Confronting my own xenophobia

This is hard to write.

Paris. Lebanon. The refugee crisis. Syria. The fight over the woman wearing the niqab in the Canadian citizenship ceremony. Parents in Thorncliffe removing their students from public school because they don’t want their kids exposed to “homosexual indoctrination.” A Muslim woman attacked in North York on Monday, the mosque in Peterborough burned on Sunday. All of comes together for me, a tangled dark ball of questions and pressure cooker for us to figure out how to talk and interpret the world in a new, complex way.

I’m one of those people reacting to the Paris attacks on FB and in my conversations by emphasizing openness, compassion, not reacting with violence. I sent some money for the rebuilding of the Peterborough mosque, have already contributed to two grassroots groups sponsoring Syrian refugees. Talk with my friend Joanna about how she wants to send “their” Syrian family a message that simply says “we still love you.” Respond with tears to my colleague Shaheen’s eloquent message that she doesn’t have to attest to being “not that kind of Muslim” because we already know who she is. Forward links about how refugees are screened, how the situation in Syria was created. Pass on Pema Chodron’s words:

“When I think about the tragedies in Paris and in Lebanon and in fact in many places in the world, It seems to me that’s it’s very clear that the cause is hatred. Therefore I feel for people that are committed to waking up and being of benefit to others, the key is for us is to not nurture hatred in our hearts. It may seem beyond many of us to feel compassion for the perpetrators, but probably the most important thing is for us to not add any more aggression to the planet, but to add as much open kindness and open heartedness as we can.”

I have a clear position, post-Paris: violence begets more violence; intolerance creates more fear and division. I want us to stay open. I have been working deeply into a loving kindness meditation practice in the last year, exploring the edges of my own compassion. I know what “kind of person I am” in this situation, who I want to be.

And yet.

This is the hard part.

This makes me really confront my own racism, my own xenophobia.

A few weeks ago, I was one of the people triggered by the niqab/citizenship ceremony issue. I ranted about it to Danny in the car, then found myself bringing up the topic just so I could rant more about it at a dinner party.

Here is the narrative: I respond with a kind of reactive fury to the niqab issue because it represents oppression to me. I get angry when I see women wearing full robes and niqab on Parliament Street. Bringing a symbol of oppression into a citizenship ceremony in a country that is supposed to have a value of acceptance and openness seemed elementally wrong to me. The parents in Thorncliffe hurling homophobic epithets at Kathleen Wynne, removing their kids from public school, are largely newcomers. A few years ago, I encountered a parade of Chinese Christians protesting same sex marriage and squealed with fury. I have a fundamental, visceral reaction to the notion that people might “come to my country” and “try” to invert the rights I have fought hard for. The notion that “tolerance” opens up intolerance of ME enrages and upsets me. I want the woman talking about the niqab in her citizenship ceremony to make the point that her religious freedom is in the same spectrum as my freedom to be queer. When she doesn’t, I shut down.

No, I don’t shut down. My ability to process, to be open, shuts down. My reactivity, tightness, fear ramps up. What sociologists call “othering” starts up — seeing other groups of people as so different from us that they stop being human.

I have good people in my world. I flushed that poor dinner party into a swirl of my uneasy emotions, but they listened hard, asked questions, gave thoughtful responses. Talked about what it means to be a newcomer, the kind of fear and tiny communities where meaning is made because it’s the only space you know. The fear of losing your children, your culture, to things you don’t understand. At the end of the dinner party rant, someone said simply “it sounds like you’re afraid of losing what you’ve worked hard for. Thank you for telling us you’re afraid.”

A response of real compassion. And it flicked me into shame at seeing myself, where I was letting fear swallow “who I believe myself to be” at my best. Made me think differently about what I was saying, the assumptions I was making. The way I’d attributed beliefs to whole groups of people, refused to hear women’s own voices about their own experience. Made me listen to what they are really saying about the choices they make, how their spirituality means something different to each person. The lessons I thought I’d learned about treating groups as monolithic, not individual humans, a long time ago.

Paris brought this back. It’s easy to be outraged, to advocate for supporting the refugees in abstract, understanding how Syria got created, send $25 to the mosque in Peterborough. Nod sadly at someone else’s pain. But it’s more important for me to be honest with myself, to understand that I am one of those with kneejerk responses, to look at my own xenophobia, to understand my own fears.

I studied dialogic communications. I started my PhD after being inspired by a Jewish woman trying to create dialogue groups between Palestinian and Israeli women. I understand how to facilitate conversations between diametrically, intractably opposed groups by helping them find grey. And I see that when my own fears rise up, I can become as blind, as tiny, as aggressive as any of the responses I’m tut tutting at now about Paris.

It’s hard work to really reach across lines when it’s fear of losing your identity, what you hold dearest, feels threatened. This is the lesson for me.

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3 responses to “Confronting my own xenophobia

  1. I struggle with the same issues as you. As a daughter of muslim immigrants, I’ve seen oppression of women from a different vantage point and it has certainly shaped the woman I’ve become. I see it on a spectrum, from the blatant, in-your-face symbol of oppression known as the niqab, to the more subtle symbols of gender disparity, such as income gaps, less women in senior roles, etc. The one thing I have always believed to be true to Canadian values is feeling there is safety in having these types of conversations with people who have the best of intentions, who want to contribute to a compassionate, open and caring culture. I believe change can only happen when we feel vulnerable or discomfort. To move forward, we need to acknowledge these feelings but more importantly, be able to have these conversations to learn and move forward. Thanks for sharing what many people are likely thinking and feeling!

  2. Your honesty makes good thoughtful writing. Thanks.

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