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Is there any way to not be tagged as “racist” when striking the nerves of our stark cultural and racial differences of negative persuasion?
Since the recent bombing in Brussels, a lot of experts have tried to explain how European countries have been instrumental in turning parts of their migrant population into angry, would-be jihadis. It all sounds reasonably understandable: colonialism leads to poverty; poverty makes people migrate to the old mother-country. Once there, those people start doing the jobs nobody else wants to do. They get stuck there, live in horrible houses, get angry, want to get even. Something like that. Then there is the extra explanation of “cultural issues,” especially concerning the second and third generations, who are sandwiched between the strict rules of their parents and grandparents, and the more liberal, laissez-faire attitudes of the new country. This leads to confusion and, again, anger, which in turn, again, feeds the need for revenge. So far, so logical. Except that outsiders like Australians must be scratching their heads and asking how governments have let it get this far and why nobody did something earlier. So I thought it might be time for a story, a real-life experience that might tell you something about how all of this looked on the ground not so long ago.
When my daughter was about three years old, her father and I got divorced and my child and I moved to a new house. It was small, but perfectly formed; a ground-floor apartment, with two bedrooms, a little workshop and a strip of garden at the front. Across the road, approximately twenty meters away, lived a Dutch-Moroccan family: mum, dad, oldest son, two girls. When we arrived, the boy must have been about eight years old, and after a few weeks, we heard blood-curdling screams coming from his house. Worried and community-minded, I went over to see what was going on and ask if I could help. The mother answered the door, but spoke no Dutch, and was pushed away quickly by her husband, who ordered her upstairs and away from me. First, the father pretended he didn’t know what was going on, but then he told me that he was punishing his son, who had been “bad at school.” When I asked him if punishing included beating, he said that it used to, but that he had recently invented a better method. He had rigged up two hooks in the attic and tied the boy on those, upside down. “Easier on my arms,” he said proudly, adding that an hour or two hanging from his ankles usually did the trick for his wayward son.
Suffering from some Western sensibilities, I first tried to reason with the father, and when that didn’t work I called Social Services. Yes, I know, people don’t like being criticised for their parenting skills but I felt a responsibility to the child and didn’t know what else to do. A few days later the Department sent a nice, elderly woman to the house. The father let her in, the mother served her tea and Moroccan sweets, the children were on their best behaviour and the civil servant went home satisfied. Not long after that, I got a letter thanking me for my involvement and explaining that I had to understand that the novel punishing method was a “part of Moroccan cultural practices.” Obviously it wasn’t nice, but “Holland is a country that gives people room to be who they are” so “who are we to disapprove of other people’s cultures?” This threw me a bit, because I had always thought that Holland was also a country that protected children, but apparently that wasn’t as important as culture now. I decided to keep an eye on the boy myself and left it at that.
For a year or so it was relatively quiet across the road. Then the boy started kicking soccer balls against our windows and pulling plants out of the garden. Again, I knocked on my neighbour’s door and tried to open the lines of communication. Now the tone had changed. The father, who was always the only person who would talk to me, told me his son had every right to do what he did, because I lived alone without a man. And women who did that were clearly whores and had to be punished. This time, there was no reasoning; he shut the door in my face and told me never to come back. In the months after that the assaults ramped up. Windows were broken, car tires were slashed and finally, all three children started spitting at my daughter when she arrived home from school on her bike. Again I called Social Services, and again the elderly lady came. After she had seen the family, she came to visit me. Not to tell me she was going to do something about the attacks, though, but to admonish me for my lack of “cultural sensitivity.” I was a bad person for not putting more effort into “living together.” Instead of complaining, I should try to be “more open to other values and beliefs.” She even offered to enroll me in a course where I would be trained in doing that. When I asked her if the same behavior would be acceptable if my child engaged in it, she looked at me pained and told me I was a racist. “Really,” I said, and asked her to leave.
Regardless, it made me think and examine myself. Was I a racist? It was true that by now I hated my neighbours. But was that because they were Dutch-Moroccan, or because of their behaviour? And could, and should, I accept that behaviour because of their “culture”? It was confusing. For me. Not for my neighbours, who were so emboldened by the fact that they were given free reign that they decided to kick things up a notch. First, father and son started pissing in my garden and the girls threw rocks at us when we arrived home. Even the mother got into the act, emptying out buckets of kitchen waste from her window onto my car. Then one day the boy rang my doorbell, and when I opened the door, he hit me in the face with his fist. This time I decided to bypass Social Services and went straight to the police. By the time they arrived, my cheek had started to swell up and I was shaken and trying to hold myself together for my girl. The two coppers went up to talk to the boy’s father, who was respectful, but honest too: the whore needed to go and until she did, his family would try anything in their power to make my life hell. When they came to talk to me afterwards, the policemen sat down and advised me that, maybe, moving would be the best thing for me to do. Yes, my neighbours were not nice, of course, but I had to understand that “because of cultural reasons” there was nothing they could do. If I wasn’t able to live “according to the new rules,” I should pack up and go somewhere else. Again, there was the accusation of racism and again I was accosted for not being flexible and adaptive enough.
By this time, I was getting desperate. Most of all, I felt unsafe and knew I had to do something more – to protect myself, but mostly my daughter. I talked it over with a male friend, who offered to move in for a while, to see if a male presence at the place would make a difference. It did. For a month or so, everything was quiet. But then I had to give my friend back to his wife and family, and that did not go unnoticed. Understand that this had been going on for six years now. I was exhausted, and I think my neighbours could feel my resolve weakening. So one Saturday morning they went for the kill. I had been out to do some shopping and was walking into my street with bags of groceries and two large bunches of flowers. My hands were full, so I had no way of protecting myself when the son came up to me and put a gun to my head. He was a big boy by now, 14 or 15 years old, and when he told me he would kill me if I didn’t get out that day, I believed him. Panicked, I not only called the police, but also a lawyer-friend of mine, who contacted the magistrate on duty. Because my friend was a barrister of some note, the street was full of official-looking people within half an hour. Free of any sensibilities now I told them that if they used the word “culture” anywhere near me, I would have to kill somebody. Finally, something was done. The boy was picked up, put in jail and sentenced to a few weeks incarceration. Funnily enough, the attacks stopped after that, and six months later the family moved away.
I was relieved, but also full of questions. Was I, in fact, a racist? Should I have been more or less accommodating? And what about the responses from officials? It was clear that accepting violent behaviour as “cultural difference” had not worked. On the contrary, it had given my neighbours carte blanche to do whatever they wanted. But what would have been the alternative, and how do you mesh difference into a society? It is dilemmas like these that are, I think, at the core of what is going on in Europe at the moment. Both sides have made mistakes that are now coming back to haunt them. What sounds disingenuous to me, is people, from both communities, pretending this comes as a complete surprise to them. My story is more than ten years old now, and I wasn’t the only one with that experience. It has been clear for a long time that mixing different people hasn’t worked very well, and that migrant families have also had enormous internal problems. For too long we have called all of that “culture” and hoped it would resolve itself with time. It hasn’t, and we need to go back to the drawing board. We also need to stop calling each other “racist” for putting the finger on the sore spot. Unless you think that I am being racist for saying that.