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 mamaâ€™s remained distant from me. There was the language barrier, true, but that didnâ€™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 couldnâ€™t I connect with the Mamaâ€™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 â€œhow to win friends and influence peopleâ€ equation?
The Fear. I was forgetting about the fear.
We all know that since 9-11 people who â€œlook Muslimâ€ 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 Ã¼ber-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 Serryâ€™s 4th grader, Chloe, had to leave her public schools, she was appalled. And by the time Choleâ€™s best friend walks right past her without acknowledging her existence, Eden was in tears. When Serryâ€™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 familyâ€”we tried to hold space for hope.
No wonder the Muslim mamas at the kidsâ€™ 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 Iâ€™ve never experienced. I was blithely throwing out â€œwhy canâ€™t we all just get alongâ€ 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 countryâ€™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 bridgesâ€”that we can see opportunities others may not perceive. And there are storiesâ€”real , live, it-just-happened-to-me storiesâ€”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 donâ€™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 â€˜yesâ€™ to the openings around. With attentiveness and intent, we can grasp each otherâ€™s hands as we stretch them across a (not) so great divide.