Racial dialogue, part III

Lolla Mohammed Nur criticized me on the Web; I shot back in print. During break, we became friends.

Hello Lolla, my friend. So, whatâÄôs your beef? IâÄôll be honest: I initially thought you were an insincere jerk. But I donâÄôt think that anymore, as we are now best friends. Yes, we are. Tell me, where has this column gone wrong? I think you used racist arguments without fully realizing it. Your column basically gave racism an excuse when you said that it is somehow related to our natural inclinations. This is very offensive not only to me, but to all people of color who read your column. We do not currently see explicit racism as it used to exist in America or racism necessarily toward a particular skin color; rather, the current root cause of racism is societyâÄôs lack of understanding of everything else that comes with a different skin color, such as culture, identity, religion or language. My Ethiopian culture may dictate a certain lifestyle and values that may not exist in the mainstream American culture. I am Muslim, and my religion is the most important aspect of my identity. It is because of my religion that I choose not to handle alcohol, that I wear a headscarf and long clothes and that I pray five times a day. Americans point to the SomaliâÄôs refusal to handle pork or alcohol as proof of their refusal to assimilate. This shows the lack of understanding many Americans, particularly privileged and white Americans, have of other cultures. âÄúWhite privileged Americans.âÄù What do you mean by that? Most white Americans live in privileged bubbles: They (for the most part) live in white, suburban neighborhoods; go to white, suburban schools; have white friends who live in the same culture and speak the same language âÄî basically they live the same lifestyle and share similar values, norms, religion, etc. So theyâÄôre minimally exposed to people of color and other cultures. This can lead to complacency and indifference to knowing âÄúthe other,âÄù resulting in ignorance and fear of âÄúthe other,âÄù inevitably justifying racism by pointing to a perceived refusal to assimilate. I believe that itâÄôs privileged white Americans who donâÄôt have the will to understand other cultures. Why must others assimilate? What is assimilation? If weâÄôre talking about assimilation in the sense of East Africans learning about American culture, learning English, working and being educated, then, yes, the East African population is âÄúassimilatingâÄù in that sense. But if weâÄôre talking about assimilation in the sense of conforming to another culture and forgetting mine, I think thatâÄôs unnecessary. I âÄî a Muslim Ethiopian immigrant from Saudi Arabia âÄî refuse to forget my language, I refuse to change the way I dress, I refuse to change my religion to the inherent Judeo-Christian one and I refuse to change my cultural and religious values to conform to those considered mainstream. Secondly, I disagree with the argument that racism is partially caused by the Somali refusal to assimilate. Racism toward Somalis is not caused by the Somali refusal to assimilate; rather, it is caused by white AmericansâÄô refusal to understand Somalis, East Africans and their cultures, religions or identities. The problem is that many white Americans are so privileged and live in such closed bubbles that they literally canâÄôt see past these bubbles. They canâÄôt understand other cultures, languages or religions. I think you alluded to this in your first piece. Like this column, youâÄôre saying the fault lies mostly with the majority? Well, yes. The funny thing is that most white people donâÄôt even realize they are privileged, but the disadvantaged see it clearly. ThereâÄôs a hidden sort of racism in America, integrated so much so that itâÄôs only visible to those who are on the receiving end but invisible to those on the privileged end. I see more racism in this country as an Ethiopian, Muslim female than you may see as a Caucasian male, Ross, because I am the one directly affected by it, not you. So, white Americans need to realize two things: first, that they are privileged, but they canâÄôt escape this privilege because itâÄôs already integrated into the system. Second, because they are âÄîand have always been âÄî privileged, they can never fully understand the immigrant experience. They can never understand our experience, but they should try, as immigrants do sincerely strive to understand the âÄúhost countryâÄôsâÄù culture. However, it is the responsibility of those who have the upper hand in society âÄî those who are more privileged âÄî to get out of their bubble. At the same time, I donâÄôt mean to offend white people or you, Ross; I know that not all white people are well off. However, ignorant people need to ask questions and really try to understand why immigrants come to this country, what they want to do and who they are. What are their cultures? What is/are their religion(s)? Why do they dress like that? What languages do they speak? What is it like to live in their home countries? What are the differences between living in America and their home countries? Do they feel isolated or at home here? What difficulties do they face? What do they love or hate about America? What dreams do these people wish to achieve? There are so many questions to ask! But usually immigrants are never asked these questions. I agree with you. As a veteran, I can empathize with minorities, at least in the respect that the majority simply canâÄôt understand what weâÄôve been through. WhatâÄôs more, they donâÄôt seem to care. Lolla, you seem offended by the majorityâÄôs request to assimilate. Well, when people say that racism against East Africans is because of our refusal to assimilate, we get angry! Americans need to understand that East Africans are here, they will stay and this is their home. They want everything others want: a college education, a good job, a family, a place where they can practice their beliefs and rights without being vilified or isolated, and most of all, a place they can call home and be successful. Ross Anderson welcomes comments at [email protected]