Persecuted Minorities

There have been a lot of news stories in the past couple of days here in the States that Arab-Americans are facing heightened – I think the word usually used is “unprecedented” – levels of discrimination.

It’s not hard to figure out why, unfortunately. For too many people, brown equals terrorist. That’s wrong, and it bothers me rather a lot.

What I also find bothersome is the way that people – including journalists – try to spin the current, reactionary wave of bigotry as special or unique or, indeed, unprecedented.

Does nobody remember history, anymore?

Forty-five years ago, African-Americans were treated far worse.

Seventy years ago, Japanese-Americans were treated far worse.

Eighty or ninety years ago, Irish-Americans were treated at least as badly, if not worse.

Discrimination and bigotry are grand old American traditions, unfortunately.

I grew up, years and years ago, in what was basically a tiny little ex-farming community in the middle of nowhere. Until I was six or seven, the only non-white people I ever saw were on TV. Several years and several moves later, my family lived in a mildly segregated suburb of Minneapolis, where my school had more British ex-pats than it did non-white people.

Then I woud up moving over to the east side of Saint Paul, which is, these days, pretty much a living embodiment of a multi-cultural melting pot.

Don’t get me wrong, there are narrow-minded bigots here, but they’re in the minority. (Sometimes literally – there’s an older Lebanese guy who runs a store not too far from where I live, who regularly goes off into rants about African-Americans… though that’s not quite the term he uses, if you get my drift. And the lady who runs a taqueria not far from there wouldn’t serve me until she was satisfied I wasn’t Salvadoran…) For the most part everyone is too busy trying to make ends meet to worry about where their neighbors are from.

That’s kind of a shame, in more ways than one.

When I first moved here, there was a big triplex that people in the neighborhood referred to as the “Hanoi Hilton”, because about thirty Hmong lived there at any given point in time. Where were they from? What did they do for a living? Nobody knew, nobody cared. They came and went at all hours, they had turned their entire back yard into a vegetable garden, and they pretty much kept to themselves.

Until a year or two ago, sadly, I was about as ignorant as most other people around here.

A couple blocks away is a grocery store owned by a Hmong family. (Minnesota has the second-largest Hmong population in the United States, most of them here in the Twin Cities. Unlike some of the other minorities, who tend to cluster in one or two geographic areas, the Hmong have spread out everywhere, which might be one of the reasons that they’re discriminated against less than some of the other ethnic groups – everyone gets exposed to them.) I shop there regularly. Over the years, I’ve picked up a few bits and pieces of the story of the people who run it, and it was kind of an eye-opener.

They lived in a really secluded valley in Laos, back in the day, as farmers. They’d heard rumors there was a war going on, but never saw any sign of it, until one day a plane swooped in over the mountains and air-dropped a pallet of food on their village, probably by mistake. Made in America. Probably C- or K-rations, by the description. Whatever they were, they contained more protein than that village would have otherwise seen in over a year, even if it was strange and unfamiliar.

Everyone pretty much decided that if America could afford to give away food on that sort of scale, it must be the most awesome place in the world.

A couple years later, the war more-or-less ended, and a year or two later, some soldiers from the government – their government – came through the valley, set fire to the village, and told everyone to leave. They did, and eventually hooked up with other refugees, and made their way to the camps in Thailand. Many years later, they were offered the chance to emigrate to America, and they jumped on it. A couple decades later, they’re running a store and raising a family, and still think that America is just about the greatest place on earth.

When you realize that most of the Hmong families around here have a pretty similar story, it’s hard to hate them, or complain about their lifestyles. It’s like they say; bigotry really is born of ignorance.

Go figure, huh?

Published in: 'D' for 'Dumb', General, History | on September 24th, 2010| No Comments »

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