Saturday, November 21, 2015

One crime doesn't fit all: Why I just can't wrap my head around anti-Muslim rhetoric

One of the most flattering and memorable compliments I've ever received was from a boyfriend who said he admired me because I always root for the underdog. It wasn't a personal quality I'd ever considered before he noted it, as it never required any conscious effort.

I've probably always backed the underdog because as a perpetual outsider, I've always felt a bit like one myself. In some ways (being black, being gay, being the child of immigrants), my outsider status was thrust upon me through no choice of my own. Meanwhile, as an expat for going on a decade, I've been geographically, culturally and sometimes linguistically an outsider entirely by choice. I often feel like an outsider even within the groups that make me one.

I wouldn't have it any other way. Always feeling like I'm on the outside looking in has contributed immensely to my character, building my independent spirit and, to a large degree, making me the loner with reclusive tendencies that I am today.

On the downside, when you're a minority outsider, in the eyes of many on the inside (the supposedly superior majority), you become less an individual than a symbol, an archetype with a checklist of characteristics assigned to your minority group. As a gay, black man, I've spent my entire life being shoved into two boxes, having immediate assumptions made about me that most in the supposedly superior majority (i.e., straight white men) never have to worry about.

If you're a straight white man, you'll rarely be identified or described as such. Chances are you're just a man -- your own man. The actions of extremist white groups like the Ku Klux Klan, or white supremacists, or neo-Nazis, have never been seen as reflective of all white people. The sins of several are theirs alone.

Sadly, as the aftermath of last week's Paris attacks have reminded us all, this hasn't applied to Muslims since September 11. The actions of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, terrorists who hide behind their religion, in the minds of too many, have become representative of the entire religion. So what now? Do we start feeding followers of the Islamic faith to the lions as the ancient Romans did with the Christians, or do we send them to concentration camps as the Nazis did with the Jews last century? Hasn't history taught us anything?

The other day, I saw a very touching video of a CNN reporter being interrupted by a young Syrian boy while giving a live report in Greece. They exchanged a few sentences in Arabic, and the boy was on his way. The end. I was extremely moved by the video, perhaps because in times that are so fraught with tension, it was such a simple and honest moment.

I cringe a little because as the video went viral, it became all about the reporter's gesture of "humanity" toward the young boy. How condescending. That interpretation of the brief encounter suggests that she was, in some way, superior to the boy, who may or may not have been legitimately "human." It's such a patronizing white-savior narrative.

To me, the video was noteworthy less for the reporter's gesture than for the boy's. He could be a kid from anywhere. He underscores the common thread in children around the world. Syrian youths are, in many ways, just like our own.


The boy in the video reminded me of my interactions with Arab children three summers ago when I spent time in Jerusalem and Palestine. I was touched by how warm and welcoming they were. The Syrian viral video star had the same cheeky charm as many of the children who approached me as I walked through the Arab quarter in Jerusalem, just to greet me and make me feel welcome in their neighborhood.

My moment of sweet reflection was interrupted when someone made a most offensive comment, presumably speaking as the boy in the video: "I want to grow up to be a suicide bomber."

I couldn't believe my ears. So now because members of a terrorist group happen to be Muslims and use their religion to justify their murderous actions, every Arab child wants to grow up to be a suicide bomber? ISIS does not equal Iraqis or Syrians any more than the Nazi Party equaled Germans during World War II.

A racist murderer descends upon a black church in South Carolina, killing members of the congregation. White cops routinely brutalize and sometimes kill unarmed black men and women. Does anyone assume that every white American child wants to grow up to brutalize and kill black people?

Of course not. But why does it only seem to be straight white men who follow mainstream Western religions that get the benefit of the doubt? If we won't make knee-jerk connections for all of them every time a straight white man acts up, why are we so quick to make them for pretty much anyone who falls outside of that racial/religious/gender demo?

Perhaps it's my lifelong outsider status that makes it easier for me to see people as individuals rather than representatives of specific groups. I'll probably never know what it feels like to just be me in the eyes of most people and not "the black guy," or "the gay guy," or "the American." I'll probably never know what it feels like not be on the outside.

But I'd rather be stuck out here with some degree of enlightenment than on the inside and totally in the dark.
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