It is 2 am, and I sit here, outside of my father's hospital room, on the very uncomfortable veneer coaches provided for the consolation of those who are staying with a loved one. Margaret is taking a nap on the little couch next to me, not sleeping in her husband's room, which is next to my father's. She says that she is afraid that her occasional snoring may wake everyone. So, I am in charge of waking her up if she snores.
Diane whose sister occupies the other room next to my father's, finally accepted to go home tonight to get some sleep. She is taking care of her sister by herself, so she really needs the rest. I promised her that I would be up most of the night, and would call her should anything happen. Thankfully, between my mother, brother and I, we each get the chance to trade places and therefore get more rest than either Margaret or Diane.
My family, Diane and her sister, and Margaret and her husband, we all have seen a great deal of each other in the last two weeks. We have spent most days together, learning a great deal about each other's past, present, and hopes about the future. Margaret and her husband are African-American and in their early 40's, Diane and her sister are third generation white Texans in their sixties and only a few years apart, and my family is Iranian.
Demographically speaking we are all as different as one could possibly make us. We are all from different cultural, geographical, religious, educational and socio-economical backgrounds, and between the 8 of us we cover every age bracket known to man! And yet we seem to take comfort in that. Or is it that we are all too tired, too scared, too needy, and all too hopeful to dwell on our differences too much? Maybe we are just grateful that our differences give us something to talk about during those late hours when sleep escapes us all– due to what surrounds us.
Under different circumstances would we have ever sat with each other to talk, and really listen and connect? In our everyday lives would we all have ever thought that at some level we could relate to each other? I truly do not think so.
On a normal sunny Houston afternoon, would Diane and my mother have ever had coffee together, with Diane overlooking my mother's accent and wrong English grammar, and my mother forgetting the fact that Diane knows nothing about the place she comes from, not even where it is approximately? Would Diane and Margaret have ever attempted a friendship, overlooking not only their age difference, but also their skin color and the history that separates them? Would Margaret have ever told me about her son dating a young woman from the Middle East and her displeasure with the fact that they have become serious? And would I have been as willing to listen to her worries, and her beliefs about interracial relationships being more difficult and probably not as healthy, without becoming defensive? I truly do not believe so.
Nevertheless, this is where we are now, and this is really what counts at this moment. The truth is that we are capable of expanding our own horizons. If we chose, we can be more open minded, more flexible and even stronger than even we realize. John Duckitt in an article about psychology and prejudice wrote that “in the 1960's and 1970's the dominant image of prejudice was that of a norm and was embedded in the social environment.” I thought about this, in regards to today's society, and more specifically in regards to what I had observed in the hospital in the previous couple of weeks.
In the past, absolute and powerful racism was part of the scenery, but today there is a more subtle kind that we live with, one that blends in and becomes part of the environment for us all. In today's world, as long as our prejudice is not manifested clearly or outwardly, then no eyebrows are raised. No one ever thinks twice that the Dianes, Margarets, and the first generation immigrant families, like mine, would generally never mingle, really be friends, or have each other's cell phone numbers. That kind of pure integration still remains a rarity, and its lack within our culture still the norm.
So, racism has only changed faces, it has changed its legal standing, its voice has become a whisper, and its appearance more like a shadow and less clear… but it still exists. However, its undefined and fleeting nature makes it even harder to catch! The first step is to admit that it exists, that each of us lives with some form of prejudice, but to also understand that we are all capable of changing. We can all broaden our horizons and replace our fears with understanding, substitute our confusion with curiosity, and supersede our stereotypes with first hand knowledge! And why wait until the next heart attack, next loss, next earthquake or next war to do it?
What if our society took this concept and ran with it? What if schools created programs where kids would go on little “exchange programs” and stay with each other's families for a couple of days. What if cultural awareness classes started earlier on during our educational years, and not as a last drop in the bucket mandated crash course we all take before our licensing and board exams, right before we become politically correct doctors, lawyers and professionals. Wouldn't the impact of a course like that be greater in elementary school?
I decided that if I could not change the school programs at this point, I probable could at least do something with my own sore spot. So, I went to a Mosque, one that I had passed daily with a sense of resentment for 14 years. A place I had never set foot in previously, although technically a Muslim myself.
I only stayed for a few minutes, I did not speak to anyone, and only prayed for my father and left. For me that was a first step.
And so late at night (or was it early morning?) I wrote:
The Color of Your Heart This very moment is yesterday's tomorrow and tomorrow's past. This very moment is my first breath or my very last. This very moment I can feel the pain or eternal bliss. I can reach for sorrow or this moment's kiss. It's all in what I see how this moment goes. I can see a dear friend or the very best of foes. I can see your skin and determine what you're not; Or look within your soul to the color of your heart.