The opening and closing of arms is the clearest, most true indicator that racism is real. We panic. We shut out those who are different, for they bring fear and the unknown. People who are similar to us culturally or ethnically are deemed safe. The world has become bleakly black and white. You are in or out, which is why passing is such a privilege. It’s the best of both worlds where one day you can feel special because you are different, and the next you can be plain Jane.
This was all very curious to me. How tolerant are we really? Or are we tolerant when it works for us, when we connect in our differences and see that someone is of or against the same grain as us? We often pat ourselves on the backs for being tolerant. We tell others we accept people for who they are, whatever that may encompass.
Until a moment of panic.
I’ve experienced these moments of panic. When I lived in San Francisco I worked events at a museum. I’d get off work late, walk to the bus stop, take the bus for a few stops, get off and walk a few blocks to my dorm room. I don’t think I breathed until I got into my building. Some nights I would watch a woman bump lines of cocaine on the bus. We had a homeless man sporadically living on our college campus. I watched a man jump off a building, to his death despite the crowd that gathered round singing “All You Need is Love.” I’d heard of a friend of a friend who’d been found raped and left alone. Another killed himself. San Francisco is weird. It’s almost too free, leading you to get lost within yourself.
As a woman I never feel completely safe. And then I went to Lisbon without knowing a lick of Portuguese. It was cheap and beautiful. I ate pastries and had no idea what they were. But the layers were sweet, sticky, and melted in my mouth. I drank caipirinhas on the beach, watched the tide roll back and forth. Stared at the Golden Gate Bridge wanna be and felt like I was being guarded by Jesus as he stood over the city. I met a drug dealer who was the kindest, most dangerous man I think I have ever met. He told me about his struggle – no parents, four brothers who started out stealing to get by. He got caught and ended up in jail. Now he was out of the theft game and into selling anything illegal. Company, pot, coke, molly, dmt – you name it, he could get it for you. We sat on a bench and drank beers all night. We laughed, talked, and it wasn’t scary or uncomfortable to be with a man I didn’t know, speaking choppy English, in the middle of a city I’d never been in. It was real and true because we connected. Life is a bitch and you are left chasing whatever you have to in order to make it. Every person knows it, but not everyone admits it. He did.
This thing called panic has led us to become citizens of pseudo-tolerance. One that represents ideas of tolerance, desires it; but one that fails to live up to the foundation of being tolerant. This foundation is taught to us as children: to accept others despite the differences.
As we grow these differences become more significant with negative undertones. When kids in my elementary school started seeing the similarities between my last name and Saddam Hussein’s, they asked if he was my uncle. Overnight I became the niece of a human butcher. These differences grow and grow until we no longer see each other as human beings. We are devastatingly afraid of what we don’t know, see, or trust. We are left filling in the blanks with what we assume to be true according to our own logic. In these moments of panic, differences are made to matter, to divide or group depending on what works for us at certain times, and essentially disables any bond from blooming.
What we have now is blatant stonewalling, a refusal to communicate or cooperate. The act of stonewalling is, at the simplest level, psychological abuse. It shows someone that their entire being, their very mind, body, and soul, is insignificant. If you consistently treat someone like shit, you are telling them they are shit, they deserve shit, and eventually they begin to believe they are, in fact, shit. Stonewalling takes intolerance to an entirely new, psychological level because an individual’s identity is compromised at the most basic level.
What remains a constant in my static-filled mind are my mother’s words:
“You must be tolerant. You must keep your heart open, your eyes wide, and your mind humble. Accept people for who they are, whatever they may be or wherever they are from*.”
As a first generation of immigrant parents, this all makes sense. It’s not asking for a lot. Be open, be kind, be curious. But never criticize or judge. We’re all allowed our own ideas and opinions, perspectives and beliefs. This is the fundamental right of all humans. But we are circling the drain to our downfall. Our society isn’t doomed because Trump is now President, not because of climate change (well maybe because of climate change but I’m trying to prove a point), and certainly not because gay marriage is legalized in a handful of states. We are doomed because of our inability to grow and learn from mistakes. The biggest mistake of all is unwavering, never-ending, brushed-under-the-carpet lack of tolerance.
We owe it to ourselves to hold ourselves accountable. Practice what we preach. Spread the respect we think we deserve individually, to the masses. Let people speak their minds, but do so in a way that expresses a genuine curiosity to understand.
*Mum’s one exception is anyone who believes in disrespect or harm to any living thing.
(End of Prose.)