Stir It Up: Our lowest selves

It's always easy to think bad or stupid things about other people. While that is not illegal or uncommon, it can lead to bad behavior and tragic consequences.

So it is not surprising that Donald Trump is leading in polls of Republican presidential hopefuls by stoking the furnace of hatred. He came out of the box calling Mexicans rapists and saying he is going to build a wall at our border to keep them out. Then he moved on to not allowing Muslims into the country. He's said a number of hateful things along the way but those are his major themes.

These are bad things but I don't think Trump is stupid. In fact, he has shown the canny capacity to tap into the most basic and tribal of human motivations — us vs. them. It's the kind of thing most of us have been raised on but we put a damper on it in order to function in our day-to-day lives.

There is no getting away from our favoring the familiar over the unfamiliar. However it is a stroke of genius to find a way to make fun of it while managing to be more or less inoffensive — which is what Yanko Tsvetkov manages to do in his book Atlas of Prejudice – The Complete Stereotype Map Collection. The atlas takes various perspectives in time and space and describes how a person there views the rest of the world. So for instance one map, "Europe According to the Vikings 1000," shows the Viking Realms inhabited by explorers, traders, and looters. But their opinion of Western Europe is the Third World. They consider southern Spain to be "people with manners," north Italians to be "sexually repressed freaks," and the British Isles as "our bitches."

Another perspective is "Europe According to the USA 2012." We see France as the land of "smelly armpits," Germany as the land of "dirty porn," and the Sweden, Norway, Finland area as the "socialist union."

There are culinary maps, sex maps, future maps, and even a "World According to a Facebook User" in which "me" is the center of the world. Now Tsvetkov doesn't stretch his consciousness to look at the world from the perspective of an African or South American cultures, so this is not equal opportunity prejudice. However he does a nice job with some Mideast and Asian perspectives. "Asia According to Japan 2015" shows the mainland continent to be inhabited by "inferior races" made up of whiners, alcoholics, multicultural messes, and fools with nukes.

Which brings me back to us and our romance with Trump (Oh come on, I'm talking about the collective us as a nation. Even those of us who don't like Trump are still fascinated by the phenomenon of Trump. Who has chutzpah like him?). Trump knows prejudice and stereotypes and he plays them well to his own advancement. We all have prejudices; we just don't wear them on our sleeves most of the time.

Here in Michigan we have our ways of characterizing people. From the perspective of a Detroiter, specifically a black Detroiter, anywhere outside of the city has traditionally been the land of "I no send; you no come."

Today there are some nuances. Places such as Oak Park and Southfield might be considered friendly territories. Ferndale could be land of the gays. The entirety of Oakland County is Brooksville, although it's not the same Brooksville it once was and there are forces in the area that support a renaming.

A little farther east, Warren is simply Foutsland — from every possible perspective. Grosse Pointe is the place where you get traffic tickets. Downriver is the place where industrial workers live. To the west Dearborn has changed from the absolutely forbidden place to the land of Lebanese restaurants. Although the recent police killing of Kevin Matthews in Dearborn shows the do-not-go advisory is still in effect. Pretty much anything outside of the inner ring of suburbs is considered way out there.

And then there is Yooperland, where they say things like, "eh," and eat smoked whitefish. I visited up there last year and found out that they look at Detroit as the place where people don't pay their water bills.

Remember, these are prejudices not reality. But they do play into how you make decisions and guide policies.

From the perspective of Lansing politicians, most of the areas that Detroiters consider way out there are friendly Republican territories. From the perspective of the Republican legislature, Detroit is the land of no. Over the past several years I have spoken with a few local lobbyists who have told me that every time something about helping Detroit came up the answer was no. You couldn't even get a conversation started on the subject.

And the Lansing view of Flint seems to be that it's a place where they don't need lead-free water even if they're paying for it.

It seems that the world is just made up of folks who don't like other folks. Can we get beyond this? My answer is we have to try. It's a matter of survival; the how of that is a bit more complicated.

There might be many ways for people of different cultures to come together but one local vehicle that has been working at bringing people together is the Cultural Exchange Network (CEN), a program coordinated by the Arab American National Museum (AANM). CEN members hail from numerous ethnic, arts, neighborhood, religious, and cultural organizations in the metropolitan area.

Maybe you haven't heard of the CEN but you probably have heard about the Concert of Colors (CoC), which is an event the organization helps put on. CEN puts on the Forum on Community, Culture and Race, the serious part of the festivities. It gets people to sit down and talk about issues key to different cultural groups getting along. Last year's forum focused on the art of empowerment — how art has been used as a form of activism in political and social movements.

"Our larger goal is to use art for community building and to honor different cultures that comprise our region," says Jumana Salamey, deputy director of the AANM. "The intent is to increase collaboration on levels that will increase cooperation between ethnically diverse communities."

That cooperation comes in many ways. The group meets monthly to discuss current events that affect Detroiters and how they can share resources to support one another. Last August CEN had a hand in supporting Southwest Solutions in putting on an event celebrating the Southwest Detroit community. It's had a hand in the Wright Museum of African American History putting on the African World Festival. CEN led to the Bulgarian Center of Detroit to using a stage and auditorium at the AANM for a performance of a Bulgarian dance troupe.

This is ground level stuff. And that may be the only way that people can break through the barriers that separate them. Ozzie Rivera, a community cultural activist who leads the music and dance group Bomba Rica, talks about the relationships that have developed over the years as the real impact of CEN.

"For me," says Rivera, "it's important to build consistent ongoing relationships with people from different communities in an organized fashion which leads to people getting to know each other on a more personal level. It's got to be organized so that people who don't usually talk to each other do."

It's the personal level of interaction that allows people to break through the atlas of prejudice that they carry in their heads. It's at the personal level that the conversation can move beyond those people who do something you don't like and make them familiar. And then there's a leap from circling the wagons and protecting your own against them to welcome and acceptance.

Donald Trump is talking about building walls and nurturing some of the worst instincts in all of us. CEN is about getting around such barriers. I think the best way to protect your own is to protect all. And talk to each other.

About The Author

Larry Gabriel

Larry Gabriel covers cannabis for Metro Times. He also writes the Detroit Watch in the monthly Michigan Cannabis Industries Report. Larry's chapter "Rebirth of Tribe" in the book Heaven Was Detroit, from jazz to hip-hop and beyond chronicles the involvement of Marcus Belgrave, Wendell Harrison, Harold McKinney,...
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