Jean Barker

'Best' & 'worst' [insert prejudice here]

2013-06-21 10:00

Jean Barker

"The best Arabs are in Egypt", claimed a fellow student, from Syria, an Arab and political liberal who lived and worked as a taxi driver in many countries around the world before coming to America to study film.

Another student who also considers himself "Arab" commented that yes, Arabs are awful and he could say that because he is one. I found this all kinda amusing... two Arabs comparing Arabs with Arabs.

But then the elated Caucasian chorus, released by the words of actual Arabs from the binds of political correctness, joined in and I felt the bile rising in my throat as they made comments that were not so much ill-intentioned as just accidentally racist and out of touch, shaded with Bush-era Islamaphobia.

An international friend and I, who were sitting side by side, got up and left. I can't speak for him, but I knew it was time for me to split before I lost my temper.

I wonder why the discussion upset me so much. Maybe it's because it reminds me of the racists back in 80s South Africa, who would point to the Cosby Show and say "See? Their blacks are better than ours! That's why theirs can have the vote and ours can't. American blacks are better."

Or maybe it's because I come from a country where interpretations of Islamic and Arab identity range from wearing a burka to completely ignoring the rules on drinking, smoking and sex, to being unsure if you're Arab or not because well, you're African... So I can't define “Arabs” as an entity any more than I can "Jews", "Blacks", "Indians" or "Asians". Cultural differences within those categories in South Africa are also vast, melting and contested.

Or maybe the discussion enraged me because it was conducted on such an ignorant and simplistic level by people whose knowledge of global politics is laughable. I bet half of them can't tell you the result of the recent Iranian election, but will tell you without hesitation that Iran is still an "enemy state", as if the government spoke for the people in the last two months, when it clearly didn't if you look at the recent landslide for relative moderate Rohani. These are the political geniuses who speak of freeing women from oppression in Afghanistan with the same mouth they use to describe bombing the shit out of them as "collateral damage".

Unfortunately, as usual, my self-righteous high horse bucked me off.

I posted something about it on twitter, saying that if you were to take the phrase "The best Arabs are in Egypt" and substitute "Arabs" with "Jews", everybody would get all offended. But a (Jewish) comedian I know corrected me when he tweeted me back to say that "...we have that discussion often - but Jews can say that about Jews". So then, Arabs can say that about Arabs? Maybe so.

Maybe all that matters when it comes to this is who it's coming from. Maybe the only reason I got annoyed was that white Americans were weighing in. What right did they have?

Because I hate it when people tell me what South Africans are "like".

But if I do it? Well that's fine because I'm South African too. I have plenty to say. For instance, I divide South African expats by where they go. The American dwellers seem mostly positive about home, or at least reasonably patriotic. Those who chose less adventurous destinations closely connected to their lineage or their passports (such as the UK) generally seem pretty bitter about losing the benefits of the "good old days" of apartheid. And I always think that the ones who headed north in Africa drink too much. If you ask me who the "best" South Africans are I'll probably answer that they're the ones who still live in South Africa. Yes, I know how it's done. Another day, another stereotype.

The question is whether these discussions are useful. Can culture be compared en masse? Which country got the "best" South Africans? And what's your personal dumbest generalisation?

- Jean is a screenwriting/directing dual MFA student in California, USA. She tweets as @jeanbarker and blogs pictures of signs and more, here. She will be back.

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