Compassion for Prejudice through Reflection

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muslimhandsIt happened again, yesterday. Somehow, someone I had just met learned that my husband is Muslim. I saw it in her eyes, as they widened in horror for a minute and she looked uncomfortable and awkward. I could see the questions running through her mind, because I’ve heard most of them before. She settled on the relatively benign, “Didn’t you have to convert?” and “His parents let him marry you?”

It is still shocking to me when I run into small instances of Islamophobia in my life. As a white, American woman married to a Muslim, Arab man, I sometimes forget how fortunate I am to be able to surround myself with people who respect our personal choices and relationships. It is rare, but at times, I still get the split-second look of shock and fear when someone first learns that I am married to a Muslim. I try to frame it as an opportunity to provide an alternative narrative to the single story that the media perpetuates: the story of Islam as unfeminist, oppressive, and violent. I liken it to Chimamanda Adichie’s Ted Talk about The Danger of a Single Story — I will not speak for Muslims, but I will provide my story about living in Morocco and my interfaith family and hope that the narrative might spark questioning the validity of the single-story of negativity. Despite understanding the reasons behind these negative associations, at times, it can be hard for me to understand why people automatically assume the worst.

I have had the joy and privilege of being able to participate in a professional development program at Duke University called the Intercultural Skills Development Program  — a program that should be adapted at colleges and universities around the country. One prompt for a reflective journal asked us to think of an early memory of when we first became aware of cultural difference and how this experience shaped our impressions of people who are different.

Almost immediately, two experiences from when I was four or five years old came to mind. The first involved my best friend at the time, who was a first generation Korean-American. I was excited that she was coming over for dinner, and my mother was making one of our typical standbys: spaghetti with Italian sausage in marinara sauce. The simmering sauce’s aroma permeated the house, and we came over to look. My friend, Christie, took one look into the pot, saw Italian sausage for the first time, and then looked up at us, horrified.

“Eww!! You eat…poo?!”

Of course, we all had a good laugh as my mother warmly explained what it was, and she still had dinner with us that evening, amongst gigggles.

This memory sparked another, where I was the one concerned about a cultural food. I was around the same age, and my family went to a neighbor family’s house for dinner. They were Jewish, and at one point, the boy around my age asked his mom for some matzo.

I had no idea what it was, so his mother explained that it was a type of cracker that Jewish people ate during Passover. She didn’t get into too much detail about it, but referred to it as a “Jewish food.” As with Christie and the Italian sausage, my eyes widened when she offered me a piece.

“Will I die?” I asked? “I can’t eat it! I’m not Jewish!” My friend’s mom laughed and reassured me that anyone could eat matzo even if they weren’t Jewish. But my heart rate had quickened, and I was convinced that I could not try it because it was not for me. It was different. It was Other.

“My friend Matt ate some before and he liked it, and he didn’t die!” my friend piped in. With trepidation, I took a bite of the crispy wafer, slathered in butter, and started to wish I were Jewish so I could eat this all the time.

Though in some ways these are just funny examples of kids being kids, they are also telling to reflect upon. In both situations, our reactions were that of fear or assuming the worst when we experienced something culturally unfamiliar. Though it seems hyperbolic, our initial connections were to something barbaric and disgusting– eating fecal matter — or that it would lead to death.

In other words, my default as a child was to be disgusted or terrified of the Other.

I was fortunate to grow up in an environment that valued multiculturalism. In both situations, parents provided warm reassurance and encouraged us to try something new. We learned to associate something positive with this Other experience. At a young and impressionable age, I was able to cross that boundary and experience something that was different and enjoy it.

And those experiences continued: I ate seder with our Jewish family friends; I ate Indian food with my hands at my neighbor’s house. I learned about different religions and traditions in school and lived close enough during my childhood to both the Canadian and Mexican borders at various times in my childhood to be able to take day trips to other countries. I also became comfortable with regional cultures in the US because my family moved very often when I was a child: growing up in North Carolina, New York, Florida, Texas, and visiting family regularly in the midwest helped me to not privilege one slice of American culture over another. Positively experiencing the Other ingrained in me a desire to learn, explore, and engage.

But my default, at my very youngest, was fear.

That realization makes it easier for me to be compassionate about that look of shocked horror when I tell people that I am married to a Muslim. It’s my fear of dying for eating a “Jewish food,” or my friend’s assumption that we were disgusting people who ate fecal matter for dinner. Without the cumulative experience of crossing cultural borders, we are afraid of the unknown, and it is through the process of trying to understand things–even as small as a new food– that are outside our comfort zone that we can tear down barriers to understanding.

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