In high school, I clearly remember being taught that Canada is this beautiful land, full of different cultures and people, and that everyone added their heritage and history to our tapestry, making Canada a unique mosaic of people. And in the next breath, of course, we were taught that America, our southern neighbour, was a melting pot, where people’s histories and heritages were obliterated in a steamrolling of assimilation.
It might be true. And it might be false. The reality, though, is that these are polarizing ideas and they leave little room for exception. There is proof of racism and the demand for assimilation here in Canada, perpetuated even by our Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, who is demanding Muslim women not be allowed to wear a niqab during citizenship ceremonies. And there is proof of acceptance and ‘mosaic’ behaviour from our American neighbours, like the conversation-igniting campaign that Starbucks tried to tackle with their #RaceTogether scrawls on cups.
Regardless of where we live, what nationality we are currently claiming as ours, or how we choose to identify ourselves, we all have the same thing in common: we are all human. And this fact, again, regardless of anything else, is the most important and often the least remembered piece of any country’s puzzle.
A young Muslim woman, Assma Galuta, is trying to tackle the gap between reality and perception when it comes to race. She runs a YouTube channel where she posts filmed social experiments she has conducted. Her experiments challenge what people ‘know’ or ‘say’ about the Muslim faith and people, and what is real. Her focus is the universal commonality: we are all human.
In her first experiment, she asked people to finish her poster where she had written, “I am a Muslim, so that makes me…” She herself had put “kind” and “terrorist,” both terms that had been used to describe Assma in the past. Then, she stands on the street, asking people to write what they think a Muslim is.
The result is heartwarming – everyone who takes the time to write on her poster, leaves words of positivity and humanity. And most of them apologize for the word ‘terrorist’. It’s a nice story and a good news item for Canadians…at least, for a handful of Torontonians. The truth, is, though, she has been called a terrorist. She has experienced what she calls, Islamophobia, and hate directed at her because of her dress, her religion and her belief system. The reason for the experiment still exists – people mistreat people who are different, who act differently, who aren’t like them, instead of treating them as they really are: human.
In her second experiment, Assma blindfolds a Muslim man, Mustafa Malwa, complete with brown skin and beard, and puts two signs beside him. One reads: “I am a Muslim. I am labelled as a terrorist.” The other reads: “I trust you. Do you trust me? Give me a hug.”
Again, the response is hopeful – people walk up to him and hug him – men, women, other Muslims, white people, black people, HUMAN people. And it’s a shining ray of light in the dark days of young, black, unarmed men getting shot without provocation, of mosques getting vandalized, and of Jewish cemeteries getting defaced.
But, of course, this is not everyone. Not every person hugs him. Not every person will trust him. Not everyone can look at him and not see a terrorist.
And this is not a small thing.
It is in the way that the media handles violent attacks, labeling some terrorist and others not. Looking for mental illness and reason behind a murder of 149 people instead of looking for a religious political slant on a horrific plane crash because the pilot who downed the plane was white.
It is in the way we handle any difference, reacting in fear when we see a line of people waiting for a bus simply because they all have a different colour of face than we do. Being suspicious of someone because their skin is darker and their hair is longer and their outfit is something we’d never wear. Judging people simply because of their appearance, their religious affiliation, their beliefs, and their ancestry.
It shouldn’t be this way, but it is. So what can we do? How can we combat stereotyping, and culture-phobia, and hate speech? How can we stop perpetuating false ideas about other religions, other cultures, other ethnicities?
I would like to propose a social experiment. I won’t record it and I won’t post it. It won’t go viral online with millions of views and hits on YouTube. But I’d still like to give it a go, because I’m unsure what else I can do, as a privileged white woman living in Southern Ontario.
I’d like to challenge you to see every person you come across as human. Not as black or brown or white or pink or purple or blue. Not as fat or gay or ugly or gorgeous or thin or fit or heterosexual. Not as a stranger or a friend or a neighbour or a fellow shopper. But as human. Notice their human-ness, what makes them the same as you, what makes them a person, what gives them the right to have all the necessities of life and the right to live it fully. Notice their breath, their heartbeat, their movement, their presence. Notice them. Notice other human beings. And focus on that piece of the melting pot or the mosaic or the country that you’re in. Stop noticing the difference and start embracing, and in some instances, literally hugging, the humans around you. Because they are just like you.