To get an idea of what school life is really like for them, has anyone taken statements from each and every black student at Jena High, or even white students who don’t practise tying hangman’s nooses in their free time, while sitting under the “white tree?” Just thinking of the bigotry-ridden atmosphere in which these kids go to school strikes terror in my heart. Between the noose incident and the beat-down, who knows what more insinuations and incidents occurred to further erode strained relations, and put the black youth of Jena on edge? So, to Mychal Bell, I say: “Kid, you really shouldn’t have beaten up Justin Barker because of the fine mess it landed you in. But, given the atmosphere you are in and have been since you were born and the resulting frustration, I don’t blame you. At the time, your consequences could have been much more grave. Violence isn’t the answer, but something has got to give. In many ways, you have sacrificed yourself for another mighty convulsion of America sorting itself out. My only hope is that it means something to our short attention spans, and that your own personal hell wasn’t in vain.”
Growing up in Kuwait, my brother and I knew we were third-class citizens – the Kuwaitis came first, then the white-skinned “Anglos” and, finally, Asian workers. No matter that my parents are far more educated and capable than their Kuwaiti counterparts, our place in Arab society was written in stone. When within my home or the “safe” confines of my parents’ work context, I was Maitri. Outside of that cocoon, I was a disposable Hindi. While Kuwait was nowhere near as stifling as Saudi Arabia (where Indian and American female friends always wore a hijab or veil and were unable to drive cars) and more job opportunities presented themselves to women of all ethnic persuasions, there was only so much of the emotional and physical belittlement a sensitive human could take.
On my way to a permanent stay in the United States, I considered myself finally free of the unnecessary cultural hurdles that kept me from entering the university of my choice based on my grades, getting a job that paid men and women equally, being assessed on the content of my character and not the color of my skin … you know, the simple tasks of mobilizing available resources towards desired ends, without having race, caste, gender, wealth, etc. stand in the way. In my mind, brown and woman would not be considered demerits but qualities of heterogeneity, variety and perspective that I could bring to the table. Naive me assumed that the shades of grey stopped at JFK, while things had only just begun. (Please all don’t break into song.)
Looking back on my seventeen years in this country, I’d reassess that racism was more delineated in Arabia. (I have no idea how it is now and will not make assumptions without going back there myself.) You knew exactly what and where you were on the totempole, and there was no question as to who drank at the trough first. Here, racism definitely exists, in every city in every state, by every race to very race, but it’s more refined, insidious and often hides behind a tight mask of politeness. This is something I began to notice between white and black Americans while living in the Upper Midwest of the 1990s. After 9/11/2001, a larger portion of the population, including yours truly, entered the limelight of mistrust. Additionally, the last five years in New Orleans and the American South have yielded lesson after lesson in cultural relativism and race relations.
Racist Americans are no different from racist Arabs – at least in that, we have achieved unity. In this country, however, we have the gift of open discussion with which to debate, educate and learn from others. This is why I talk openly about situations in which people ask, sometimes in slow English or derisive tones, where I was born, where I’m from or about my skin color. Applied to all those who suffer bigotry in America, why do they have to prove their humanity, equality, American citizenhood or anything for that matter? We are Americans, damnit, entitled to be free of such useless interrogation. Such questions — or the way in which they are asked — serve no purpose, smack of uncultured assumptions, are, quite frankly, bigoted (whether you meant it or not), too limiting of the human experience and, on 21st century Earth, quite provincial. Most Americans are actually not completely clueless about the way the world works and, even if they are, staying quiet and/or encouraging their prejudice and impoliteness, however unintended, does not make things better. These things need to be talked out honestly before they lead to further misgivings, misunderstandings and irrational hatred.
All of us need to talk. Constantly. Incidents, like the nooses at the Jena High tree and the ensuing beating, don’t happen in isolation. They are the tangible outcomes of long-festering bigotry and frustration. With one remark, one suspicious look, one “you people,” one shunning, one beating, one noose, the state of being human disappears. Everything we are – daughter, son, spouse, friend, professional, achievements, relationships, feelings, aspirations – is washed away. What remains is an animal – cold, naked, devoid of ego and confidence, sans individuality, lacking in personhood. Even if the offending party is the world’s biggest waste of space who doesn’t deserve the title of human, that that person wishes to dehumanize you is the rub. That this is considered acceptable and excusable is a lot worse. That they and their sponsors often have socio-political power, in places like Jena, and can cause a young man to feel so uncomfortable in his own skin that he is willing to beat the daylights out of another human, is death.
I’ve been lucky enough to walk away, mostly unscathed, from the barbs of racism, because I had choices and the ability to leave. What about many of the kids of Jena, for whom life probably begins and ends there? Where is their out?