I worried right away when I heard of the tragedy that the resulting backlash would be racism. I know people would make claims about being “merciless.” That the USA would take it as a sign to be even more xenophobic, but I also knew that at this time, it would be pointless to tell people that. When people are terrified and grieving, they are emotionally compromised (and for a good reason, their brains are trying to protect them). Nevertheless, many of the posts are correct, there is a lack of carying in countries were people are brown-skinned and especially if the city is considered war-torn. We believe their culture to be “violent” and cast it aside as “hopeless.” In this way, they are absolutely correct, it is racist. Our society considers itself superior and the Middle East especially to be “primitive.” I heard that word used multiple times from supposedly educated T.V. anchors and I hear it all the time in various forms in personal conversations. Here is one such example:
People were afraid for France and not for Africans or Middle Easterners because they consider France to be powerful, and because we see them as being “more like us.” All of those are racist things that have been normalized to us since the time we were little, growing up hearing NPR or any news station say things like “even more tragedy/bloodshed/violence in the Middle East today.” Yes, it’s true there is violence, but the way it is phrased or reported on as if “oh it’s raining again today” and you live in Seattle is something that cannot be helped, and it’s not worth it to cry over. It was said as if whose lives lost are not worth mourning.
I admit, I was one of the people who felt frightened by the Paris attacks, and not by the news about Beirut or Baghdad (partly because it was not well reported, but also because I wasn’t listening), but I am not offended by posts calling for justice and equality. They are right. The lives lost are less valued and more easily forgotten, and that is not just. I took it as an important and powerful reminder that I need to pay more attention, and refuse to give up on those countries I have been normalize to believe are a lost cause. They are not a lost cause. They are intelligent people whose lives are valuable to this world.
So no, I did not change my Facebook profile picture. I was worried that doing so would 1) Garner more anger against Muslims and Syrian refugees in general, the majority of which are peaceful people who will now pay the price for a few extremist’s actions. 2) That I could not possible fit all the flags of the people who are constantly being oppressed and murdered in mass numbers daily on my profile page. I felt so overwhelmed with the sadness and injustice that I took little action. Writing this was about all I could manage.
However, all that being said, I cannot justify berating people who do choose to change their profile pictures to reflect the Paris flag. They are grieving for their own reasons and are afraid. Now would be a very bad time to approach them when they are emotionally compromised. Realistically, these people need time to grieve and recover their feelings of safety in order to have a rational conversation. They feel extremely defensive right now. Yes, people in the Middle East are dying right now and it is wrong that they have been ignored. I would also never tell those people to be quiet or that their cries of prejudice are unwarranted, yes, even at this time. If I was afraid for my life or the lives of my loved ones, I would demand immediate attention too.
However, it is possible to make your point and allow people to grieve at the same time. When the 9/11 attacks happened, multiple planes went down and more than one location was devastated right? Did we say that people were not allowed to be more upset over one than the other (like the twin towers verses the pentagon) or that we could not grieve for all at once? Of course not, all those lives lost were equally valid. But for someone who lost a spouse or family member in one versus another, they are very likely going to feel the loss of that one more acutely than the others. When something feels more personal to you, everything else, all the other pains tend to fall to the wayside (especially if elements of racism come into play). Even if it’s not right, it is human.
I cannot help my feelings of fear for Paris. I recognize that my fear and sadness for those white lives lost over those in, what to me, a more foreign country is most definitely the result of normalized racism and it is wrong. It is also irrational. But in this moment, in this time, I cannot help those feelings, sometimes feelings are not rational even if you are consciously aware of it. It will take me and billions of others time and constant exposure to elicit a different response. It requires a re-writing of my brain to do so. To ask me to immediately flip a switch and not feel these feelings is impossible. It will take even longer to help our whole society to form a different perspective and attitude, to grow up believing that those lives are possible to save and are worth saving. But I do promise to try, and I encourage those who pointed out the racism and their calls for more empathy to continue to remind us that you are there and your lives matter too. I know I will screw it up, but I will continue to make efforts to make room for more empathy, to be more inclusive, most especially to people and ideas most foreign to mine.
Lastly, for those like me who are trying so hard to care about the whole world at once while admitting you are imperfect: it is ok to feel overwhelmed by tragedy. I think people often put up that wall by saying or thinking “No, I cannot feel for ever more people. I just cannot do or feel or think about all those things at once.”It is a fear of fear. Like Remus Lupin says, “What you fear most is fear itself.” Feeling grief, or even guilt, even for many at once will not kill you. Do your best to stay open-minded to the calls for justice and do not become defensive even though you are afraid. Remember that no matter what happens, even evil must pass. The only constant is change. Be apart of the positive change, the goodness in the world, and do it by keeping your mind and heart open. Even and especially when tragedy strikes. I know that is when it is most difficult to do so, but that is when so many people will also be struggling. Your open-mindedness will put you ahead of the curve.