(This is a continuation from the previous story.)
My story joins multitudes of other stories from victims of racism and xenophobia all over the world. But I’m one of the lucky ones. Many victims do not have anyone to defend them, they are in much more vulnerable situations, and are not able to simply shrug it off as someone else’s stupidity or malice, which in no way are reflections of themselves—their true selves.
Our stories continue, they do not come to a satisfying resolution—even when, at times, they seem tantalizingly close. Even when it seems, now more than ever, abundantly clear that we possess all the facts. Even when it seems, now more than ever, that we have all the reasoning and capability to respect each and every person as a fellow human being. Even when it seems, now more than ever, that we’ve had enough of these stories. We’ve had enough.
No, not with the surge in right-wing, anti-immigrant political parties throughout the world. Hate and injustice continue, spiraling, producing fractals, each spiraling and segmenting exponentially. Ongoing problems.
We debate endlessly whether certain immigrants can ever fully integrate, while the Trump administration has yet to reunite more than five hundred children with their families which they have callously separated for crossing the US border (source).
We debate if the burka or hijab symbolize the oppression of women, while powerful right-wing politicians and their supporters strive to ban Muslims from entering their countries. Ongoing problems.
We examine all the fine lines and gray areas of cultural appropriation, while people of color continue to be disrespected, berated, or physically attacked simply going about their daily lives. Ongoing problems.
These are all connected inasmuch that milder prejudices can be gateways to harsher forms of dehumanization. Yet, in contrast to the severity of the latter, the former seem more like matters of personal choice or taste rather than “problems”. In this context, we should see the former as the advanced sensibilities of a privileged society, blessed to have the wealth of multicultural diversity and its enormous advantages, culturally and economically, rather than something unpleasant to “tolerate” or some kind of reverse oppression. The co-existence of a different culture or language is not necessarily a “threat” as much as extremists claim otherwise.
The most pressing ongoing problems are not solely a “whites against minorities” issue, nor are they solely about race. Class and power also play key roles. There are good and bad people of all backgrounds and simply switching the roles of aggressor and victim by color will not solve any problems. But we cannot ignore the history of slavery and colonialism which has created and continues these stark inequalities along racial lines well into the present day. As much as people love to say they “don’t see color” and wish so dearly for race to simply be ignored, one cannot deny that the sense of inherited ownership of a country—its rights, its privileges, the inherited legacy of its “greatness” —is a fundamental justification for modern day hate.
You might be living under a rock (and willfully so) if you haven’t noticed the recent footage circulating throughout social media of people caught in various acts of overt racism, verbally harassing, physically assaulting, or calling the authorities on others who have done nothing to provoke that hostility. These videos are usually shot by indignant bystanders, who recognize these acts as unjust, malicious and deliberate in their attack on minorities.
The aggressors have strong similarities, they seek to intimidate and remove certain people from certain places, places which they take it upon themselves to be guardians of. Aside from their obvious anger, they possess copious amounts of arrogance and authority. They are overconfident in their harsh assessment of the others—even if they are challenged by evidence to the contrary—and they expect to be fully vindicated by law enforcement.
As we are used to on the internet these days, we can debate the specific circumstances of each situation, the valid or invalid grounds for hostility. We can process multitudes of perspectives on the victims and the aggressors, from the empathetic to the critical, the balanced to the skewed, the kindest to the harshest. We could even debate the authenticity of the videos, or the fundamental meanings of free speech, truth, objectivity and reality itself.
All our arguments are then instantaneously compressed into quick memes and tweetable dichotomies: Either against immigrants or for open borders, either right-wing Nazi or leftist liberal, either for us or against us. But these stark divisions ignore the startling similarities extremes have with each other and the vast majority of people who fall in the enormous space in between. Such debates usually take us from nuance to mud-slinging to intractable divisions in no time flat.
They might very well be distracting us from making actual changes and asking ourselves an all-important question in these situations: What makes our society valuable to us and what are we willing to do to protect it?
Perhaps that answer might be “the Constitution”, “freedom”, or “human rights”. But, under the stress of real-life situations, I find that answer to be clearly, unanimously: comfort, security, and peace.
Having been in such hostile situations myself, multiple times in my life, what has always intrigued me the most are the reactions of the bystanders. Apart from the people directly involved, most bystanders make considerable effort not to involve themselves in the scene, even when the aggressor is yelling at the other person right next to them.
