We, as a white, upper middle-class society in the US, are unwilling to enter into the suffering of another, especially when the suffering was brought about by our society. The isolation of African-Americans, Native Americans, immigrants, and refugees testifies to this truth. African-Americans witness to our enslavement of others, Native Americans to our military conquest of this continent and resulting genocide, immigrants to our greed, and refugees to our misguided crusades.
Not only do we see this in the US, but also in Europe. The recent bombings in Brussels bring up the perennial hand-wringing about the inability of immigrants to assimilate to the culture of their host country, and the lack of avenues to do so.
This post is not about white guilt or atoning for past wrongs; I want to offer you an action you can take today that allows you to enter into the suffering of others and form relationships with others, at the cost of some of your comfort. You can take away the burden of assimilation from others while you take some of it onto yourself. Today. Learn the language of your indigenous, immigrant, or refugee neighbor.
Let them be. You change.
Often I hear that if people want to come to our country, let them learn our language, our customs, our ways of doing things. These demands come from laziness, the desire to live today without any extra effort. We would force those who have given up—or were deprived of—home, career, future, and family to do the extra work of being like us.
Who benefits from this arrangement? We do. Whether liberals want to give them a leg up or conservatives want things to be the way they always have, all want the newcomer to change so that our society may continue to run as it has with minimal effort to the more powerful in the situation.
The newcomer must give up something of what he or she is in order to assimilate in this way. Most often it is language. Every immigrant or refugee in this country will tell you how much work it is to teach their language to their children; their grandchildren are highly unlikely to speak the language at all. Often immigration breaks the link among generations, tearing up roots.
Despising the suffering
Westerners have an inconsistent relationship to recognizing the suffering they’ve caused. In the US we talk about “white guilt,” which refers to a general bad feeling that white Americans have about the past and our actions against African-Americans and Native Americans.
Both liberals and conservatives have a tough time with this past, both looking to alleviate their own discomfort. Liberals want to compensate for past wrongs by facilitating the “other” to become more like them; the conservative wants the “other” to stop complaining about past wrongs. Both sides want to put the bad past behind us. They want the trauma of the past to accommodate the privileged of the present.
Rather than tell others what to do or how to live, we, the privileged, need to sit together with those who have been through trauma, for the sake of fellowship and learning. They don’t need to change; we do. Rather than try to fix these others, we need to meet them on their terms. Since trauma—as well as privilege—brings good and bad, we can all learn from one another.
James Baldwin said in his essay, “If Black English isn’t a Language, then Tell Me, What Is?” the following about how whites “teach” black children, but it applies equally to how we treat immigrants:
A child cannot be taught by anyone whose demand, essentially, is that the child repudiate his experience, and all that gives him sustenance, and enter a limbo in which he will no longer be black, and in which he knows that he can never become white.
We cannot make the black become white. We cannot make the immigrant speak unaccented English. We need to accept and listen to and love them as they are.
Rather than try to fix the suffering of others, the privileged should sit and listen to them. Rather than force others to learn a new language in order to be heard, the privileged should use their privilege to learn the language of the other. Rather than make “them” do the work to be more like “us,” “we” need to do the work to be more like “them.” Let us spend some time in their “limbo,” as Baldwin says. That includes the work of learning their language.
Slow language learning
Do not expect quick results in learning your neighbor’s language. I recently read the blog post “The power of slow: the secret to learning a language and never forgetting it”, which reminded me that language-learning cannot be accomplished effectively in three or even twelve months. I have been learning Somali for a couple years now. Basic conversations remain very basic, and reading is hard. Listening to podcasts is still a dream. But I’m in for the long haul.
Spend a few minutes a day with your neighbor’s language. Get your morning coffee at a coffee shop with speakers of that language. Shop at stores where speakers shop and work, or own the store. Invite to your house the families of children from your children’s school. Greet your neighbors and coworkers.
Speak as often as you can each week. You will progress at the speed your progress at.
Don’t worry about “them” assimilating. Assimilate yourself
The powerful of society usually want the weak to serve people like them. They want the underprivileged to work to fit their ideal.
Right now, do something to connect with someone who is less privileged than you. Don’t try to fix them. Let them be who they are and who they want to be.
Learn their language. Let them tell their story in their own terms.
France does not need to bring the black and brown people into the city; they need to go out to the suburbs. Belgium and Minnesota do not need to fix disaffected youth; we need to ensure that our children are befriending the kids on the “other side.”
As I’ve said before, I want my children to learn Somali. I want them to connect with the kids at school and their parents. What’s the next step?