Cultural insensitivity has never made much sense to me. I was raised to think before speaking and it takes but the smallest effort to understand that people have much more in common than not. Even if one is to acknowledge a difference in skin color, it is nothing more than a genetic difference (granted it is a very noticeable one) with very little direct impact on life, other than one’s susceptibility to sunburns.Being a middle class Caucasian male, I can say that bigotry or cultural ignorance never really impacted my daily life. That is not to say I didn’t think it existed, but perhaps that it was becoming less frequent in the world.
Perhaps I still thought of racism as an African-American issue and that prevented me from seeing the new breed of racism creeping into my life and country.
I remember the conversation that shattered these illusions, probably because it did so with the subtly of a bus.
I was picking up a carbon dioxide tank for my boss one muggy summer day in July when the rhetoric of the scared reared its ugly head. The man behind the counter was middle aged and sporting a bushy mustache. The nametag pinned on his chest announced his name as Frank. This wasn’t our first encounter, and during our previous meetings he always appeared good-natured.
We got down to business and he began processing my order. As we waited, our conversation turned to a recent stoning that had been publicized in American news.
I could almost instantly see that this was an area Frank was passionate about. His calm demeanor began to unwind as this usually soft-spoken man got wound up. He quickly took a conversation about the tragedy of this brutal practice and turned it into a tirade about the Muslim cultural center being built two blocks from ground zero.
I don’t remember how he made the leap from stoning to Mosque, but this man’s bitterness towards Islam was becoming ever more apparent as his diatribe progressed. I can confidently say this because I was familiar with those feelings of anger and resentment in the weeks following September 11.
The patriotic fervor during the aftermath of the September 11 attacks was a difficult force to avoid. In the wake of the attacks I, like many, felt wronged and, like many, misplaced my anger onto the entire Muslim world.
Like all things though, that terrible day retreated into the past and with it the emotions that cloud the mind began to lift like a dense fog on a fall morning. Beneath the fog of emotion, reason began to stir and with reason came questions.
It sounded like Frank had questions too, but from his anger I gathered that he had not found answers. I needed answers, however, and began searching the past, specifically the United States’ history with the Middle East, with a focus on finding out why certain people resent our country.
From what I gathered, it appeared that they don’t hate our freedoms, but hate our foreign policy. What had started as black and white certainty that “we” were right and “they” were wrong began to mix into a grey mess of doubt.
I tried to explain this ambiguity to Frank but all I could mutter in the face of such passion was a weak defense about the Mosque that was in one of the towers before they fell. This set Frank off on a fiery rant about the new Mosque being built to flaunt 9/11 to Americans.
At this point Frank was firing on all cylinders. Spittle flew as his gestures grew in size and intensity and his calm exterior gave way to his adamant feelings. And as our friendly conversation dissolved into Frank’s angry monologue I began to ask myself how these unbalanced statements would make an American-Muslim feel. Even more important, I wondered how many Americans share such powerful negative feelings towards Islam.
This quiet unassuming man brought me face to face with biases that I have held and am still struggling with. He showed me what these ideas look like when laid out for others to see and he opened my eyes to the culture clash that the U.S. is experiencing.
I have seen this anger in the news but this was my first personal encounter with such animosity. This man’s momentary loss of composure made the angry faces on the news seem so much more real and in a strange way it made the struggle for Muslims living in America just as real.
Joshua Oberholtzer is a student at West Chester University. He can be reached at JO665014@wcupa.edu.