Saturday, April 15, 2006

Adapting To A New Country As An Experience In Learning What Racism Feels Like?

Well...hooey, hooey, hooey, my dear.

Thanks to one email group here, who explained British concepts of rudeness to me quite loudly and clearly. They helped me grow quite a bit. They also helped me get over the culture shock and attempt to return to myself. And also thanks to Karen who explained once what it means to be a guest in someone's country. I'll return to teeth soon enough. But - I have so much hope at the moment, I can actually think about something new.

BBC news recently posted an article about former model, Christian Coxcomplaining that Anti-Americanism "felt like racism."

I just had to respond to the hooey....

As an African-American who has been living in London for a year now, I've yet to experience one iota of in-person prejudice or harassment. Then again, I'm living in Hackney. Most people feel sorry for me - even though Hackney is the most wonderful, diverse, culturally rich places I've been in London!

I think the positive energy I’ve received here is because I learnt a different set of social codes than Ms Cox did. Most successful members of ethnic groups learn to “code switch” at very early ages. Not just linguistically, but physically as well. We adopt these survival techniques almost unconsciously as adults.

I think the root of Ms. Cox’s difficulties are rooted in both her power and privilege. Even unconsciously acted upon - it is still read by others as arrogance. It is part of the cultural make up of almost all Americans. We almost always eagerly say, "I disagree!" or "I have an opinion and a right to it!" We see it as our heritage and right.

Then, wherever we go, we expect these utterances to be greeted with excitement. We expect to embark upon an intelligent, calm debate. That's the American way, isn't it? Well - wake up! We're not in America, Ms. Cox!

I have learned many British people find this exceptionally rude. We are guests here. To be a good guest in someone’s country means to attempt to learn something about our host and their preferred methods for social interaction.

So, when we attempt to exchange ideas - however rudely - it is because each party has a different set of expectations. When the expectations are unmet - we find ourselves in conflict. When this occurs, most people respond with some sort of defence mechanism: sweeping generalizations, an assertion of rights, accusations, opinions or firm statements of belief.

Into this mixture of social misunderstandings, we have the current political climate. We, Americans, have come from a country which is barely over 200 years old. On the world playground, some of our number are prancing about acting like the political toddlers they are.

Because our leader is an exceptionally large toddler with the potential to do real damage to others; everybody else is left scrambling about offering lollies, sweeties and other treats so he’ll settle down and play nicely.

However, there are large numbers of people who think America deserves large smack on the behind and should be sent to bed without supper. And while I don’t agree that all of us should be punished in this manner, I can certainly feel a great deal of empathy for people of this opinion. Toddlers - of any sort - are very frustrating sometimes and exceptionally difficult to re-direct.

Now, I'm not saying our transition to this country has been smooth. It has - in fact - been the worst year of my life. So bad, recently, I contemplated cutting off my dreadlocks. In 18 years, I have never felt I'd built up so much trauma - that I was unwilling to carry it with me. But - I digress.

These days, when I encounter questions about my country, I find that our way is made easier by switching frameworks and attempting to understand the other person’s point of view. I often find myself saying, “I can see how you feel that way. Would you like to know what I’ve discovered is?” or “It was a very close election, so you can rest assured that half of America agrees with you.” Mostly, I use humour.

Regardless, we Americans are all guests here. Each and everyone of us is a cultural ambassador. And we must conduct ourselves accordingly. My goal is to be the individual peace I seek for the larger world.

I am not here to defend my country. I am not here to assert our greatness. I am here to share ideas, learn, and forge those individual friendships wherein true progress can be made.

I think Ms. Cox may want to meditate a bit on Ghandi and ML King. Perhaps even learning from the experiences of her fellow African-Americans and learn to code switch. It may help her adjust better to her life here. Most African-Americans can seamlessly code switch without feeling as if they have compromised one smigdeon of their identity. Useful skill for living abroad.

Most importantly, all of Americans living abroad must align ourselves with the ideas of empathy and compassion. We serve our country best by being good examples.

1 comment:

Karen James said...

I think that I may have mislead you if I gave you the idea that you should be in any way less than yourself in any place that you may choose to live. I do believe that there is an unfair anti American sentiment globally, including Canada, and that to accept that is to allow a prejudice to perpetuate that is based on miseducation about what it is to be an American citizen. Moving to the US has made me painfully aware of issues that I was not exposed to in Canada, not because they did not exist, but because we don't talk about them. As a people I think you underestimate yourselves. You live under the shadow of darkness exposed. It is easy for others to judge under these circumstances. Anti American sentiment is racism in my mind. I feel it. I have a son who is American. I don't want to hear it and I don't want him to hear it.