Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Chariots Part II: Immigrants and African-Americans

Previous Entry: The Chariots Part I: At the Marathon...

The purpose of my post is not to offend any member of any race. As I recount my experiences, I beg the indulgence of my readers in favor of the bigger message here and to come.

I landed in the States nearly less than two decades ago, as a newly minted FOB. I was only a teenager, arriving in America as a student, like many Pakistani immigrants who had preceded me. Non-immigrants, whose temporary plans would usually turn into permanent residency. I had many things to learn, many things to achieve. From the many 'new' areas to sort out, was the diversity of people around me.

Before my life in America, I was in the Middle East, raised in relatively comfortable circumstances. As they stood at the time, things were relatively homogeneous in Dubai. Yes, we had Indians, Bangladeshis, and other nationalities, but mostly we dealt with 'our own'. As for class and race, there was some of both. The class effect was in motion usually in the 'labor class' that came mostly from the sub-continent. Probably the majority of this 'lower class' was formed by people that we referred to as 'Malabaris'. Those who lived in the Gulf would probably be tickled by this reminder. 'Malabaris' were generally Indians from the Kerala/Tamil Southern regions of India, and I have no clue how this name came about, it just was. Mind you, these people were not idiots. They were smart, and almost all of them had high-school education. But, the journey for livelihood had brought them to Dubai, many in 'minimum-wage' type jobs. 'Malabaris' were not limited to labor only, many were in high-skill jobs as engineers and doctors. Nevertheless, I recount this experience for what class meant to me. For me, the servant at home (most people had servants, so this does not say much about one's status) was a 'malabari'. He was a Muslim, and his name was Yusuf. He prayed 5 times, and he was as honest one could be. He was from Madras I believe. I loved that guy, he was awesome. My mom often reminisces about how good Yusuf was in housework. We treated him well and with respect, alhamdulilah. That is something that my parents taught us; respect for servants, which wasn't the case for many others we knew. So, that was what class and status meant to me.

As for race, some of that came into being with a superiority that many Arabs felt they had over the 'labor' class from the Indian Sub-continent. It did not matter that most of the highly-skilled and professional class came from the same region... but for our Arab brethren, the point was simply that there were too many of us wanting to come there, so in their books, we were somewhat 'dispensable'.
And while many practiced this sort of discriminatory attitude, there were many more who did not have this jahiliya under their skins. Really, I don't wish to go into an Arab-bashing session here, that is not the purpose here. I don't know how I would have reacted had Pakistan been the land of opportunity and Arabs were filling lines to get a piece of the pie. Perhaps, I would have taken on some 'class superiority' of my own. I am not saying that we should recognize the lowness of this attitude in a human, let alone a Muslim, but at the same time, we should give all our brothers many excuses before attacking them.

Coming back to America then, the race divide is something that I had not really witnessed before. The few nuances of what I saw in the Middle-East were completely different. For one, they were not historically rooted. There was no 'slavery' of Pakistani/Indian labor as such. Yes, some of them were caught up in a vicious cycle of debts that made their circumstances almost as that of slaves. But, it wasn't the color of these people that got them where they found themselves. It was the livelihood, a decision usually by choice.

As I started living and breathing America, at first I picked up the stereotypes that were prevalent in the FOBs and even some second-generation immigrants. Now, interestingly, these stereotypes were not that different from what many 'red-necks' also believed in. This is how it usually went: "Blacks don't know how good they have it for them in America. Look at us, we made it, didn't we? We came here to the land of opportunity, and we are taking it in, and we are living the American dream. But, look at those losers. All they do is bum around, they are responsible for most of the crimes, they are always on TV for the wrong reasons. Look at what the '3rd wards' are filled with? Blacks, who else? And of course, be careful of 'them'. Don't get lost in one of 'their' neighborhoods." And the typical "The black guy driving the nice car is of course a drug-dealer, no ifs and buts about it" was a common feeling as well.

I remember even being somewhat open to the opinion that African-Americans just didn't have the brains developed enough, that it wasn't meant to be for them. We were kinder, of course, in our thinking about the black converts. After all, they had some brain to figure out the truth, in what we thought about as the exceptions.

Things changed, they had to change. Life's experiences have a way of teaching lessons. And fortunately for me, it happened sooner than later.

As I sat in my English class for International students, I befriended an African guy Mfon. He had to teach me how to pronounce his name properly. At first it didn't hit me, but I treated this guy differently in my perceptions, than the 'average' African-American. For some reason, blacks didn't cut it, but this guy, who was as black as any other black guy I ever met, was indeed 'cutting it'. He was smart, he was good, and he was better than me in English! Without knowing it, my stereotype was crashing in front of me. Being black was not a testimony to any mental strength or weakness. Being black was merely a skin pigmentation that had nothing to do with one's abilities. I saw it in my friend Mfon and he was to teach me many more lessons.

I remember sitting in the same English class with Mfon next to me. For some reason, the topic of crime came up. As someone never afraid to speak my mind, I proceeded to say something that was one of those moments-of-change that are permanently itched into your brain. I spoke out, in my mind thinking that what I was about to say was
in favor of blacks, "The reasons that blacks commit most of the crimes is because we haven't invested enough in their education". As I blurted this out, Mfon went into a frenzy, he found my comments highly repulsive. While I sought to voice my desire to 'help blacks', what stuck with Mfon was my stereotype that preceded it, "blacks commit most of the crimes". It was a long day, that day. As I stood, sat, argued, debated, discussed with Mfon, I started seeing my own folly. Mfon reminded me that much of the crime was indeed white-collar, committed not by blacks but by whites in Armani suits. He reminded me that what I saw on TV daily was what sold ads, my first lesson in corporate media. I rued my decision to say what I said that day, but I rejoice in what I learned till today. That was not the end of my metamorphosis.

As most immigrants who have done well for themselves, I joined the camps of those who were against affirmative action. I could not fathom why black folk needed anymore help than anyone else. I mean, we made it, why can't they? The fall back evidence was always, "look at our countries, there is no opportunity back in our lands... people would do anything to jump for such opportunities as those that exist in America".

But you see, there was and is a problem with both the view and those who hold it. I was living America from a perspective that was foreign to it, and from a perspective that had not lived America in the times of injustice. Not only did I not have a lack of any well-formed perspective, but more importantly, who was I to judge what was good for those whose ancestors had suffered in the land of 'opportunity'? As my thoughts matured, as I took myself out of the bubble of affluence that I had always enjoyed, as I witnessed other perspectives, as I understood (sometimes from direct contact) what had transpired in this country years before I was even born, I started to realize something. I started to recognize that my own ignorance of historical perspective, my own ignorance of human capabilities, my own ignorance of the vicious cycles of poverty and destitution, were indeed the undoing of my very perspective.

This of course had to change. And not just one perspective, but many others needed to change as well.

Next up: Immigrants at the Marathon