Friday, May 16, 2014

I'm racist.

Leviticus 19: 33-34, Numbers 15: 15-16

You never think you're racist.  You always like to think you would never be that kind of person, and you justify slightly sketchy thoughts and behavior you see in yourself so you don't have to admit to yourself that you might be a racist.  Everybody does it.  I do it, all the time.  And recently, I caught myself doing it, in a big way.  This story is funny, and largely benign, and I feel lucky and grateful that I got to see myself clearly in a funny, benign, manner.  It's nice to be aware of God's gentle nudges before the real lesson-learning pain has to start.

I started watching a show on Hulu called: "Little Mosque" (original Canadian title: "Little Mosque on the Prairie") and I love it!  (I have a love/hate with how Hulu (and other services) can read your mind and recommend things to you that become life-changing loves. I find it creepy.)  It's about a small group of Muslims trying to both run a Mosque and become invested members of their larger community, a small, fictitious town called Mercy, Saskatchewan.  The characters are quirky, the humor is dry, and the faith is real.  My favorite character is Rayyan, a young, single Muslim woman who is a doctor, calls herself a feminist, and wears a hijab.  She lives every day proving that a woman can be both devout and talented, righteous and ambitious, submitted to Allah and standing up for herself.  I love her character, but I did not realize the impact she had on me until I went to get new glasses.

I hate shopping for glasses, it makes me very anxious, but I gathered my courage and stopped by the optometrist.  I was hoping for a walk-in, but the harried receptionist, already helping two other patients, told me I would need to wait to make an appointment.  Then, the doctor herself came out to wait on me, and I felt all kinds of emotions at once.  First, I was impressed with her leadership skills.  No, 'I'm too good to do that job,' attitude for her, she pitched right in.  Second, I noticed she was wearing a hijab, and thought my customary, condescending 'Poor dear!"  Third, I looked at her face to find she bore a striking resemblance to someone, but who?  And then I realized: 'OMG, it's Rayyan!"  And suddenly my annoyance, anxiety, and misplaced pity melted away and I felt safe and happy.  I made my appointment, and went on my way.

About five seconds after I left the office I started to feel horrible about myself.  I realized that not only had my attitudes about Muslims been totally based on stereotypes, but that those stereotypes were being systematically busted up by, of all things, a corny Canadian sit-com.  I Will-and-Graced myself without even realizing it, and I felt horrible for being so racist and shallow.

(The 'Will and Grace effect' is a real thing.  Positive media portrayals of denigrated or marginalized groups can inspire a marked reduction of prejudice against those groups.  It's cool or evil, depending on whom you ask.  See also: The Cosby Show.)

Yes, I still believe that forcing women to cover up is oppressive and sexist, but on "Little Mosque," Rayyan's use of the hijab as proof of piety is a powerful non-verbal rebuttal against those who would accuse her of using feminism to be lazy about her faith (an indictment Christian women suffer from as well).  So now that I know not every woman wearing a hijab feels oppressed by it, what right have I to feel pity?  (Yes, pity is a negative emotion and a prejudicial viewpoint.  I hope I am now aiming for, and inspiring others to aim for, empathy, instead.)  And now that I have seen, if only fictitiously, a range and variety of Muslim people, thought, and philosophy, what right have I to assume all Muslims must be just a little bit sympathetic to terrorists?

Now, I'm not saying for one second that I am cured of all racism, or even just cured of prejudice against Muslims.  I'm still human, and if I think I'm cured, it's a sure sign I'm not.  But I am just a little more aware now, and I am very grateful for it.  Now go watch "Little Mosque."