ARAB LIKE ME: Are Blacks Joining in on the New Racism?

20 Jul 2005

“Your struggle is our struggle, for if they come for you in the morning, they will be coming for us at night.”
- From James Baldwin’s letter to Angela Davis upon her capture.

Remember the last time you had that all too familiar gut wrenching question in your head immediately after hearing about a major crime: "I hope it wasn't a brother"? Well, in my case, the morning of August 25th, 2004 was one of those moments. As I proceeded to grab my first gulp of my usual morning coffee at the office in the heart of Toronto's financial district, the rumblings began. "There's a mad man with a gun holding somebody hostage down there at Union Station!" One by one, my colleagues rushed to the eastern side of our office building, immediately adjacent to the emerging crime scene, and revelled at the live "entertainment." After finishing to read an e-mail, I joined the amassing crowd. From our 15th Floor bird''s eye-view, we could see the Vanilla Sky-like eerie sight of an empty Front street, save for these two figures standing in front of Union Station. Right across the street from our building, plain-clothed detectives were hiding behind a concrete block with their gun pointed at the figures ahead. Before we knew it, we heard a "bang" and saw the hostage taker fall to the ground like an animal shot by a hunter.

A few minutes later, an e-mail came from our company's CEO, offering trauma counselling services by a professional hired on the spot to help us cope with what we had just witnessed. Like Prince would say, Dr Everythig-is-going-to-be-alright was on his way. Prince wasn't right though in that song when he said that in "this life, you're on your own." Like it or not, we all fall into the "us" or "them" category. As soon as we were back at our desks, the e-mails started coming with the picture of the slain gunman. No words were needed between two of my black co-workers as we looked at each other:

Damn! Now, why did it have to be a brother?!

You see ... from that moment on, we moved from the "us" category to the "them" hotspot. It was clear that the office talk changed a bit when "we" walked by the water cooler. Suddenly, people stopped talking about the "race" issue and instead talked to us about how "unsafe" Toronto is becoming. The barbarian invasions are upon us.

Wake up call. For a moment there, we had been enjoying our moment in the sun in the "us" club. A black friend of mine and I were reminded of our newly-found status at Richmond Street's Yuk Yuk comedy club just a year before -- when famed East-Indian comic Russell Peters said: "Since 9-11 you black guys have had it good. The police see you riding in a convertible Ferrari and wave and tell you to have a nice day."

It's indeed an undeniable fact that the 9-11 attacks have reshuffled the cards in the race relations game. Some observers in the U.S. have even speculated that "the war on terror" has had a tremendously positive effect on white-black relations. "We" were attacked by "them". And for the first time, perhaps in the whole of American history, the "we" actually genuinely included blacks in the definition. In a New York Times article dated Oct. 10, 2001, Somini Sengupta argued that, "the way New Yorkers perceive one another across color lines has changed." She adds: "In Fort Greene, Brooklyn, a crew of black and Latino teenage boys say they can no longer think of the police as enemies. Since Sept. 11, the boys say, the officers who patrol their neighborhoods, most of whom are white, no longer eye them with suspicion."

Let's not be naive and think that Osama has brought us the promised land that MLK and Malcom never fully got us. But don't it feel good to share the burden of "enemy of the state?" Before you answer that question, think about the consequences of such thinking. Have blacks suddenly forgotten what it feels like to live at the margins of society? Just because we "can" be suspicious of that Arab dude in the plane, does that make it any more justifiable than when we are racially profiled when walking around in Rosedale or Forest Hill at night? Are you celebrating or advocating on behalf of others?

The recent terrorist attacks in London have given us another visa-extension in our "us" promised land stay. Heck, the fact that the fourth bomber just "happened" to have been a black Jamaican who converted to Islam is just another "interesting twist." Not a single police report from the U.K. mention any backlash attacks against Great Britain's sizeable Jamaican community. But the Muslims are catching hell alright. As a final thought, just remember what those British National Party racists and other ordinary Brits are shouting out at Muslims right now: "Sand-niggers!! Go back home." Remember the N-word?

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