Amanda's View: Ethnic
By Amanda Knox
On the morning of December 21st I scanned my Twitter feed as usual and came across this video. Like many other Twitter users, I was alarmed by what I saw: two young Muslim-American men were being escorted against their will off their Delta flight. One of the men, Adam Saleh, explained that the reason he and his friend were being kicked off was because neighboring passengers had overheard them speaking Arabic and had protested to the flight staff that this made them uncomfortable. Saleh’s camera panned over these passengers, who waved Saleh and his friend off the plane with glee. The camera then panned over other passengers who looked embarrassed and bewildered, and still others who proclaimed their dismay over how Saleh and his friend were being mistreated. “Because I was speaking a different language, you feel uncomfortable?” cried Saleh. “This is 2016! I’m about to cry right now!”
Like many other Twitter users, I immediately retweeted Saleh’s video as a gesture of solidarity. Xenoglossophobia—the fear of foreign languages—pangs me personally. It’s the reason I didn’t grow up speaking German, despite the fact that I’m only second-generation immigrant; my mom was born in Germany to an American father and German mother, and immigrated to the U.S. in the late sixties, when she was still a child. Back then, Oma was embraced for being proficient in English before ever setting foot in the States, but discouraged from speaking German to her children. “They need to be perfect at English because that’s what they’re going to live with,” Oma recalls my uncle Mickey’s first grade teacher explaining. “At that time, a bilingual kid was not very much understood.”
So my mom didn’t grow up bilingual, and as result, neither did I. This did not entirely prevent Oma from passing on her culture, however. I grew up eating goulash, rotkraut, zwetschgenknödel and landjaeger. During the winter holidays, we light real candles on the Christmas tree, sing Kling Glöckchen, and drink feuerzangenbowle. As a result, despite the fact that I’ve never lived in Germany and don’t speak German, I’m still considered by many of my fellow Americans to be culturally “ethnic,” for better and for worse. On the one hand, I grew up with curiosity and respect for other cultures and languages, blessed with an inherent comfort with the fact that different people do things in different ways, and in turn, people who come into my life have been curious and respectful of my inherited tastes and traditions. On the other hand, it seems to come easy to some people to call me a Nazi when it suits them.
It struck me hard when I discovered that the Adam Saleh incident might be a hoax, and that Saleh is a professional provocateur who regularly engages in race baiting and fear mongering. For example, in this video, again on a plane, Saleh and his friend loudly count down from ten in Arabic, knowing that counting down in any language on a plane—as if to time an explosion—is the equivalent of yelling, “Fire!” in a crowded theater. In light of these facts, the Saleh incident is at best an instance of the boy who cried wolf, at worst a con that degraded people’s genuine empathy for those who are actually mistreated because of their perceived “otherness.” The jury’s still out, but it’s unlikely the truth will matter compared to the scandal.
It’s frustrating, because a con that exasperates people's worst instincts and degrades people's best instincts is the opposite of what we need right now. Dictionary.com selected “xenophobia” and “post-truth” as the two terms that define 2016, and these are the very last terms I want to define what comes next.
Last New Years, Chris introduced me to the practice of choosing a word to define my approach to the year ahead. Anticipating my first year of freedom from persecution, of proactivity and production, I chose “courage.” Little did I realize that courage was also what I would need to face the social and political climate that matured over the course of 2016. Looking forward to 2017, I've chosen “vision.” Because clarity is hard won, perspective is a gift we share with each other, and the future is an opportunity.