And it perpetuates hatred. By allowing each other to claim our differences, we create victims. By telling a minority, “we want you at our school because of the color of your skin” you perpetuate racism. In France, I learned recently, it is against the law to ask anyone their race/ethnicity. I’m not saying France is void of racism nor do I disregard the variety of problems that come along with this, but I do think it’s an interesting way to approach society and create one solid national identity. Because when you victimize someone, and give them the opportunity to recognize they have been oppressed and how unfair their life is etcetcetcetcetc, the only thing that happens is a psychological knot forms within their head, and they start to believe they are indeed a victim. Without making any argument at all about whether Sotomayor is the right candidate for the Supreme Court seat, I think it is worth observing how critical her ethnicity has been to the heat of the discussion around her confirmation. I understand diversity, but doesn’t choosing her because she is a woman and Latina only inflame her own percepetion of herself, and the stereotype that millions place upon her? Isn’t the most important part of a Supreme Court Justice the caliber of the decisions she makes on the bench, not the country her parents were born in?
The word victim is very interesting. I’m working with a Fellow candidate now whose organization has created a network of support for conflict survivors, and he has fought the U.N., the private sector, and the governments of the world to make disability rights a human rights issue. When he was 20, he took his junior year abroad in Israel, and on a weekend camping trip in an unmarked minefield and lost his leg on a landmine. Let me tell you: you say the word victim to this guy, and he may just rip off his other leg and beat you over the head with it. His main goal, same with Caroline’s, is to eliminate this word, victim, from our language. Instead, he sees a world full of survivors; people who have been dealt shitty cards, but take what they got and make more than the most of it. His organization’s mission is based on these five steps:
1. Face Facts—about suffering and loss
2. Choose Life—living for the future, not in the past
3. Reach Out—by connecting to others who have “been there”
4. Get Moving—by setting goals and taking action for a healthy recovery
5. Give Back—with gratitude by contributing to your community and the world.
This is in the context of a physically disabled person, but disabilities can come in all forms; and we ALL have disabilities no matter how many limbs we have or do not have, what color our skin is, or anything else.
And there’s the point. One I have made before I think, but one that has been made so incredibly clear this summer. We are all just people. Just human beings. Nothing else.
I was recently introduced to someone visiting the United States for the first time from Africa. He asked another friend, also from Africa, how he deals with white people. I really struggled with this one. How do you deal with white people? I’m still chewing on this, and it angers me almost to the point of tears whenever I think about it; I could barely get my breakfast down that morning. Do I have a specific way of dealing with black people? Asians? Hispanics? This guy would come back to us every night during his stay in D.C., complaining about how racist everyone was towards him, how many dirty looks he got, how people were visibly afraid of the “big scary African man.” Fucking bullshit. I’m sorry, pardon my French. But please. You know what the African population of D.C. is? In 2005, there were 115,000 African immigrants in the Washington metropolitan area, making up over 10% of the immigrant population, a number which has most likely inflated over the past 4 years. There are 300,000 Ethiopians alone, not to mention the thousands of others belonging to different African communities. While D.C. can be considered probably one of the more racist cities in America, there is no way he was being treated as terribly as he described. He wanted to see things in this way, so he did. He was looking for racism, so he found it. When we want to see the worst in people we can. When we think we need to “deal with people” in a certain way, then we will create ways to “deal,” whatever that means. I acknowledge that racism exists in the world. And I have empathy for those who have to struggle with the marginalization that has been fed upon minorities over so many thousands of years. But every white person in D.C. does not give every African a dirty look. And every African doesn’t struggle with the difficulty of interacting with every white person they pass on the street. It just doesn’t happen.
There’s a documentary I watched called “Paperclips.” Watch it. I’ll warn you I spent the better half of a Sunday in tears and viciously depressed, but watch it. It shows the danger of stereotyping and ignorance, how we isolate ourselves in the face of danger and challenges, blaming those who are most far removed. For example, many conflicts in Africa which seem to have large ethnic components actually can be traced back to the issue of resource scarcity: if there’s not enough food for the region, you do whatever it takes to feed your own tribe. More importantly though, it reflects the FACT that those characteristics of people can be so easily overcome with a small show of effort. Hatred is so prevalent in this world for no reason at all, and I saw it up close when this boy asked a friend how to deal with white people. Mere ignorance, the mere need to blame someone else for our own shortcomings, feeds this circle of stereotyping, racism, hatred. It just doesn’t need to be there. I, we, the world needs to learn how to take responsibility for ourselves, focus on the here-and-now, not the then-and-there.
I’m not sure what my point is, aside from the fact that there is nothing different about me, the Queen of England, or the guy who drives my cab, that is unless I want there to be. There is no excuse for intolerance or racism in this world. Absolutely none. I’d like to respond to what KK wrote in her comment on this post; I am as guilty as the next person of perpetuating stereotypes out loud or in my head. The other day I was walking through D.C. alone on my way to meet someone, and as I walked through different neighborhoods, I noticed the demographic quickly begin to change. Suddenly I was in a predominantly African-American neighborhood and shortly after that, a Hispanic one. I felt my body tense up as I walked though these areas, incredibly aware of the fact that I was white and a woman. But even as I was walking I was consciously recognizing the disappointment I felt in myself for stereotyping in the way I was, whether justified or not. It is very difficult seperate oneself from these stereotypes when they are so ingrained in your head. But it is important, and I was reminded of this by my friend Ben today, that it is about embracing what is unique and special about each culture and each individual within the framework that we are all the same and are motivated by the desire for happiness, love, and peace.
Moving on…my life in D.C. is coming to a close. Strange though, because it feels as though I have finally started my own little life, all by my lonesome. It’s dreadful to think that this is all so temporary, and that in a matter of weeks I will be starting all over again. But nevertheless, I have taken so much from this experience, which I will share more deeply in my next post. For now, here are some of the things I have been doing and seeing here in D.C.: