Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Responding to Bigotry

One day at school last week, I failed to respond to two separate instances of gay-bashing. A custodian cleaning my classroom made a comment, upon learning that a certain celebrity had died of AIDS, that the man "must have been a freak." Stunning. I was so surprised by this I didn't say anything.

Nor later, in a crowded teacher lounge, when a staff member referred to Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo as "Tony Homo." It was an awkward moment, as I had not been part of that conversation and was on my way out. Mostly, though, my failure to respond was out of surprise and not being prepared to answer.

I did slightly better on a different day, during a phone call with someone from the Fraternal Order of Police who called to raise money. Again, it was an awkward moment, as I was heading out the door. For some reason, I mentioned my wife, and he made some sexist joke about wives. This time, I said something at least, pointing out that of the two of us, my wife is far more competent when it comes to handling money.

On reflection, one of the things that bothered me -- besides the open prejudice itself (and in a school, no less) -- was the assumption that I would share their sentiment. Thus, they felt it was socially acceptable to air these remarks. By saying nothing, I accommodated. In other words, I made it socially acceptable, too.

Today, an email arrived. It was one of those things that gets forwarded all over the internet. The email complained about the post office's first-class postal stamp commemorating a muslim festival day. It aired a bunch of anti-Islamic claptrap about how we should not honor anything related to Islam because of various acts of terrorism in which muslims were implicated. It gets better at the end, when the email accuses President Obama of ORDERING the post office to issue this stamp. It recommends that "patriotic Americans" go into the post office and loudly proclaim that they do not want "a muslim stamp" on their mail. It also works in a little bit of disgruntled Christian persecutionism in there -- post office honors muslims but we can't have a creche in the courthouse, that sort of thing.

The stamp, by the way, was issued in 2001, long before most of us had even heard of Barack Obama. It is pictured above -- notice the old postage rate.


Sometimes it is easier for my typing fingers to be eloquent. Also, I had been feeling some embarrassment about my failure to say something, or even make a face, in the face of unconsidered bigotry. I copied every address I could find on this forwarded email, and wrote a message. While rejecting the email and its sentiments in strong terms, I attempted to write something positive, speaking to what is best in my fellow citizens, and attempt to re-appropriate the patriotism theme.

Below, my response to the "Muslim Stamp" email:


As a patriotic citizen of the United States of America, a man who appreciates and values the rich diversity of our nation's people, I think everyone who received this email has been deeply insulted by whoever wrote this Muslim-bashing trash and thought they would appreciate it. Those who forward this email are participating in the spread of vicious, ignorant, and malicious hate speech against other Americans.

While there is no accurate count of American citizens who belong to the Islamic faith, a conservative estimate accepted by many (and cited in the World Almanac) is five million.
If an entire religious people is to blame for the actions of a few, I wonder if those of you forwarding this garbage consider Christians collectively guilty for the terrorism, murder, and assaults committed at medical clinics that provide abortion services. After all, this is violence committed in the name of religion, is it not?

Of course, that would not be fair. Neither is it fair to scapegoat the entire religion of Islam, and its faithful adherents in the United States, for the actions of a few people who, come to think of it, were not even American citizens.

Whether you want to accept reality or not, millions of your own countrymen are muslim and for the most part you do not even notice them because, like you, they are living normal lives, earning a living and taking care of their families, praying to God in the manner appropriate for them.

The post office issued a rather pretty stamp several years ago observing Eid with a design that featured some Arabic calligraphy. This stamp predates the election of President Obama, and in any case the President of the United States does not issue orders to the post office. The statement that Obama is directing the post office to put Islamic figures on its stamps is utterly false and ridiculous.

An email encouraging fellow citizens to make false and defamatory statements about their legitimately elected President, and to insult their fellow citizens on the basis of religion, is about as unpatriotic and shameful a thing as I can imagine. Please delete this rubbish. Do not pass it along. It diminishes you, it diminishes those to whom you send it, and it diminishes this great, beautiful nation of ours.

May God bless America and shine a light of wisdom into the dark hearts of those who dwell in bigotry.

Most Sincerely, and proudly signing my name,



Fresh Peaches said...

Lovely reply.

Also, it might be relevant to point out that the creche argument is moot as the post office puts out Christmas stamps every year, often featuring Mary and Jesus themselves.

DeeAnne said...

Proud to know you Algernon.

Kelly said...

I received the postage stamp e-mail again recently and deleted it as I always have in the past.

So often I remain silent about things and end up kicking myself about it later. Unfortunately, as long as there are differences between people, there are going to be prejudices as well. Doesn't make it right, but it's going to happen.

robin eisenberg said...

you can't beat yourself up everytime you are silent-as long as you do it when you can -and are cognizant of it--I was at a baseball game with a friend of mine who is gay and two of my clients who were younger guys--my clients started shouting at one player on the Yankees who was up at bat that he was gay(because it rhymed with his name)-I thought about it quickly and didn't say anything as I didn't want to embarrass my gay friend--but come to think of it, a year later I should mention it to my clients as I think they would be remorseful-good idea

Ji Hyang said...

well written--
and to the point. You're right, in that the positionality of being a white, straight male gives you a free pass, and often the assumption that you are "on the same side"....and what you do with this awareness of positionality, and these moments that appear is true Dharma teaching.

Interestingly, all these "isms" can be considered to be fueled by a capitalist system, the appearance of scarcity/sense of competition.

quid said...

I, too, have a tendency to delete what I don't want to see instead of standing up.

good post, Algie.