Avoiding involvement or confrontation is, for most of us (myself included), the default setting in stressful situations. Our own comfort, security and peace are far easier to uphold than any higher morals or ideals. There is so much focus on the anger, hate and outrage that spark and fuel such drama that subtle, commonplace behaviors go unnoticed—even though they effectively enable and support such incidents as well.
At especially traumatic times there was no one to defend me but deafening silence, or worse, an echoing hostility as if I must have done something wrong to earn that kind of hate. In a spiraling story with no end, it is clear that everyone loves a perpetual hero. A great hero is always there to save people, but nobody likes a perpetual victim. By the third or fourth act, people start to wonder if something is legitimately wrong with him or her. Why else would they attract trouble?
If the majority made it clear that they were against such crude behavior and racist ideologies to begin with, there would be no need for heroes. No need for victims. Aggressors interpret silence as support, inaction as complacency, and any form of attention as great exposure for their cause. Inciting violence is also a major motivation, as it provides them with much needed evidence to support the idea that they are being “threatened”. The best thing to do is support the victims. If we can show the person in trouble (even in a small way) that we care about their well-being we can make an impact.
When white nationalists harassed me and tried to get me fired from my job, I was very lucky that at least one person, the restaurant manager, Lloyd, stood up for me. Not only did he not sympathize with them, he also chose not to put his own comfort over mine. He valued and upheld the anti-discrimination laws that many other brave people of the Civil Rights movement fought for. The laws that truly make a country great for everyone not just an elite group. These laws are meaningless when there is no one to uphold them. Our democracy itself is in grave danger of being destroyed under an increasingly authoritarian Trump administration and the reckless hostility they inspire.
Under the stress of the extraordinary situation we currently find ourselves in, it should come as no surprise that there have been a surge of articles extolling the virtues of calm detachment from it all. In other words, directing us towards comfort, security and peace. As if all the initial ongoing problems weren’t enough! We must contend with the constant provocation of internet bots, trolls and endless divisive debates, while powerful media outlets push for a willfully blind sense of centrist “fairness” to persevere even amidst the encroaching injustices of surging authoritarianism.
The pressure compounds into a black hole at the center of this story spiral.
I was in a state of despair after reading such an article, beautifully written but resolutely complacent, when I came across the comments of another concerned person, Uriah Z Maynard:
I don’t disagree with everything said here, but at the same time I don’t believe that you can look objectively at the shift toward authoritarianism that the right has made since 9/11 and not be frightened. Fundamentally, the notion that it is our outrage over the outrageous that is the problem, and not the unprecedented evils of an increasingly extremist right wing government quite literally at odds with democracy and the established world order, is itself a delusion born of a deep-seated desire for peace and comfort (…) your view that the problem is one of incivility and not one of injustice indicates an extreme form of ideological blindness meant to justify inaction and discourage rational inquiry rather than support it.
This ideology of radical centrism and triangulated equivalence between left and right is not only not objective, it is actually injurious to the goal of peace and reconciliation.(…) Although it is important to give people the benefit of the doubt, to be respectful of others and engage in open dialogue whenever possible (…) and some numbers of intolerant people may be converted through patient dialogue and presentation of facts. The vast majority of those who support hate will not be persuaded, no matter how civil we are.
What’s needed now is not civility and compromise. What’s needed is resistance to the toxic ideology of hate spreading through the right wing, and repudiation of the false equivalencies made against those who actively oppose the intolerable. Reconciliation can only be achieved through the right wing losing both power and reputation, their power structures dismantled and their ideology of hate thoroughly discredited. Anything less is asking us to accept injustice, to accept the erosion of our democracy itself. Calls for civility at this point are not only inappropriate, they are actively harmful to the goal of a democratic society. (Quote has been modified from the original.)
Fittingly, it is the words of this decent person that give me great hope. Like Lloyd, like so many remarkable people who help others less fortunate than themselves. All those who value humanity over maintaining prejudices, over fragile egos, and over the comfort of the status quo are truly great. When decent people support each other and work together, we can leave this boring, repetitive story behind. Once and for all. We can find our way out of this stifling spiral we repeatedly find ourselves in and explore much more wondrous galaxies in a beautiful, infinite universe.
Text and pictures by M.P. Baecker.