I have a confession to make. Ever since I created this blog, I’ve felt like I’ve been dancing around the subjects that motivate me to write and share in the first place. I’ve been tackling the big, the bold, the brash, distracted by the loudest and most pressing issues of our world but not really delving into the finer grains that intrigue me the most. That’s the problem with the big, the bold, and the brash, they take up our precious time and attention, keep us from discovering commonalities, things of subtle beauty, nuances, and getting to the root of problems with effective and practical solutions.
It’s time to get to the heart of the matter.
What intrigues me the most are cultural bubbles, the frictions between those bubbles, as well as the fine lines and manifold ramifications of multiculturalism, pluralism and diversity. In my experience, these concepts are neither straightforward, nor are they overwhelmingly positive and problem-free. They are not completely negative either. Yet, most importantly, they are worth striving for.
A week ago, I was approached by a concerned Muslim father to act as an interpreter and a cultural mediator of sorts, between him and our children’s preschool. He felt that Easter related activities such as egg dyeing and egg hunts were religious in symbolism, but he wasn’t satisfied with simply not allowing his own child to participate in the activities he deemed “pagan” and “impure”. No, he wanted all the other parents to rally against the tradition together. I found myself standing in the middle of a shaky bridge, on one side I had a fearful father, on the other side, defensive parents and preschool teachers, everyone getting more and more agitated. I explained to the father that it was an old springtime tradition, no one was forced to do it, and he was within his rights to keep his child from participating. But he insisted that it was “wrong” and everyone needed to see the error of their ways.
I consider myself a very tolerant, open-minded person, but this father clearly was not. He did not respect the tradition of the land he had just moved to, nor did he respect the decisions of the other parents whom he described as “blindly” accepting subliminal religious messaging. I felt the need to protect the group in this situation. Although I think it is healthy to question tradition and authority to a certain extent, it shouldn’t result in a climate of fear and repressing the whole.
In another situation, I watched an older white male stalk a group of teenage Muslim girls. The man was clearly trying to intimidate the girls and make them feel uncomfortable. When they sat down on some park steps socializing with each other, he kept hovering near them, staring at them, holding up his cell phone, waiting for them to do anything remotely illegal or aggressive. He continued this hostile behavior until the girls became so uneasy that they decided to leave. The girls had done nothing wrong, it seemed the only thing inciting the man’s fear were their head scarves. In this case, I felt the need to protect the girls. I made sure they were safe and the man did not follow them.
I don’t think I’m alone. I think more and more of us have to navigate challenging situations like these every day. Often, we can’t talk about it openly without being labeled a “liberal”, or a “racist”, or belonging to a “bad” political party. But what is most worrisome, is when governments, public institutions and adults fail to discuss these things out in the open, when we fail to have a healthy discussion and come to a fair agreement, the most difficult tasks actually end up falling on the children. The children of immigrants and refugees shoulder the biggest strain in cultural conflicts, as well as suffer the worst of the punishments from self-righteous, vindictive people on all sides.
I’m one of those children. I had to navigate between the religious fundamentalism of my immigrant parents and the casual racism of my American peers, as well as between the many, many positive qualities and strengths of both sides. I had to find my way with very little support, barely finding anything in the media or literature (at the time) illuminating my peculiar situation adequately. I had to find my own way. What I discovered is something somewhat intangible, yet very much real and worth achieving, though it can be difficult.
What I’m getting at here is what we deem valuable and worth protecting are not the exclusive traits of a single race, religion, nation, or culture. They are not indicated by appearance or other superficial qualities. They are the traits of democracy, a tolerant, inclusive society, “the free world”, a modern world. These are values that can be learned, passed down, and upheld by anyone able and willing.
What exactly makes someone able and willing is worth examining, rather than taking up the nearly impossible task of trying to convince the intolerant, fearful and crude to change. Their world will always be black and white. But for those of us who yearn for color, for all the colors, it will be shades, filaments, subtle variations from here on out.