“Oh, I loved visiting Turkey,” I said to the Irish man sitting across from me. “Warm people, amazing food, ancient ruins, what’s not to enjoy?” He nodded and I took a sip of my beer when I heard a derisory snort to my left.
“What, you don’t agree?” asked the Irishman, also looking in the direction of the snort. I stared quizzically at the blonde woman who was glancing up at us from her laptop.
“Maybe in Turkey they are fine,” she said in her thick German accent, “but not in my country.”
I felt the familiar swell of anger rise up in my chest but figured it was better to just ignore it and take some thinly veiled swipes at the woman. “If you ask me, I’d take travel in Turkey over Europe any day.”
“Well of course you would,” she shot back at me.
“Hey actually,” I said, starting to get flustered, “if I really wanted to hear your racist shit I probably would have fucking asked you about it. But as it turns out, I didn’t so much do that as much as not.”
“Oh, you Americans,” she laughed, “You are such sensitive people when it comes to these issues. You just don’t realize it yet. You’ve only been living in Europe for a few years so your politically correct blinders are still on. You’ll get it.” She chuckled again and went back to typing on her computer.
“If I were in your shoes, I might just shy away from lectures on racism and nationality, but hey, that’s just my prudish American sensibilities talking now,” I quipped, with what I’m pretty sure looked like pure rage shooting through my eyes. The woman just smiled and shut her computer.
“You’ll see,” she chuckled, before walking out of the hostel’s common room.
The Irishman, a nearby Mexican and Australian nodded in approval as I unleashed a rather vulgar line of expletives in her wake. Later, one of the guys at that table even joined me in mocking her loudly as she danced in the hostel’s underground discotheque (to be fair, she really did dance like a baby giraffe on E). Yet the anger wouldn’t come off. Try as I might to get back at her in every possible hurtful way, the stain wasn’t coming out.
I realized later what was so rage inducing was the authoritative way in which she distilled her particular brand of hate. As if I just didn’t know better yet. Most of us are used to ignorant people making ignorant statements. We expect Sarah Palin to make folksy bullshit jab or Geert Wilders to sound like he hates anybody who is not also a L’Oreal blond. But having an almost professorial jab taken at a group of immigrants (and scary Muslim ones at that) by a random woman in a hostel, while my guard was completely down, had been absolutely shredding.
She was wrong, of course. I will never think like her nor will I ever “see” just why those darker than her are somehow threatening to the “stability” of Europe, something that has almost never existed across the continent during its majority white past. Europe as a region is rather prone to bouts of domestic terrorism (ETA, IRA), ethnic cleansing (Balkans, WWII), and random bouts of mass violence (most recently the London Austerity riots and Athens uprisings). None of these issues involve Arab or African immigration issues, and yet for some reason, there is a percentage of the European population that believes the EU would actually see some level of peace if all the terrible dark people made a mass exodus from their land.
But you can’t convince people who truly believe bullshit like this. Someone who states their opinion as fact, when there are no verifiable statistics to back it up are, as one of my actual professors once told me, pointless to argue with. There is no amount of data I can pull out, no use searching for the studies that show Moroccan-Dutch youths are no more violent than “autochtone” youths that will convince them. This is the ultimate exercise in futility.
All of these feelings and more came pouring out of my mouth as the Irishman helped me drown my indignation. I explained to him how hard it had been being an immigrant for what felt like my entire life. I told him about the difficulties of integration, of having one foot in the Middle East while trying to maintain the majority mandated outlook. He listened sympathetically as I explained to him that the Arab women I know, the Turkish women I met, are amazing. They are nurses, doctors, professors. That the men I call my family are not, in fact, beady-eyed freedom-haters, but guys who just want to get home from work in time to catch Bones.
The next morning I slumped my way downstairs and found the Irishman in the kitchen cooking up an omelet. “Want one?” he asked me. I groaned an affirmative and as he whistled cheerfully I searched my bag for some Tylenol. “You know all those things you were talkin’ about last night?” he said, watching as the egg yolk bubbled up in the pan. “It really got me thinkin’, ya know? I never once considered any of this stuff. After all I’m just some guy from a small town, I never really even spoke to a Muslim before.”
“Really. It’s pretty interesting, but I want to thank you for taking all the time to explain to me about something I didn’t know nothin’ about. Only what you hear in the media, and none of that’s good. But what you said last night, it’s really opened my eyes to this whole other culture.”
Tears stung my eyes and I willed them away before he had a chance to see them. “That’s really great to hear, actually, thank you.” I stammered.
“Omelet,” he pronounced, sliding the plate in front of me. “Too bad that girl had to be a righteous twat though, huh?” I laughed and took a bite of the eggs. The sting of her words, I noticed, had faded. While still present, they had settled into a nondescript dull ache. I suppose that’s the acridly bittersweet reality when it comes challenging racism: while I may feel like I lose the battle when it comes down to making noise, it’s destroying the quiet assumptions, held by your average nondescript citizen, that feels like the real victory.