Quashing the Destructive Evils of Discrimination

You haven’t heard from me for some time. Five months, to be exact. Well, the truth is, juggling two children, namely an infant and a toddler, is pretty darn time-consuming. Add to that the highly novel, highly unusual circumstances gripping our world, and the inspiration to write from a positive vantage point quickly vanishes. I’ve never navigated bleaker times.

Quite often, I find myself mentally dictating a blog post, gathering all my distraught thoughts into some form of comprehensible prose as I keep a wary eye on the kids. But by the time they’re both sound asleep and the household tasks completed, the magnetic pull from my bed invariably wins out over the appeal of my reticent laptop. And I succumb to slumber.

But tonight is different. There are a myriad of sentiments coursing through my veins as the entire world – because this is much greater than merely one nation – wrestles with notions of racism. 

The name George Floyd has gained overnight fame. Floyd was a 46-year-old African-American whose neck was pinned down to the ground by the knee of a police officer for nearly ten minutes. During that period, he repeatedly begged to be released from the brutal chokehold, gasping for air and moaning the words, “I can’t breathe.” The unwarranted force exhibited by the police officer was further exacerbated by three accompanying officers who helped restrain Floyd and prevented troubled onlookers from intervening. Floyd, arrested for allegedly using a counterfeit $20 bill, died that evening, and the imagery of knee-on-neck coupled with his helpless pleas continue to haunt me relentlessly two weeks later.

A number of friends from Lebanon have contacted me, befuddled by what are clearly the signs of racism in a nation as great and grand as the United States. In their minds, the US is modern, advanced, supreme – and isn’t it a self-described melting pot of colors and creeds from every corner of the globe, they wonder? How can there be such striking symbols of subjugation of one race to another?



South Korean activists gather to mourn the death of George Floyd and show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement near the U.S. embassy on June 5, 2020, in Seoul, South Korea. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images. Source: baltimoresun.com)



Let me lay out my deck of cards. My credentials do not extend beyond these: I was born and bred in southern California, where I resided for two decades before moving to the opposite coast for a couple years of graduate school. My encounters with racism in the United States cannot be categorized as anything more than anecdotal. That is, I do not pretend to speak on behalf of an entire nation and its people, as the United States comprises 50 states! I’ve only lived in two, and within those two states, I nested in seemingly forward-thinking communities at that. Some areas of the US likely have strong vestiges of racism on account of the centuries of slavery that characterized the social fabric there, but I’ve never been exposed to those areas directly.

That said, I have experienced and witnessed the ugly face of discrimination wherein ethnicity becomes a marker of subordination. And those memories still linger. In my case, you cannot label such encounters as racism, for as a Lebanese-American, I am considered as Caucasian as a white person of Anglo-Saxon descent. Nevertheless my Lebanese-ness has found me mired in unfathomable prejudice, and where else ironically than in an educational setting, where enlightenment should reign on high. Here’s an illustration.

As a freshman at the University of California, Irvine, my essays in the Honors Humanities Core course caught the notice of my professor, who at the close of the spring semester sent me an email expressing her intention to nominate me for the Best Essay Prize. There were some forms to fill out in support of the nomination, but I’d already departed on vacation for the summer. So she invited me to see her upon my return. No rush, she insisted. There was plenty of time before the nomination deadline.

Back on campus in September, I went to visit her in her office, and she coaxed me into recounting tales of my summer. I hesitated for a second. 

With educators and instructors, I’d learned over the years to refrain from revealing my ethnic background. Lebanon is in a part of the world that is resoundingly divisive and attracts a deluge of opposing views. At the end of the day, everyone is entitled to her position, but why invite an instructor to bias her view of your academic output? There’s no need to muddle her clarity. And in the fine arts like literature or the humanities, which are steeped in the subjective, sometimes you can’t fight a questionable grade. It had previously happened to my older brother, and I’d taken note.

So I battled with my brain, which exhorted me to remain stoic and keep mum about my summer in Beirut. Meanwhile, my heart just wanted to share unobstructed love for the land of my ancestors. I remember thinking, what the heck, my grade is already chiseled in stone. She can’t inflict any retroactive harm, right? After a few seconds of internal conflict, my heart subdued my brain, and I started to wax poetic about Lebanon. Almost as soon as I did, her expression took on a mixture of shock and horror, as she recoiled in her chair and studied me through the slits her eyes had narrowed to.

Once I’d finished, I steered the conversation back to the Best Essay Prize. It was too late, however. She’d already passed judgment on me. The nomination window had closed, she claimed, rendering me ineligible for consideration. That was emphatically untrue, but it was obvious she had chucked my candidacy out the window when she gained knowledge of my heritage.

I was crushed. This episode made me feel second-rate, lowly, and disadvantaged, simply because someone placed me in a bin she deemed second-rate and lowly. While this incident doesn’t fit the dictionary definition of racism, it’s a form of prejudicial discrimination, and on some level it allows me to empathize with victims of racism.

Don’t get me wrong – this sort of behavior is hardly the rule in a country as big and diverse as the US. In fact, in stark contrast to my university humanities professor, my Israeli-born high school English teacher used to dote on me and my two brothers. Oftentimes, he’d read my essays aloud to the class as examples of the thoroughness and cogence he expected from good writing. He pushed me to reach deep into my reservoir of personal experiences and to write from the heart. And I assure you, he was well aware that my parents hailed from Lebanon.

