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Confronting Racism: Homework for the Next Generation

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My friend Amer Zahr’s testimony about racism in the USA points to parallels between what Arab kids experience today and what he faced a quarter century ago when he was 13. On the surface it seems there’s been scant progress for us, as for African Americans, especially Black men for example in how they’re treated by police.

Remarkably, we hapless citizens on the receiving side of prejudice and ignorance continue to believe it’s possible to educate our foes and our rude friends. How many times have we heard how they “honestly never spoke to a real Muslim” or “never sat with a Black family”, how they “never knew”….until they viewed one of our prize-winning films, watched Muslims comedians or read a mind-blowing novel by an Arab woman?

Today, recharged by a battery of immense talent—comedians, authors, actors, musicians and TV hosts– we forge ahead with the dream of overturning the shortcomings of our purported democracy, a distracted free press, our abused free speech and our trivia-laden social media.

The latest talent to come to my attention in the search for justice through powerful story-telling is Rafia Zakaria. She’s author of a new upstairswifememoir The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan, published by Beacon Press in Boston. I read it and swiftly arranged to interview Zakaria.

The book is a portrait of the author’s Karachi family woven into Pakistan’s history since independence, with the aim of illustrating how divisions and fragilities inside a household can mirror the vulnerability of a whole nation, manifest through women’s lives– from Zakaria’s own hapless Aunt Amina, to protesting college girls, to the ambitious leader Benazir Bhutto. These lives intersect with one another and within the promise and pain of nationhood.

The Upstairs Wife joins a growing body of literature that reinvents how history is made more accessible and more realistic. But my phone interview with Rafia revealed something more personal and significant for me. Choosing journalism as a career, we share a commitment to erase misconceptions implanted and perpetuated about us by a patronizing and biased western press.

Both Zakaria and I (along with Amer Zahr, Nermin Al-Mufti) declare an unwillingness to accept imperialist characterizations of our existence, and a determination to establish a new discourse. I set out a generation ago to portray multi-dimensional Arab lives (not ‘victims’ who liberals so eagerly embrace), bringing years of anthropology research to my journalism. Today’s generation is fighting the same stereotypes and professional battles we were certain we could obliterate. We didn’t fail; we simply need our children with their energy and their own rationale to maintain the momentum.

Zakaria explains: “You have to present stories of ordinary families: how they endure history, the mistakes they make, their victories and joys. Those are universal experiences; they bring people of the world together. If you know someone’s story, it’s more difficult to hate them.”

It seems uncomplicated, doesn’t it? Zakaria exactly repeats my assertions when I took up journalism in 1989. I’m heartened, not dismayed by her statements. She too understands the process: “If you call a country a failed state over and over, that becomes the country’s identity not only for people applying those terms, but for the people of that country itself.” She concludes my admitting how hard it is for her and other citizens to deal with the reality of Pakistan, not because of its flaws, but because the idea of promise and potential, whether within a nation or in personal relationships, is something very fragile.

 Barbara Nimri Aziz is a New York based anthropologist and journalist. Find her work at www.RadioTahrir.org and contact her at: info@radiotahrir.org. Aziz was a longtime radio host and producer at Pacifica-WBAI Radio in NY.

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Barbara Nimri Aziz is a New York based anthropologist and journalist. Find her work at www.RadioTahrir.org. She was a longtime producer at Pacifica-WBAI Radio in NY.

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