Innocent Racism?

I normally delight in the absurdities and humor of life and travel and my blog certainly reflects that. But today, I want to talk about something a little more serious. Unfortunately, there are still some things in life that aren’t funny at all.

In case you didn’t know, International Peace Day is at the end of this month. In the instituto, we’ve been preparing for it with various activities and today in one of my English classes I asked the students create their own artwork. They were required to answer the question “What does community mean?” with a picture.

As I was doing my rounds around the class, I noticed that one student had draw three figures. On each of their bodies was the name of a country: China, Morocco, Spain. At first, I was intrigued and pleased. What an interesting reflection how this child viewed his community! Go diversity!

I moved closer to get a better look.

The first thing I noticed was that the skin of the Chinese person was drawn with garish yellow colored pencil. Then I asked him what the giant Flavor Flav-like dollar sign necklace was doing on this Chinese person. After he uttered an offensive name by way of an explanation (use your imagination), his friend pointed to an object drawn near the foot of the Moroccan.

“It’s a bomb! A grenade,” he said, giggling.

Just let that sink in.

That, as we would say in Spanish, is fuerte.

I was stunned.

“But why does the Moroccan person have a grenade?” I asked when I recovered from my shock. The boy and his friends erupted in laughter.

“Because I like the way it looks,” he replied. “You shouldn’t think too much into it.”

Yet that’s exactly what I was doing. I was thinking about it a lot. What was this child hearing, seeing, or talking about that led him to draw that?

While the United States and Spain share many similarities, there are a few “normal” things here that I found problematic—like the fact that cheap convenience stores are named “chinos,” which literally means “Chinese person.” That during the parade of the Reyes Magos at Christmastime, people essentially wear blackface to represent the Three Kings from the East. These are cultural differences that are certainly arresting, but manageable. In no way am I suggesting that Spain is full of racist bigots; they merely have a different form of interacting with the world that occasionally clashes with mine. This is normal. This is what happens when you meet people who are different from you.

This brings me back to my original point. What isn’t normal and isn’t acceptable is that this eleven year old boy was associating a Moroccan individual (a country with a majority Muslim population) with terrorism. After all, these images were meant to represent each nation as a whole. Who knows if he meant specifically Morocco, or North Africa, or Muslims in general—the bottom line is that the eleven-year-old boy probably isn’t a raging bigot. He probably doesn’t fully understand or care what he’s regurgitating back to us.

Now more than ever, Europe is struggling with rising levels of xenophobia. As you may or may not have heard, there’s a devastating civil war happening in Syria that has caused more than one million asylum seekers to cross over into the continent. A majority of these migrants and refugees are Muslim, which has made many people very nervous…a fear that has been amplified by the attacks in Paris and Cologne. Europe’s resources are being overwhelmed, but the most frightening consequence is the effect on society.

I honestly doubt that humans are born intolerant. It is a behavior that is learned and internalized. So how is it that we can stop the spread of such hatred and fear?

A few days earlier, I taught a class about human overpopulation and migration. I presented the Syrian crisis and discussed racism in Europe. Then I casually asked to my class of 14 year-olds, “how can we stop xenophobia?” (Just a typical day, right?)

One girl raised her hand and said, “Education.”

This gives me hope. It is through communication and education that we can stop fear because fear often stems from what people do not understand. Instead merely hating, we can start learning and change the conversation.



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