|Reflection from the UUMA Intern, April 27, 2013|
When was the first time you realized you were racially different? How old were you? What did you feel? What was that moment like for you?
I was eight years old when I discovered that I was different. My family had just moved back to the UK from Pakistan, and enrolled me in school. On one of the days in those first few months, I was approached in the school yard by four white boys, also my age. They pushed me up against the wall and punched me in the stomach, and on my arms while yelling slurs about my ethnic identity. The playground teacher stood in the distance watching it happen and didn’t step in. I realized then, I was Pakistani, South Asian, Brown, I had a funny accent at the time… and that some people didn’t like that about me.
When I got in the car that day after school, my mother asked me what was wrong as I was unusually silent. When she found the bruise on my stomach she realized something had happened and I saw a whole other side of my mother. She marched into the principal’s office and had him do an investigation into the incident that ended up in an apology from the kids, and I never found out what happened to the playground teacher.
You may have seen in the news recently that a hate group in the UK tried to promote a campaign called “Punish a Muslim Day” to incite violence towards Muslim communities. Some Muslim folks did get hurt because of this campaign. Since, I heard about it I’ve been thinking a lot about conflict and how we show up for it.
In a UU Polity class last year at Harvard Divinity School, a guest reminded us that congregations are full of conflicts just like any community. Conflicts are unavoidable and will always happen, and to be a minister means to be comfortable being around conflicts in addition to managing conflicts. Conflict is a part of our lives whether we like it or not whether at church, school, home or work. So how do we not avoid conflict, but confront it?
It can be hard. We see how difficult it is with the nature of political discourse in our country since Trump’s election and before the election too. What we can see happening are biases forming on all sides. I know it’s hard, because after Trump was elected to office in November 2016, some of my partner’s family became bolder in voicing their racism and discrimination. Some of them told him that they don’t like the fact he’s in a relationship with me, a Pakistani UU with a Muslim heritage, and think it’s wrong. He stood up for his values and our interracial relationship, and was disowned by members of his own family.
This happened two weeks before Thanksgiving, and before our planned trip to North Carolina to meet his family.
In that moment, I felt vulnerable. I felt angry, hurt, devastated. I felt pain for my partner, and I felt frustrated that I had been dehumanized by people who had never met me. In some ways, I felt like I was a kid on a playground in Manchester again. I knew then I had a choice to make, to either go down to North Carolina for Thanksgiving, even though a part of me really wanted to avoid the conflict all together.
Another part of me realized I was forming my own biases of them as Trump voters, and if I wanted to feel heard and humanized then I needed to hear and humanize them too, but how could I approach this authentically?
Brene Brown speaks of a concept called “Wholeheartedness” in her book Daring Greatly. As she states, “There are many tenets of Wholeheartedness, but at its very core is vulnerability and worthiness; facing uncertainty, exposure, and emotional risks, and knowing that you are enough” (29).
In addition to coming from a place of wholeheartedness, approaching a conflict authentically for me also requires holding on to theological touchstones. In a blog post by the Alban Institute at Duke Divinity School they state, “Beyond whatever practices we engage in to deal with [conflict], differences are the theological touchstones that allow us to stay grounded in the midst of the fury and uncertainty that conflict often arouses in us.”
I decided to go through with showing up to that Thanksgiving dinner with wholeheartedness, or as much of it as I could muster at the time.
At the family dinner with some of his conservative family members, there was a ground rule established that no one will talk about politics. So, we focused on getting to know each other as people and we cooked together. I pushed myself to practice intentional listening and a relationship was formed; and I found them listening to me too.
I questioned my biases of these people who support Trump, especially because later that week we had dinner with another family member who is a democrat and believes in equality for all people. In the middle of a dinner with him, he turned to me and abruptly asked, “so, tell me about Isis?” After a few seconds of pause, I replied, “Well, why don’t you tell me about the KKK?” And then proceeded to say, “because I know as much about Isis as you do about the KKK and terrorists in this country”. I was taken aback because it wasn’t something I was expecting from someone identifying as a progressive. I questioned my biases and I hope he questioned his too.
As Brown states, “Connection is why we're here; it is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. The power that connection holds in our lives was confirmed when the main concern about connection emerged as the fear of disconnection; the fear that something we have done or failed to do, something about who we are or where we come from, has made us unlovable and unworthy of connection” (253).
However, unsteady and thin that bridge is and however many elephants that may be on that bridge weighing it down, it’s still there and to me it’s a bridge that reflects possibilities for deepening and connection regardless of our brokenness.
I have the tools I need to step on to that bridge, address the elephants and most importantly to continue to connect. This connection is just one step in moving towards building a beloved community. It comes with a realization that while I am broken, so are others. But, I am also lovable and I am worthy, and that I will not allow people to dehumanize me.
And when we’re ready after a practice of self-reflection, we engage.
How do we engage? We can be like all the people who created a counter campaign in the US and UK, named “Love a Muslim Day” in opposition to “Punish a Muslim Day”. Some held hands and created human chains around mosques while people were praying and showed up as allies for connection even if they didn’t know much about Islam.
For some engaging could mean being prepared to speak up when you see someone perpetuating racism whether it’s direct or indirect.
For others, it could mean getting trained and learning more about anti-racism and anti-oppression or it could mean engaging in a dialogue with someone who holds different political leanings in an intentional way.
For adults, this could mean being allies to children or youth in your life who hold historically marginalized identities whether they are of a certain race that’s different from yours, identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or trans or whether they have a disability etc… Reflect on their experience, what you know of their struggles, the things you may not know, and how you can show up for them and model what being an ally means.
To be an ally to youth and children could start with reminding them that they are loved for who they are and worthy of connection and community.
To end, I want to remind each of you today, because this reminder is not given enough these days amidst all the fury, uncertainty and hate, but it should be:
that you are loved,
you are worthy of connection and
you are worthy of community.