Thursday, December 08, 2005

'thanks, but no thanks': when the Other speaks

Here's a question: what does it mean to be in community with others, even other people who don't share your faith?

Some months ago a committee I'm on came up with the brilliant idea of exploring the idea of the global church in our deacon meetings, rather than spend 90 minutes shuffling papers and deciding who's sitting at the volunteer table on which Sunday. (with email, there's no need to waste all this time.) We thought, Let's have little mini-lectures about the church and all the different communities. Yay! we thought. We'll learn something!

So we brought in a religion writer from the Trib and had a nice little conversation about faith in the city and how a paper covers it. Success.

Then, since we wanted to be relevant, we thought, 'Hm. Let's bring in the guy who lectures on Islam in our Academy. He can talk to us about the Islamic community and tell us stuff we don't know.'

Yeah...big dreams. You'd think having a really measured Moslem professor and lawyer come in from the burbs and talk about the Islamic community and Middle Eastern history from the inside would not be enough to push moderate, progressive Christians over the edge, but apparently it is.

You'd think hearing a mini-lecture about the ways that Christian and Moslem culture, history, commerce and geo-politics have been intertwined since something like the 11th century would be distant enough to prevent people from freaking out, but you'd be wrong.

You'd also think that hearing an articulate brown man (who was also very very attractive - very) tell a room full of privileged white people that brown immigrants who've been living here for a couple generations don't care what you think of them and didn't really come to this country to assimmilate would have made sense but, yeah, you'd be wrong there, too.

On the whole, his mini-lecture was about more than religion; it was about his culture; it was about how much older it was, how learned it was, how grounded it was in 'enlightenment' ideas. But it was also about the cultural identity of an immigrant and this was the part of his lecture that made some of us squirm.

(What? You *don't* want to be an American?? Well, that's just...just un-American!!)

When we say we want to understand, do we really? Or do we really mean that we want that other person to say something we agree with, something that bolsters our already inflated image of who and what we are?

When we say we want to be inclusive (as a progressive congregation - I don't expect conservative churches to embrace this newfangled notion of inclusion) what do we really mean and what happens when someone you want to include holds up his hand and says, 'Uh, appreciate the gesture, but we're fine just where we are'?


john patrick said...

At some point, is their hypocrisy going to *stop* surprising us?

ding said...

i guess not. i've tried the whole cynical, 'expect the worst' pose and i'm still stunned at how benignly ignorant people are.

a very nice woman was stunned, when we started discussing the paris riots, that the issue wasn't religion but class and culture - and she actually said "But don't you think it's better to assimilate?" and when he answered that assimilation benefits mainstream culture but not necessarily those immigrant cultures who didn't come to another country to lose their cultural identity to benefit some notion of 'american-ness', she was totally offended.

she actually thought that was radical.

jesus chick said...

i don't think that cultures that come to america should be forced to assimilate. what's the point of having everyone be the same? beauty of america, right? however. . . . i think that when you come to a country and disagree with the way something is done you should suck it up or go somewhere else. okay that's a rather coarse way of trying to state my thoughts. how about this - remember the post re persecution? how can a nation possibly cater to every culture and it's belief without upsetting someone else's culture / belief hence the cry of *persecution*. for instance (as i dig my hole deeper) the whole "happy holidays" debacle. if you are against "merry christmas" fine. but why come to a country that believes -or used to- in merry christmas and then crab that it offends you? i don't get it. i don't know that i'm stating this clearly so likely i will be misunderstood - sorry.

ding said...

i think you're saying it fine.

i love it when people say 'if you don't like, leave.' that's a gross oversimplification of why people come here and why they can't just leave. but then again, we americans are fond of the 'with us/against us' binary.

think about it this way: let's say that the whole economic and internal infrastructure of the united states collapses and we all have to emmigrate to china.

we're in china - totally different social structures, educational structures, language, codes - everything. what would we do?

would we learn one of the many regional dialects, adopt the dress and habits of the people around us so that we make them feel better about accommodating us? would we eventually get used to the idea of a communist state or - would we insist on having christmas, insist on living individually and insist on transposing our way of life from back in the homeland to our way of living now?

'sucking it up' is no big deal to us. we're in the position of power.

look at what we're asking them to 'suck up': suck up losing your language. suck up losing your cultural identity. suck up thousands of years of tradition down the drain just so americans don't have to deal with the fact that you're here.

would we just 'suck it up'?
i don't think so.

so if we're not willing to do it, why the hell are we expecting other cultures to do it?

Sara E Anderson said...

I don't think we should completely throw the idea of assimilation out the window here. A cursory glance over the racial tensions in European countries like Germany, France and the Netherlands shows that a complete lack of assimilation leads to big problems, too. The extent to which an immigrant needs to assimilate to his or her new community seems to me like it should be the jumping-off point here, rather than whether or not assimilation is important at all.

ding said...

you're right; some assimilation is important. (i'm not advocating some crazy shadow culture here.)

but in the american context there is a bit of disingenuousness. immigrant populations are assimilating - but apparently not enough for us. they contribute to our economic base, they participate in civic life but it's not enough for us.

we require total capitulation: speak only english , don't complain, don't highlight your native culture, be 'american'.

in those other countries, it's the terms of assimilation that are problematic. when i was doing focus groups in amsterdam on racial identity i found that young afro-dutch people are given an untenable manichean choice: become 'dutch' and forget your (colonial) culture. that's unacceptable for them. (and these were 3rd or 4th generation afro-dutch!)

again, look at it from their point of view: you're being told to become something Other to yourself, not on your terms.

