Saturday, April 17, 2010

Two Incidents of Race

A few years ago I was invited to give a talk to a group that was not exactly known for its pleasant attitude towards unity and people with a different skin tone then themselves. To be honest, it wasn't really me that was invited. I was the runner up. The person they wanted wasn't available that weekend and they seemed to like what I had said over the phone. So I got to go.

I don't really know the whole story of the invitation, but from what I understand this group had been in the news recently for their less-than-pleasant attitudes, otherwise known as "racist perspective". To try and get some good PR, they invited me, a Baha'i, to talk about unity. And so I went.

I was kindly offered police protection, which I declined, as I do not believe that you can work for peace and prepare for war at the same time, to quote a famous historical person.

When I got there, I took a day to look around. There were a few things that stood out about this town, very positive things, and that is what I decided to address. (If my wife were telling this story, she'd tell you the part of the country, the name of the group and all those other details, but I prefer to make it more anonymous. Sorry.)

When it was time for the talk, they gave me a very nice introduction (although they knew very little about me, and even less about how unqualified I was to give such a talk). The audience seemed underwhelmed. Although the hall was pretty full, it really felt as if they did not want to be there.

I was also certain that they expected me to tell them what idiots they were for their attitude.

And so I began to talk about their town. I praised the medical centre that they had established, as well as the school and orphanage. I spoke of the beauty of the park and went on at length about the beauty of their homes. From there, I explained that I lived in Canada, much further north than where we were, and how our gardens just do not get the same variety of flowers that I saw there.

And that was what I spoke about for the next half hour: the beauty of the flowers in their gardens.

I'm sure you can guess the analogy I was alluding to, but I never went there. I only spoke about the flowers. On and on about the flowers. I talked about how boring my garden was, with only one type of flower, and how much I loved looking at all the different types of flowers in theirs.

I don't need to go on any more here, because I know you get the point. They seemed to, also. Slowly and appreciatively. It was incredible as they took no offense. All I could keep in mind was the advice from Baha'u'llah to speak with "words as mild as milk".

But that's not really what I wanted to write about.

No, what I wanted to mention was something that occurred a few years after that. I had forgotten all about it until just this morning.

I was visiting a community, a fairly large community, and decided to attend the Feast at their local Baha'i Centre. My memory says that there were about a thousand people there, but I'm sure my memory is exaggerating.


It was really full.

The consultation topic was all about the race unity movement and how they (or we) could further it. It was a vibrant consultation, with many wonderful points thrown in and lots of strategies upon which they could act. It was a model of consultation.

Then came the social portion. For some reason, during the switch from the adminstrative to the social portion, I decided to step back and watch.

They broke into perfectly seperated racial groups. The White folk were in one corner. The African-Americans in another. Persian friends were over there, with another racial group over yonder. It was astonishingly precise in its segregation.

I was stunned.

Now, I am fairly White in my complexion, so I decided to try and approach one of the "other" groups. I couldn't get a word in edgewise. It seemed as if I was shouldered out. So I tried another one, and the same thing happened again.

At that point, I moved over to a wall and leaned against it, alone with my thoughts.

After a moment or two, a man slipped up next to me, silent as he watched the same sight. We spoke for a few minutes about what we were witnessing, almost confirming what we saw. I told him of my experience in trying to break in to one of the groups, and he contemplated the meaning of it.

It turned out that he was an Auxiliary Board member for Protection and was there to verify the reports of this. Evidently he was able to talk with the community about it, explaining it as a simple habit of which they were unaware. Once it was brought to their attention, they were able to successfully address it within a couple of months.

So why am I bringing both of these incidents up in the same article? Simple really. It showed me the difference between these two communities, and how within the Baha'i Faith we have the tools to address these issues in a meaningful way. We also have the volition.

I don't know the full results of my short talk in that first community, nor do I know what was said in the second community. But I do know that in the first one, the racist attitude was conscious, and in the second it was accidental. I didn't do anything to really address either situation, but was blessed to be present and witness each. They really stood in contrast to each other.

So, dear Reader, if you happen to find yourself watching something that seems at odds with the Teachings within a Baha'i community, I think we can presume that it is not conscious. A simple conversation with the right institution will almost always take care of it.

Hmm. I just love being a member of this community.

1 comment:

  1. Mead, You're take on the second speaking enagement was refreshing and helpful. The idea of presuming that the community is unaware when that happens may help me with a particular issue I observe and am disturbed by. I fear it may actually hold back progress in some cases. Not all cases becuase it is not "pandemic" here, but it is noticeable to me. Thanks for the reflection.