On Being Diverse

Went back to Fes.  This time, it was because I was the sole white guy invited to participate in a “diversity panel.”  Who knew white people, with our Starbucks Coffee and moleskin notebooks, could be diverse?  Especially us white males.  You’d think because we’re the pinnacle of patriarchy, the privileged majority, that we should have nothing to contribute to, well, the idea of diversity.

I’m being a little cheeky, I admit.  I was actually invited to the panel to speak on religion as someone with a Masters degree on the subject.  But I was just as welcome there as someone who is white and male as I was because of my background in religion.

In America, we don’t think of  being white as a “diversity.”  Being white doesn’t make you different, because it’s the norm.  But the “norm” shifts depending on location.  And in Morocco, white is anything but normal.  Walking down the street in a town where you may be the only white person some people, especially children, have ever seen, you’re automatically a bit of a freak show.  Or are made to feel like it.  That’s not to say that we’re always harassed for being different, but being different and always feeling different highlight you in a way that can be incredibly uncomfortable.  But that’s not really saying much that’s new.  It’s just a perspective I wish I could share with a lot of people back home in the States, because it really puts the conversation we have in America about race into a different context.

Case in point, I think we’ve come to think of “racism” in America as equivalent to a hate crime, as if to say it’s not really racism unless someone is hurt and the reason they were hurt is blatantly related to their race.  Or at the very least, racism has become something suggestive of only hate or violence.  I remember at Vanderbilt, someone saying that they could handle racism in Tennessee because it was so blatant.  If someone didn’t like you because of your race, they were more likely to say so out loud, and it was easy to dismiss or ignore those comments, because the person was so clearly a bigot that you didn’t even have to take them seriously.  But in the north, the comments were often less blatant.  Little subtleties that would place people into a stereotype or cause them to stand out, or comments born out of suspicion, distrust, or misunderstandings rather than blatant hatred – that those things were still “racist.”  Things that single a person out, even if unintentionally so.

And now that I have this new perspective, one that makes me the minority, I have to say: I understand exactly where that sentiment comes from.  And I’ve experienced it for myself.  The constant staring or people hissing at me.  I chased after and shamed a kid yesterday because he kept following me and hissing.  When his brother saw what happened and heard me say, “I’m not a dog; shame on you for hissing at me,” he started hitting him and yelling, “Shame on you” over and over.  I just walked away.

Some volunteers have it much worse than me: barking, whistling, sexual comments to girls, comments for not being Muslim, and the list goes on and on.  Sometimes, people refuse to believe that Indian- or Asian-American volunteers could also be American.  To the point that they can get called liars or have to prove their identities with their passport.  I know of one volunteer who, even after showing his passport, was unable to convince a hotel owner that he was an American, because he looked like a Moroccan.

And of course, that’s another demographic that’s difficult for me to wrap my head around.  Some of the volunteers at the diversity panel discussed what it was like going from being in the minority in America, where they always felt like they stood out to suddenly being invisible as the majority, because they looked Moroccan.  One volunteer mentioned that he would hear about himself when he was having tea with people or at a store – “Oh, I heard there’s an American in town,” someone might say.  And so, in the process of suddenly blending in, there’s this strange dichotomy these volunteers face as they can or must play the role of being both majority and minority.  Sometimes, blending in was preferable, where they would even prefer not to speak so as to keep a low profile.  At other times, it’s frustrating, because their identity is snatched from them, and they must argue just to get people to believe that they are American or that they came here from America to make a positive impact on this place.  It can certainly make getting work done difficult.

I suppose one of the big take-away moments in listening to those volunteers was the realization that privilege is not solely in the hands of the majority.  Being in the role of the “minority” can have incredible advantages.  And being in the role of the majority can create all kinds of difficulties.  Case in point, I recall being at a Christian-Jewish dialogue a few years back, and someone remarked, “I know what it means for me to be Jewish; that identity is clear to me.  But I have no idea what it means to be white.”  Being white in a pluralistic society where non-Caucasians have clearly defined cultures, histories, and traditions can easily lead to a cultural identity crisis.  Think over the years of all the different, primarily Caucasian, social groups that pop up from goth or emo to hipster or scene – all examples of a culture-less, white society trying desperately to define itself, because, outside of being privileged as the majority, “being white” lacks any strong identity.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying, “Man, those poor white people got it so rough.”  But, at the very least, this experience has sort of helped me realize that the conversation about race is a little messy.

I also don’t mean to imply, as I may have above, that Moroccans are racist.  That kind of generalization wouldn’t be fair.  But I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t felt or seen the effects of racism in this country.  As many, many volunteers do – some more than others.  And it should come as no surprise considering just how rare and different we are here.  Such is the nature of any developing country, perhaps.

So, I guess being diverse is actually one of the few things we all have in common.  We’ve got this difficult struggle of having to figure out not just how to be okay with our differences but perhaps more importantly, to allow our differences and our misunderstandings about them, to foster an honest curiosity that asks questions of others respectfully rather than assuming we already know enough.

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