Racial dialogue

Commentary about last week’s column makes my point: there is an antagonistic undertone in this inter-cultural dialogue.

This column discussed MinnesotaâÄôs most racially divisive issue last week: our growing east African/Somali immigrant population. The local, mostly-white majority was not exactly described in the most complimentary terms, referred to as âÄúthe intolerant Minnesota massesâÄù and âÄúignorant white people.âÄù The bulk of the column was dedicated to highlighting the unjust and underserved prejudice of the white majority toward our east African minority. The aim was to stir discussion and perhaps nudge our divided community closer to Attorney General Eric HolderâÄôs goal of addressing racism. On at least some small level, this column succeeded in that goal, inducing an unprecedented number of comments on the Web story. The commentary makes my point better than I ever could; there is clearly an antagonistic, us-vs.-them undertone in this intercultural dialogue, and the remarks display the tension and animosity previously mentioned. Another revelation from the commentary: Our east African population is not always the innocent, un-provoking victim that I painted them to be; they are an active contributor to the divide, and based of their commentary, seem similarly intolerant of the majority. In an attempt to offer a better understanding of the majority sentiment, I feel it incumbent upon myself to tender our local east African/Somali community some valid criticism. But before my commentary on the migrants, a few words about the race-issue dialogue. Can I criticize an entire group of racially alike humans? If theyâÄôre white, itâÄôs no problem, but if theyâÄôre colors other than me, then itâÄôs likely IâÄôll be called a âÄúracist.âÄù I reject this double standard. In writing about race issues, I realize that this label is preventing the honest, open discussion to which Holder aspires. My hope is that no one stifles this conversation by impetuously throwing around the term âÄúracist.âÄù Most of these knee-jerk label-throwers are insincere, and their attacks are mostly unjust, but the label serves as an effective muzzle, hence its copious use. This loosely applied term, and the fear of being labeled it, is a hindrance to honest discussions about race. In last weekâÄôs column I attacked âÄúignorant white peopleâÄù for their indifference toward distinguishing our east African residents apart, clumping them all together as âÄúSomali.âÄù But if I were to describe the same exact tendency of our local âÄúignorant black peopleâÄù [they do exist] IâÄôm immediately a racist. Is this not silly? Saying things like, âÄúThe crime rate is higher in the black/Somali communityâÄù is not an admission of racism; itâÄôs an announcement of fact. [Please spare me the e-mails explaining the socio-economic reasons for this. In a collegiate atmosphere this is elementary and is talking in terms of the past.] I hope that the ideas and tone of last weekâÄôs column grants me immunity from this label, but if not, I donâÄôt care âÄî I still write with honest fingertips. Now, onto the âÄúSomalis.âÄù Let us address the 800-pound gorilla in the room: the 12 missing Minnesotan Somali men who are suspected of pursuing extremist, murderous aims in Africa and possibly elsewhere, along with the Minnesotan-Somali Shirwa Ahmed, who strapped a bomb to his chest and detonated himself in a café full of innocent civilians. I must admit my intolerance here; I say this unequivocally, a suicide bomber being bred in my backyard is completely and utterly intolerable to me. This perverse, deadly brand of extremism is not representative of the Somali community as a whole, and the overwhelming majority serves to enrich our community. Still, the presence of evil extremism in the Somali community is troubling and will be used to justify the local majorityâÄôs suspicion and assist in their inclination to dismiss Somalis as a people. Yes, itâÄôs unfair, and also the reality of a perfectly justified intolerance. In an embarrassingly unbalanced news report that ran in The Minnesota Daily on March 3, the reporter offered a narrative of an unidentified Somali woman who was âÄúirritatedâÄù at being questioned by the FBI regarding the 12 missing men. It was framed as unlawful harassment. Apparently attending the same Mosque and being the neighbor of a suicide bomber is not justifiable grounds for questioning this woman? To my Somali neighbors, know that this questioning is worth your slight irritation, and I ask that you please cooperate in law enforcementâÄôs absolutely justified investigation of this homegrown evil. On behalf of the majority, I feel it beneficial to express attitudes widely held about our east African/Somali community: Own up to your own intolerance. The foremost complaint IâÄôve heard from the local majority is that âÄúSomalisâÄù just seem distant, intentionally alien and simply unfriendly. [I donâÄôt say this as a statement of fact, only of majority perception. And remember, the majority opinion is not represented on campus.] To the local majority who think âÄúSomalisâÄù to be inherently unfriendly or aggressive, please recognize that many of our east African residents came from environments unimaginable to most. As a veteran of two separate conflicts, most recently a 16-month stint in Iraq, I can more often identify with âÄúSomalisâÄù than I can with the majority. We share the same lingering understanding of Third World poverty. We share the caustic cognizance of living in fear and chaos. I can attest, once you have an understanding of these things, you tend to resent those that donâÄôt. [I was criticized last week for describing east AfricanâÄôs âÄúcommonly chaoticâÄù upbringing. To be clear, I donâÄôt speak to the Minnesota-raised college students, I speak to the cab drivers.] If my temporary irritation and resentment can be excused because IâÄôm a veteran, so too should that of our recently immigrated east Africans. An adjustment period is necessary for both groups. Finally, to address my strongest critic: one Lolla Mohammed Nur. [see online] Though Nur took some of her own liberties with my words, she thoughtfully challenged an important question: Is racism natural? Nur refutes that the prevalent racism here is a natural consequence of extremely different peoples cohabitating, contending that it is a learned trait. IâÄôm not so sure on this point. A simple maxim applies: People fear things that are different, Human Nature 101. Given this natural fear, isnâÄôt it more likely that tolerance is the learned characteristic, and racism is the more natural one? What do you think? Ross Anderson welcomes comments to [email protected]