Perhaps you know my chum, Shakira Hussein. If you don’t, you must (a) rectify this immediately and (b) take my word that she’s both gentlewoman and scholar. She’s also a fairly decent cook, but we’re not here to talk about cheeky ways with eggplant. No. We’re going to talk about the widespread ill of racism and how we might go about putting that in the bin, along with the peelings.
First, to crush your hopes, a spoiler: I actually have no notion how to cure the widespread ill of racism. I’d have a better chance of preparing a nice eggplant appetiser than a recipe for peace. Which might not strike you as an especially powerful comparison, but you haven’t tasted my cooking.
Neither, sensibly, has Shakira, and this probably explains why we remains friends close enough that she invited me to talk recently with her about a new book on Muslim women.
It was a tolerably warm evening in our city’s best bookstore when Shak-Hu and I chatted with a very bright crowd about the shape of xenophobia. I was mildly embarrassed that the audience questions were better than mine, but also happy that my home contained such smarties. One honey in a hijab asked about “the function of woman as cultural vessel”. One bloke in some sort of chillwave T-shirt asked about “the potentially damaging effects of metaphor”. I haven’t felt that stupid since I last took my pants off at the doctor’s without being asked.
It was so frustrating to be talking about racism and then see something racist unfold.
I was enjoying my stupidity and temporary fantasy that the world was full with people who face an enormous topic like Islamophobia with enormous consideration. Then, a guy asked a question that began with “How can Mrs Hussein possibly justify…” and ended, about twenty years later, with “…the religion of Satan!!!”
Being me, I struggled not to suggest that he needed hospital. Instead, I mumbled something about his failure to engage.
Logically, I knew this chap must be ignored. Emotionally, I wanted to break wind in his face. The feels were strong — although not strong enough, I should point out, for actual public flatulence — and I worried that the feels were winning.
I saw that even in this room full of smarties, emotion was winning the tug-of-war with logic. The bookstore manager was almost in tears. The faces of the Free Palestine contingent were so miserable, you might suppose they had just been forced to attend a lecture by Bono. No one lost their sh*t, but we were all pretty frustrated.
Even in the unlikely case we were able to change his mind, we wouldn’t change anything else.
It was so frustrating to be talking about racism and then see something racist unfold. And, not just because it made my friend unhappy. But, because Shakira had been talking for an hour about a book she’d been writing for years on the many, many reasons that racism unfolds. Most of which are not “people just don’t know any better”.
And, this guy reduced the conversation to that. In a second, we were all sufficiently emotional to forget the 800 years of foreign policy we’d just reviewed and just put it all down to: some people just don’t know the truth.
Truth makes for good books. In moderation, it also makes for good friendships. But what it cannot do is set us free.
If only people understood, we tell ourselves. If only we educated them about the truth.
A few people tried to politely educate him with the truth.
We could talk to this guy all night about the truth. We could tell him about the Crusades, the Sykes-Picot agreement, the Partition of India, the material creation of terrorism by the US. We could tell him how his personal hobby of hatred was the product and the servant of all these moments. But, even in the unlikely case we were able to change his mind, we wouldn’t change anything else. Not the history in the book. Not the future of the world.
We tell ourselves we need to raise awareness and speak softly to those who do not know the truth. We believe, especially when emotional and hurt, that the problem of racism is standing right there before us. If we reason with that problem, which we now see in a person, then racism ends.
The truth is that racism has a pretty big engine. The truth is that we ignore that engine when we just get cross with its foul exhaust that screams, “Satan!!”
Of course, it’s impossible to ignore crude speech, especially if you are its object. But it’s vital, and courageous, to remember that racism has cures just as complex as its causes.
On the other hand, I could just punish all the racists with my cooking.
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Image by Thomas Hawk (Flickr).