In some perhaps too tightly wound circles, it is considered a “micro-aggression” to ask “Where are you from?” or “Where are your ancestors from?” The prejudice of those who think this way is that the questioner has a hostile intent.
But Wade and I delight in finding out the origins of someone’s name, or accent, or heritage. This is the pleasure of a multi-cultural, multi-national world.
Lazy Eye, a recent gay film, mentions the classic Harold and Maude. The unusual relationship between a morbid young man and a vivacious old woman—a Holocaust survivor, no less—contains a scene in which they are walking among daisies as she explains her love for flowers. He grimly observes, “They’re all the same.”
“No, each one is different,” she points out, naming how so. “Much of the world’s sorrow comes from people who are this,” as she holds up one daisy, “but allow themselves to be treated like that.” As she gestures broadly, the camera pulls back to show them sitting in a veterans cemetery covered with identical grave markers.
I would say that too many of us have a “lazy eye” when it comes to appreciating differences and diversity.
Nelson Mandela insisted on a staff that mirrored the diversity of the new South Africa when he became its president. He and the people he represented had more than a little right to exclude those Europeans who had come to their continent and excluded them from rights, privileges, and participation in government. But he insisted on modeling the necessary collegiality among the races to bring his post-apartheid nation together.
This was brought home to me as I read the memoir of an Afrikaner whom he chose as his personal assistant, Zelda la Grange. The book, Good Morning, Mr. Mandela, was lent to me by the twin sister of one of our close friends. They are themselves Afrikaners, but she resides in South Africa, while he is a naturalized citizen of the United States.
A few weeks ago, Wade and I were enjoying drinks and dinner out with him when he described an incident at a market here in Atlanta. He was checking out, and his order included the last banana cluster on the shelves. “Are you going to take those bananas?” an older woman behind him in line questioned. Taken aback by her accusatory tone, our ever polite friend explained in his accented English, “Yes, but I’m sure they have more in the back.”
Angered, she stormed off, admonishing him, “Go back to your goddamn country!”
“Go back to your goddamn country!”
He said he was stunned beyond belief. “Why would bananas be so important?” he wondered, aghast.
Mocking her rhetoric, this became the toast of the evening. More than once, we lifted our glasses, laughing, saying in unison, “Go back to your goddamn country!”
Admittedly her nativist rant was less damaging to three privileged white men, but still, to a foreign born citizen like our friend, it must have stung.
In that moment, she proved herself to be less of an American than our friend.
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