(i heartily recommend frantz fanon's 'wretched of the earth' to read about colonial duality.)

jesus chick said...

the china scenario is a good one. and this is all theoretical, because really, i have no way of how i would react if i "had" to move to china. but anyway, i would go knowing full well there are cultural differences that were going to impact my religious/cultural beliefs. i would obviously have to practice some of those privately. should i wage a protest because they don't embrace my belief/culture system?

i wouldn't expect someone else to have to do something i'm not willing to do.

sara has a good point re the extent of assimilation; but that's a subjective judgment which makes it all slippery.

ding said...

but who's protesting now?

this is an honestly puzzled question; i don't know of any immigrant groups that are protesting anything or even asking that the larger culture embrace their culture/belief system.

to me, they just seem to be saying, 'why can't you all just leave us alone?'

john patrick said...

You know, you don't have to google very hard to find expatriot communities all over the world. White Americans tend to be TERRIBLE at assimilating another culture. Heck, Americans have a reputation for being bad tourists; imagine American enclaves in other countries....

Anyway, people who demand assimilation have an amazing lack of perspective; somebody that's had the luxury of never having an ethinc identity crisis. I have every right to be in this country and every right to choose not to be like THEM.

And give me a fat break about the problems in Europe. People claim that the unrest is due to lack of assimilation; that it's the immigrants' fault.

BS. It's not a lack of assimilation. It's that society marginalizes them. It's society's fault. Society fails to integrate them.

Do you think Americans really want the Mexican kid washing dishes in their restaurant to integrate, to learn English, to graduate from college, and to buy a house in their neighborhood and share carpooling duties when their kids go to the same private school? No they don't. They want him to wash dishes, to go back to Mexico, and to stop reminding them about all the economic disparity that put a cheap hamburger on their plate.

ding said...

but i have a hard time thinking that american society doesn't want that mexican kid to achieve some measure of 'american' success.

i know that makes me naive. doesn't american society truly want to integrate the immigrant Other?

peripateticpolarbear said...

I agree. The question is whether or not the success that "we" want for the Other is the success they want for themselves.

This isn't an immigrant culture, but I spent some time on a reservation in SD, and one of the folks I was with told a teenager that she hoped he could save enough money to go to college. The kid looked her dead in the eye and said "why? so i can leave home and make money and send my mom a Christmas card once a year? I may live in your world, but I don't believe in it."

It seems that all charitable urges toward immigrant populations are toward finding a few and giving them college and a totally assimilated life, rather than ensuring fair wages for all.

ding said...

i think that's a great example. why can't our society integrate that boy's desire? (and he's not even an immigrant!)

to jesus chick's point, it would be impossible for one country to be all things to all people (can you imagine the beaureaucratic nightmare that would ensue?) but i think it's a mistake to think that newly arrived communities want that. they want what we have: the ability to live their lives the way they've always lived them.

this poses a problem for a progressive, too, i think. for inevitably we come up against practices in a culture we think should be eradicated (forced marriage, genital mutilation, honor killings): what then?

Sara E Anderson said...

ding, that's exactly my point. There are some kinds of practical assimilation that have to occur - dressing in warmer clothes if you move from Morocco to Idaho, or learning some English - and then there are some things that American society really demands of its citizens. Of course, there is the big question of what what demands are really fair, and that's where I think we ought to start. For example, the American court system is not going to and should not accomodate Sharia in dealings between muslims - many of its dictates directly contradict constitutional rights of any American. If people can't assimilate to the point where they can obey American law, they're not assimilated enough. This ties into where I disagree with johnpatrick, who I think is glossing over some very important problems between white europeans and muslim immigrants. There have been honor killings in Sweden and Germany. That's not okay, and it's helped along by a lack of relations between the immigrant and native communities in these European countries. The ridiculous bans on Muslim dress either proposed or enacted in places like the Netherlands and France show that these countries aren't interested in absorbing Muslim culture, but in protecting their monoculture. Conservative muslims going ahead and breaking the fundamental laws of the countries they live in (ie, no murder, no beatings, etc.) also are showing their refusal to compromise their monoculture. A certain degree of assimilation is going to be necessary to iron this out.

Anonymous said...

The difference between God and Santa Clause is that most people stop believing in Santa Clause after age 7. Believe what you want, but don't expect me to respect organized insanity.


ding said...

off topic, but ok.

ding said...

sara, but don't you think the situation in europe now with immigrants has something to do with the difference between new immigrants who practice a particular form of islam and those 'immigrants' who aren't really immigrants at all - their families have lived in france since at least the 60s.

i get your point about sharia law and things like that; let's all agree that people who live here should obey the law of the land. yes?

i guess what i'm trying to get at is this point of discomfort, the source of the discomfort displayed by the woman in my church group who chose to be offended at an american citizen describing what american culture looks like to someone like him and by the strand in our culture's thinking that says 'if you don't like it, go home.'

i want to know what's at the heart of all that.

john patrick said...

ding and sara,

the angry people of the banlieu did not riot for the sake of honor killings or the Sharia!

they rioted out of frustration due to the situation with jobs, housing, and education. These are questions of integration, NOT assimilation.

If ethnicly French families were forced to live in the suburban high rises for generations with no hope in sight, THEY WOULD RIOT TOO. Yes, they would.

The cultural/religious arguement is a giant diversion. Don't fall for it.

ding said...

jp, i agree - it's just that i was totally inarticulate about it.

integration vs. assimilation. hm. i think there may be something here. i don't know what the difference is.

john patrick said...

Integration is an economic phenomenon, while assimilation is an identity issue.

A prof of mine in France said it best; everybody gets along when there are jobs.