Friday, April 20, 2007

Cultural/racial insensitivity

I have blogged about Lewiston/Auburn on several occasions. Lewiston has special significance to me. I am Franco-American on my mother’s side. Her mother and father, my Memere and Pepere (which is Acadian for grandmother and grandfather), immigrated to Lewiston from Quebec, in the 1930s.

Beginning in the 1870s, when railroad connections to Canada were completed, French-Canadian immigrants came in droves, to work in the textile mills that lined the banks of the Androscoggin River. The textile industry provided the economic backbone of the city and the foundation that gave this area its rich Franco-American heritage. By the 1950s, textile production began moving south, following cheaper labor costs. Still, shoes and manufacturing provided an adequate economic base for the area.

By the 1970s, the economic bottom had fallen out and this once proud city began a 30 year downward spiral. Recently, the area begun to recover from the loss of wages attributed to textiles, shoes and manufacturing.

In 2003, Lewiston was thrust onto the international stage when Matthew Hale brought his gospel of racial hatred to the city, seizing upon a letter that the mayor at the time, Larry Raymond wrote, urging Somalis (who had been immigrating first, to Portland and then, to Lewiston, since 2000) to stop their migration to his city.

Since then, racial incidents have flared and then died down. Back in July 2006, Brent Matthews, a local thug, rolled a pig’s head down the aisle at a local mosque, on Lisbon Street. While the nearly 3,000 refugees and immigrants from Somalia, the Sudan and other countries on the African continent have begun assimilating and are clearly an important element in this city of 36,000, tensions remain.

Once again, an incident involving Somalis and cultural insensitivity has caused concern from some and cries of “PC” from others. Last Wednesday (April 11), a student at Lewiston Middle School placed a ham steak in a bag on a lunch table where Somali students were eating. Muslims consider pork unclean and offensive. For many of the students, this was reminiscent of the pig's head incident back in July. While it has drawn a great deal of criticism, especially from the racially intolerant and certain kinds of right-wing bloggers, it is being investigated as a possible hate crime by local police and it has involved the Center for the Prevention of Hate Violence is working with the school to create a response plan.

According to Stephen Wessler, executive director of the Center for Prevention of Hate Violence, the incident is “extraordinarily hurtful and degrading" to Muslims, whose religion prohibits them from being around ham pork. It's important to respond swiftly, Wessler said.Wessler is concerned about this excalating into something bigger and possibly violent.

“Incidents like this that involve degrading language or conduct are often said by the perpetrator as a joke. I know that conduct is never static," he said. "It's part of a process of escalation.”

Like Wessler, I'm concerned.

If you have the opportunity, read some of the comments accompanying this article online, at the Lewiston Sun Journal site. I found them fairly instructive into how some in the community view members of the refugee and immigrant communities. In my opinion, there is an implied ugliness residing just below the surface with many of these.

Spending much of my time in Lewiston, in my current position, as well as getting involved in some community-based organizations has given me an opportunity to experience the city in a way that I haven’t for many years.

I’m encouraged by some of the things that I see, but I’m also concerned when youngsters (aged 13 and 14), who in my opinion, are merely modeling the behavior of adults in their lives, think its ok to insult someone in a very symbolic way, by placing pork on their table.

Unlike many posting comments, I don’t view these new residents in a negative light. I find them warm, accommodating and willing to adapt to our customs as often as they can. I’ve come to appreciate many of their customs and am trying to learn to be as culturally sensitive to them, as I’ve found them to be towards me. I also respect their right to practice their religion and its customs and dietary laws. To me, this is the model of give and take that makes for a healthy community.

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