Last week I experienced my first racist incident in the eight years I have been living in the U.S. I have seen and heard of racism happening to others, but this time it hit close to home. It was an attack against the core of who I am.
I don’t want to get into many details, but I can summarize the incident as follows: I received an unexpected four-page letter addressed to me in the mail written by someone who I would like to refer to as a “new member of the community.”
The bizarre letter ended with the following sentence: “I am a full-blooded American, and I [the name of the sender] won’t tolerate any misbehavior from an alien or a foreign person/family.”
I had to read this sentence a number of times to realize what it was, a personal attack, a racial one. Previously, I was under the mistaken notion that racism won’t happen to me, not where I live and not in this era. I most probably thought that because, to quote one of my friends, I live in a “D.C. bubble,” and I’m not in touch with what is happening in the rest of the country. He definitely had a point. I live in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. where having an accent is the norm, and where speaking Arabic is a huge advantage not a deterrent, as it means, government contractors want to hire you. It is the area where diplomats, political refugees and international aid workers reside. It really is a melting pot. No one seems to be bothered by where you come from.
My neighbors come from different parts of the world, and a big portion of them were not born here. Racism was not supposed to happen here, not to me.
When I shared the incident with my friends, the majority of them just told me to brush it off, since it was one, isolated occurrence, and there was no need to dwell on it. I tried to follow their advice, but I simply couldn’t let go. I worked so hard to make the U.S. my home, but unfortunately this small incident has succeeded to shake the identity that took me years to build. I am a Jordanian-American journalist married to an American, and raising my American-born kids in my new home country. In suburbia, I’m a mom, a professional, a wife and a neighbor. The fact that I was “foreign born” was never an issue, well, until I received that letter. I suddenly began to raise all these existential questions of who I am and where I belong. Who is a full-blooded American? Where is home? Who is a foreigner? Will I ever belong here?
It really hit me to the core, when in reality it should not. I know better. I live in the D.C. metro area, and this was just an anomaly.
The incident made me think about the urgent need for grassroots awareness campaigns that focus on tolerance, the existence of the “other,” and the current cosmopolitan nature of the American society.
There is a lot that needs to be done on the micro level. We need to move beyond the fancy D.C. conferences that tackle tolerance, and interfaith and go to the neighborhoods. We need to organize community meetings, block parties and dinner invitations where people just get to know each other as humans and not as news headlines. Neighborhood committees mainly tasked to create cross-cultural understandings should be present in every community across the U.S. The notion of “full-blooded” Americans should not continue to exist in this day and time.
It is worth noting that this incident happened to me the same week of Halloween. I was mulling my Americanism the same week I was performing the all-American tradition of dressing my kids in costumes, taking them trick-or-treating around the neighborhood and handing candy to neighborhood kids. It was also the same week that I sent my Thanksgiving invites and planned my menu for the 17 people who will be coming over to my house to celebrate this all-American holiday.
It is also worth noting that the same day I received the letter, I got a visit from another neighbor who came bearing gifts. She was grateful to me for watching her house and picking her mail while she was away on vacation, that she brought chocolate, wine and gifts for the kids. Somehow with this incident the world managed to balance itself, which was a relief. However, if there was one thing that I learned from the letter incident was that we still have a long road ahead of us to erode the notion of “full-bloodedness” and simply learn to co-exist. And if by any chance the letter’s sender happens to read this column, then I would like to say, please join us for dinner tonight.
Image Credit: Creative Commons/ekornblut.