07 July 2010

Conversation in Conflict: Politics or Identity?

At Burundi Independence celebration in Mt Albert suburb of Auckland, a woman originally from British Guyana criticised me for talking about 4th of July celebrations. She confused politics with identity.

We were sitting there listening, in fact feeling, the drumming on stage as Burundian men danced and sang songs from their homeland. It was thrilling! Children sang traditional songs and young people danced much as their grandparents must have done, though thousands of miles away from their beloved Africa.

A big meal was being prepared and people from all over the city were catching up with those they rarely saw in their normal day-to-day responsibilities and routines. It was a party with many nationalities invited. The Burundi's flag shared the big backstage curtain with the New Zealand flag, symbolic of the meshing of two countries and peoples.

In the course of conversation amongst those of us sitting together, a New Zealand friend sitting in front of us asked what I was doing for the 4th of July.

I responded that I didn't usually do much if I was in NZ over the 4th. I celebrate the holidays of the country I am in. We commented on Canada Day which had just passed and the refocused on the Africans, most of whom were refugees.

At a break I did a quick search on my phone to see if there were any American events planned in Auckland the next day. Nothing wrong with a hot dog and root beer if I could get 'em. When I leaned up to tell my friend there wasn't much of anything planned, the lady from British Guyana suggested that celebrating the 4th of July as an American holiday was probably inappropriate.

Ever see the hair on the back of my neck rise up? No? Well, you coulda then. Maybe it was tone of voice. Maybe it was the fact that we all introduced ourselves to be friendly, but really didn't know this woman, therefore not really having enough solid ground in the relationship for any of us to pronounce appropriateness or inappropriateness for each other.

Anyway, I kept smiling and suggested that a country's independence was a joyous thing, pointed to the stage and hoped for agreement an some level.

The woman then went on to list America's sins and to mockingly hum a few bars of The Star Spangled Banner, saying with much body language how that song just grated on her nerves whenever she heard it.

At this point, my peace-loving Maori friend who was sitting between the woman and me, gestured back toward the stage full of kids and said, "Look at that!" Much as I long for peace, I couldn't leave it there. Both logic and patriotism kicked in.

I asked how it was that we could celebrate one independence but not another when such celebrations were not about politics so much as identity and freedom. Burundi's civil war is an ugly scar of their history and the source of much suffering. yet we were there to celebrate what we could.

I suggested that 4th of July celebrations were not about the present administration or the last. It was about historical roots that are more than any one event or personality.

Given time, I could have listed many errors in judgment by political figures in nearly every country of the world. Every citizen of every country does not agree with all their leaders all the time. What one sees as justice is often seen as injustice by others. That's part of the problem with boundaries and borders, political opposition and elections. People take sides, sometimes passionately, but hopefully they take turns too.

It's difficult for me to capture the conversation, but it was just another example of painting an entire national history and identity with the same big brush. It was an example of prejudice that was so ingrained in her that no amount of logic was going to change it. Besides, we did not have a relational foundation upon which to have such a conversation.

All of us can be trapped in illogical prejudice.
We can paint all of any people group or nation with
the same brush, thereby feeding an injustice
that hurts everyone.

I must assume that all 770,000 people of Guyana are not of exactly the same opinion and so must engage with whichever ones I meet as the individuals they are. Hopefully they will do the same with the
309,660,927 Americans, assuming that each and every one does not hold the same opinion on much of anything. The point is not the numbers. Might is not necessarily right. It is the potential for difference and individuality I mean to emphasize.

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