In the 21st century, it’s tough to stomach racism when we tout globalization and education as pillars of human advancement. In the US, widely regarded as “the land of opportunity,” racism still pokes its nasty head. And even beyond the US in countries where I took up residence, I witnessed some form of racism and stereotyping. In France, Arabic-speaking people from North Africa, including Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, and Libya, are collectively referred to as “du Maghreb” and thought to align with gang violence and higher crime rates. In the United Arab Emirates, the blue collar working class emanating from East and Southeast Asia is notoriously treated as subservient to locals and white expats. During my brief stint in Abu Dhabi as a consultant in 2010, I witnessed first-hand as Bangladeshi construction workers slept in the shade of a building for a midday respite, while temperatures soared in the triple digits. I also watched them herded onto buses like cattle as they were shuttled to their dormitories for the evening. In Lebanon, domestic helpers have been known to be the victims of abuse, to survive in abominable living conditions, and to dine on separate tables from the families they serve when eating out in public.

At length, there is no doubt that racism pervades countries the world over. We as global citizens have to toil laboriously to expunge any forms of this evil from its roots. Otherwise, we do not deserve to call ourselves progressive, compassionate human beings. If you believe in God, you believe we are all created in His image, and as such, beauty comes in a bouquet of colors and shapes and sizes.

You’ve probably heard the expression “rewrite the narrative” floating around in the media as the United States grapples with George Floyd’s unfortunate death and how to slough off the shackles of racism. In my opinion, you can’t undo centuries of unjust subordination of one people to another. But you can turn the page and start anew definitively by treating your neighbor, or co-worker, or bus driver, or grocery bag boy, or gas station attendant, or landscaper, or concierge – anyone and everyone – as your equal. Celebrate differences. Strike up conversations. Understand cultural norms or customs. Ask questions. Don’t probe, but inquire with a genuine willingness to learn. And push for a world where children’s inherent illiteracy in color, race, and religion is projected onto adults. That is the world we need to build and uphold.



Never mind that I dressed myself here and am miserably color uncoordinated. The American Pledge of Allegiance, which we used to recite daily in elementary school, calls for "one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." Let's adopt that spirit worldwide.



Comments

  1. Nice to hear from you, Danielle! We miss hearing from you. But at the same time, we want you to have all the sleep you need.



    Keeping quiet about your roots and summertime in Lebanon may have redounded to your benefit, but I am glad your heart had eventually won over your brain. I don’t know if it’s any consolation, but the price you paid was worth it: You’d showed that xenophobic professor that someone of Lebanese descent can write better than the rest who came from approved places with accepted ancestry. Undoubtedly, you had stirred some conflict and pierced a big hole in her faulty way of judging. (That is if she had half a brain.)



    As you’ve alluded to, when it comes to nationality, discrimination shows its same ugly face all over the world, not just in America. Not just in nationality but also in religion. Here in Lebanon, many people from Mount Lebanon, purportedly Christian, are often surprised when they encounter someone from Tripoli, purportedly a Muslim, with a high level of education and decorum. These people have never set foot in Tripoli, and all they know about its people is what they see or hear in the media.



    But racism is different. Racism goes beyond ignorance and even xenophobia. Being black carries a much stiffer liability than being a “white” college student who, because of her national origin, is denied a chance to win an important prize—as crushing and hurtful an experience as it may feel. Being black, (i.e. SIMPLY BECAUSE THE COLOR OF YOUR SKIN IS BLACK), you are exposed to all kinds of small indignities starting from the time you leave your home. Then you have the larger indignities from systemic racism in areas like housing, health care, education, job opportunities, etc.



    Even during the chaotic 9/11 period, one of the darkest hours in America, not once did I experience discrimination, stereotypes, or hateful rhetoric in my daily interpersonal communications. On the other hand, my black American colleague, because of the color of his skin, during a medical conference he and I were attending, was asked (mistakenly) by a guest to refill his wine glass. That was one small indignity. On his way home from the conference, he experienced a larger indignity: He was stopped by the white Beverly Hills police. Why? They wanted to know what he was doing in the area. When he calmly asserted his rights and asked for the supervisor, he was arrested.



    I left the same parking lot and drove off on the same street. I wonder what my chances of being stopped (and arrested) would have been.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for reading, Samir. I love hearing your sagacious input.

      You're 100% correct. We will never start to fathom or even get a whiff of what life can be like for victims of racism. How they are targeted. How they learn to cope or retreat from or avoid unsettling encounters. How they achieve success in spite of setbacks and challenges absent to non-black people. I boiled at the thought of your colleague beckoned to refill someone's cup, or being stopped in a ritzy neighborhood simply because wealth is usually linked to white people, and they didn't fit the bill. Reprehensible. Makes my blood curl.

      I recently watched "Hidden Figures," a true story based in 1960s Virginia about three black female engineers and scientists who worked at NASA and the hurdles they faced day in and day out in performing their jobs. A normal person would throw in the towel. They, however, resisted with poise and dignity and determination. You gotta watch it.

      The bane of folks in Lebanon is not merely ignorance of outside cultures but that of themselves! They thrive in their comfort zones and rarely venture outside of them. I remember being appalled when a colleague, born and raised in Achrafieh, admitted to never having visited Saida! How could that be, when the entire country hardly sums up to 10,000 sq.km.?! Before I permanently settled in Lebanon, I'd already scaled the country during summer vacations. My parents made a point of exposing me to every region, and thus the hodgepodge of Lebanese with their various religious sects, creeds, and colors. I grew up Christian, but my parents' social network happily included Druze, Shiite, and Sunni friends, and we were taught to respect everyone and their unique customs equally. [P.S. we would visit Tripoli at least three times every summer. Do you remember Big Bite? ;)]

      I hope the Lebanese can learn from the war on racism and discrimination being waged on American soil. We are hardly in a position to judge or point fingers, for we are riddled with our own deficiencies.

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