After I graduated from college, I moved to Virginia to work for a year. I came back to visit my family in Michigan and Illinois a few times during that year. On one trip back to Michigan, I was visiting my boyfriend, Phil, at his home in Dearborn. That was before I moved to this wonderful town. The couple next to me on the plane was also going to Dearborn to visit, it was their first time. “Oh great!” I thought, I can give them some tips on what to do. During our conversation, I said “Dearborn has the largest population of Arab Americans in the country!” I had always thought that fact added to the unique diversity and cultural value of the city and maybe this couple would explore that more now that they knew.
Their faces dropped. “Oh no, I didn’t know that,” one of them said. “I’m sure it will be fine,” said the other.
What I had thought of as a tremendous asset to the city was a thing of concern for this visiting couple. I didn’t understand their response. I don’t know anything about them and we didn’t really talk much more after that so I can’t say for certain if they reacted out of hate, bigotry, racism, or were uninformed and influenced by the anti-Arab rhetoric in the nation.
For much of my life, I think I have been aware of racism in the way that most people my age are aware of Watergate or the Depression. It is something that happens and affected me but not personally. I was raised to be tolerant of all people and I generally accept people for who they are. In school, if people made a “joke” about another race, I was usually the one who said it wasn’t funny. But there weren’t any real consequences. After all, I grew up in a mostly affluent, mostly white suburb of Chicago. Maybe things were going on around me and I was just too busy or too naive to recognize them (or I have a bad memory).
The point is that, before I moved to Dearborn, I had never considered myself to be in a tense or apparent “racial” situation. Of the amazing and pivotal events in history, like the Civil Rights Movement, I liked to think that I would have been one of the “white majority” who would have recognized the injustice and stood with the movement for change. I have often wondered if I would have the courage and wherewithal to recognize such a need in our current day.
The need is here. The time is now. My eyes have been opened.
Americans of Arab descent have been treated pretty badly in our country for a while. After 9/11, I don’t need to tell you what happened. We all know about the “round-up” of Arab American men, the beatings anyone who looked Arab suffered around the country, and the government’s continued surveillance of the community, the hours long interrogations of a person with an Arab sounding name, discrimination at work, and so much more.
I see these cases every day in my work at the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. Just this week I sat across the desk from a family near tears, telling me they just want to be left alone. They just want to be allowed to leave their house without their neighbor calling them names, or attacking their children. Is that really so much to ask? What terrible crime have these people committed to justify unrequited hate? They certainly didn’t fly any planes into a building.
There is a video currently circulating that is raw footage taken by a group called the Itching Ears Ministry who attended the Arab International Festival in Dearborn this past month. I wasn’t there at the time, and there are conflicting reports of if and to what extent this group incited the crowd at the festival to react violently. The video shows people throwing bottles. The physical response was wrong and needs to be addressed. However, this is not the first group that has come to Dearborn to make a statement about how right they are and how wrong we are.
I say “we” because this is what this post is all about (I know, took me long enough!). Dearborn is a city made up of Arabs (Lebanese, Iraqis, Iranians, Libyans, Syrians, Palestinians, Yemeni, Egyptian, and every other segment of the Arab population), Italians, Europeans, Jews, Hispanics, African Americans, Asians, Native Americans, Christians, Muslims, Atheists, Heterosexuals, Homosexuals, and everyone else I can’t list here because it will go on forever. What happens to any one of us in Dearborn happens to all of us. We each are a reflection of this city, what it stands for, and what we can be. Right now, I think we can do better.
The reaction to the video is probably the most shocking of all. It doesn’t take much until, all of a sudden, it’s “those Arabs” and how cruel and mean they are that is the problem in Dearborn. The solution? With that kind of thinking, I don’t think there can be a solution besides more hate and division which will eventually turn this city upside down.
Change comes quicker with things we can impact most directly. I can’t control who comes into Dearborn and what message they have to bring. But I can choose how I respond and what message my response makes. The same way we should not have to stand for being a playground for those who simply want to stir the pot and capitalize on the reaction, we should not have to stand for the division and hatred felt among the different communities within our borders. Instead of relegating the problem to one sector of the city and blame them for their action or inaction, let’s get together to talk about how the problem affects us all and reach a solution or two.
The bottom line is, I think Dearborn is a great place to live and has incredible potential. I am willing to work with every person in Dearborn to figure out how we can reach that potential. But, there is no room for racism or bigotry. We can have a frank conversation about the differences and problems our community faces and how to solve them without hateful rhetoric.
Sometimes, to reach that point, we need to take a close look at ourselves and be honest about what we are really saying.
It’s time to Set Ground Rules for how we address problems in Dearborn and in America. Join me today!