Special for the Armenian Weekly
During a time when it seems no one can say the right thing because it is offensive to someone or it isn’t nuanced enough or it isn’t stated strongly enough, I struggle to find words to fill the page and wonder whether I should speak at all. I am upset by the angry and mean-spirited dialogue that is taking place in this country. Many of us are upset. Upset and tired.
As each news cycle passes, we begin a new history book, scarcely acknowledging that which has brought us to this point. There is now a portion of our population that says we should not or will not accept refugees from Syria, a country destroyed by war. Since the civil war in Syria began in 2011, the U.S. has accepted 2,547 Syrian refugees (compared to Canada, which has accepted 1,608 since Nov. 4 of this year).
My own ancestors came to this country in the late 1800’s. In most cases, they came because there were too many children and too little land for them to farm in Norway. The Homestead Act of 1862 in the United States provided an opportunity to settle and farm the plains of the West. We have as a nation no doubt romanticized that part of our history and ignored the immense losses experienced by the Native Americans, who have lost land and culture, and been denied their own grief.
I am not a refugee or a Muslim or a person of color. I cannot speak for those communities. I do know, though, that my family has sacrificed for me and for those before me. My aunt told me the story of how a blizzard in her childhood did not keep her from a piano lesson. My grandfather put the kids in the back of the pick-up truck in a bed of grain and drove nearly 25 miles to town through the snow, because he would not have the children miss a piano lesson. Education required sacrifice and even risk.
I see fathers and mothers put their children in boats to flee Syria, or on the top of a freight train to cross Mexico to escape poverty in Central America, and I imagine my ancestors would have done the same for their children or for me. As a result of their sacrifices, I have lived a life of privilege. I could not say whether it is mostly White privilege or Judeo-Christian privilege, or class privilege, but it is real and I know it.
A few days after September 11, 2001, I stood in line at airport security for an overseas flight. There were about 100 people in front of me and the line was moving slowly. A man in a corporate uniform approached me and asked which flight I was taking. I told him I was flying KLM to Amsterdam and then he took me to the front of the line. The other passengers rightly protested. They were all flying Egypt Air, and he said the screening equipment belonged to KLM so I would go through the line first.
The truth was that they were treated differently because their skin was brown and they were flying to an Arab country. Their security screening was prolonged and humiliating and dehumanizing. Mine was immediate and brief and perfunctory. I am ashamed to this day that I did not have the presence of mind or strength of spirit to say that I would wait at the end of the line like anyone else.
This summer a police car drove up beside my car as I headed down University Avenue in St. Paul, Minn. I was nervous that I was doing something wrong, so I focused on keeping my hands at 10 and 2 o’clock on the wheel and driving the speed limit, but the police car stayed at my side. Finally I looked over and the officer motioned for me to lower my window. When I did, he told me that my license tabs had expired. That was all. He just wanted to let me know so I could remedy it—no ticket, no warning. When I got home, I saw that they had been expired for three months and realized that the tabs had been sent to my old address.
A week or so later, as I went through airport security to take a flight home from Salt Lake City, the official handed back my driver’s license and asked, “You know your license is expired, right?” I hadn’t known. I’d just had a birthday, but wasn’t in the habit of checking the expiration date on my license. Or much of anything, evidently.
I was bewildered by the sequence of these events, and I can’t deny that I felt lucky, as though I’d gotten away with something, because others would not have received the same treatment. In concrete terms, they are small examples of the privilege I have experienced my whole life.
We are a reactive nation. The man whose name rhymes with dump says something outrageous and we are all ears, posting and re-posting, fretting in the office break room, e-mailing our friends and family that things are getting out of control and what has the world come to and what if he becomes the president. Never mind that he’s had precious little impact on our actual lives. We are uncomfortable because he represents that which we repress about ourselves.
While we are outraged by an absurd man who seeks to fan the flames of hate, we have turned a blind eye to the deaths of innocents from drones that my personal tax dollars have funded—to land on a wedding or a home filled with children or the small business of a family trying to survive and even thrive. We can incur this “collateral damage” because we have labelled those communities as “other.” As a result, we do not feel compelled to play by the rules that we ourselves agreed to follow.
It is painful to imagine that this idea of “otherness” could have applied to my friends who came to the United States as refugees. Friends whose families sacrificed for their education, and who are now working professionals, loving wives, devoted mothers. It is painful because my life and my community would be more impoverished as a result.
And so I hope we enter 2016 with humility, because we can be better than the hate and intolerance that permeate our national discourse. Every word we utter matters and to think otherwise is to underestimate our own power. Our resolution can be to use our words to build something beautiful for those who come after us and they will be amazed by our resolve.