BlogHer Monday: Across the Great Divide

When we were living in Seattle, we choose a public school for our kids that had as much ethnic diversity as our mostly-white part of the city would allow. For four years the girls jumped rope with little pixie girls from Cambodia, dark haired chiquas from Mexico, and quiet girls in long skirts and hijabs.

During that time I managed to build bridges with most of the parents, but the quiet Muslim mama’s remained distant from me. There was the language barrier, true, but that didn’t seem to stop me from speaking Spanglish with the Latino moms. And there were cultural differences, but I was doing okay with the Cambodian families. So why couldn’t I connect with the Mama’s in hijabs who did little more than offer shy smiles at my friendly waves? Invitations for play dates went unanswered, questions about holiday plans for Eid were brushed aside, and the little girls were swept away as soon the students came pouring out the door at the sound of the 3:10 bell. What was I missing about my usually successful “how to win friends and influence people” equation?

The Fear. I was forgetting about the fear.

We all know that since 9-11 people who “look Muslim” have been treated like the enemy, regardless of their nationality or the stringency of their beliefs. But I was living on the other side of the country from NYC, and in my über-PC west-coast city, I thought those racist attitudes were rare enough that the fear held by Islamic families had dissipated. Surely the racist extremism of those initial post 9-11 years had mellowed. Surely visibly Islamic families living in most parts of America were now feeling relatively safe.

The privileged safe anonymity of being white, middle class, and (mostly) Christian in America had once again lulled me into false assumptions about my sisters on the other side of the color line. Thankfully, Ira Glass and Company/a> gave this WASP a wakeup call, and my consciousness was once again raised.

I adore Ira Glass and will gladly listen to This American Life on an unending loop. The girls and I often listen to back episodes on line, and a few days ago we tuned into the Shouting Across the Great Divide, an award winning story by Alix Spiegl. Spiegl captured the story of Serry and her family, Muslims living in the U.S. When my 4th grader, Eden, heard the stories of why Serry’s 4th grader, Chloe, had to leave her public schools, she was appalled. And by the time Chole’s best friend walks right past her without acknowledging her existence, Eden was in tears. When Serry’s husband opts for living in the West Bank of Palestine rather than enduring the strain of being a Muslim man in America, I joined in the crying. Not knowing what else to do for our sisters across the waters, Eden I fell back on our standard response. We lit candles. We said prayers. We tried to hold space for Serry and her family—we tried to hold space for hope.

No wonder the Muslim mamas at the kids’ school did not trust my conversational overtures, and the beautiful African women in abayads declined to make eye contact. In addition to the cultural differences that divide us, they were living in a tension I’ve never experienced. I was blithely throwing out “why can’t we all just get along” vibes. They were living in a constant low grade hum of fear.

I have been longing to make a connection with my Muslim sisters for a long time now, and I had hoped that our move to Copenhagen with its growing Islamic neighborhoods might be the thing that helped those connections get made. But as this country’s political debate over immigration in general, and Muslim immigration in particular, loops around itself in angry spirals, I began to despair of those friendships ever being possible. Could relational bridges be built? Or will we continue to shout across the great divide?

I believe we can do it. I believe women can build bridges—that we can see opportunities others may not perceive. And there are stories—real , live, it-just-happened-to-me stories—out there in the blogosphere that will help me hold on to that belief. This week, Catherine McNeil at Everyday Life as Lyric Poetry records an inspiring tale about meeting folks over the quest for ethical meat. And Jen Lemen, my soulsister in WASPy-ness and one of the best cross-cultural bridge builders I have ever met, offers us this report of finding siblinghood with a brother from another mother. Both are stories of simple connections made over every day transactions. They inspire me and give me hope. These stories tell me that we don’t need a stellar plan of global proportions to create the ties that bind. Being present is enough. Being attentive to our every day will give us the chance to say ‘yes’ to the openings around. With attentiveness and intent, we can grasp each other’s hands as we stretch them across a (not) so great divide.

Okay John, go ahead and play us out.

I’m a contributing editor for religion and spirituality at BlogHer. Find all my BlogHer posts or subscribe to the feed here. Thanks!

Staci Boden April 4, 2008 at 12:58 pm

Yes. Yes. Yes. Thank you for this post. As a privileged white (though culturally Jewish) woman, how to connect across difference without getting caught in liberal guilt or arrogance is quite a practice. I agree that we women are amazing and that showing up with presence and compassion is a beginning. Peace. Staci

Monica May 11, 2008 at 8:49 pm

Rachelle, this post has got me listening to This American Life all the time. And I’m not even an American! Ha!!!

I loved this story SO much … when I was in charge of leading our church group I made everyone listen to it. Half of us were in tears and then we had a GREAT discussion on evangelism and interfaith thoughts. Our group is quite diverse ranging from those who would believe that it’s their mission to convert everyone to accepting Jesus as their personal saviour to others who would have more interfaith beliefs. Lots of talk about heaven/hell too. Someone even suggested that maybe there isn’t a hell. And no even tried to stone him and call him a heretic. I was so proud of the real and important discussion we could have w/out wanting to kill each other or cast out demons (I’m being sarcastic, but my past church history suggests that I can never be too careful).

Anyway, I forgot to post a comment and tell you how it all played out.

And one more thing … I’m a substitute teacher and a few months ago I was in my daughter’s grade three class supervising ‘Christian Education’ (we live in a strong Christian community (probably only about 50% Christian, but they’re super vocal and teach this Christian Education class in the public schools) and the curriculum that the CE volunteers are given is very conservative evangelical curriculum). Anyway, as I’m supervising one of the kids tells the CH teacher that she told the muslim girl in the other class, the only one in the school, that she was going to hell b/c she didn’t believe in Jesus. The teacher gave a (what I thought was stupid and thoughtless, and typical) response. I almost jumped out of my skin. Had no idea what to do/say, so I just kept quiet and then talked about it with my daughter later. After listening to this story, I’ve been so bothered by my response and that whole scenerio. I would handle it so differently if given another chance. I’ve even drafted a letter to our local newspaper about this whole thing. Just really feeling inspired to do something and respond and let others know what is happening in our schools. And that it’s not okay. But I’m not sure how to write it and how to get people thinking without pissing them off. Maybe I can’t. Maybe I should/shouldn’t.

Had to let you know all this came b/c of this post!!

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