Published in Bazaar magazine, December 2012 issue at http://www.bazaar-magazine.com/baz/bazaar/index.php?show=eIndex&show_filter=view&action=article&art_id=ART00000001655
I recently thought that I had befriended a racist; someone who openly and honestly told me that had I not been Kuwaiti, she would not have given me the time of day.
Prior to university, I went to six different schools in my entire life, so I’ve interacted with people from all kinds of cultural backgrounds and ‘social standings’. Having recently started university, I’ve met a lot of new people, and made a lot of new friends. I go to a small university where everyone knows each other. It’s basically a reunion of all the schools I’ve ever been to, and all the people I’ve ever met. Many people find the diversity to be a wonderful opportunity to get to know other people and learn about their different ideologies and lifestyles; others find it “disgusting”, and prefer to stick with their “own kind”.
My ex-friend fell into the category of people whom I usually take an immediate disliking to. We are all guilty of judging a particular clique, and we believe that our dislike for this clique is the only one that is justified. I am guilty of this, too. The one clique that I personally cannot stand is the stereotypical group of ‘cliche consumerist Kuwaiti girls’; they’re obnoxiously loud, too perky in the morning, fashion-obsessed, and attribute their fitness to the amount of shopping they do at The Avenues every Saturday afternoon. As somewhat of a hippy, I always told myself that I couldn’t possibly befriend someone like that.
Or so I thought.
During the first few weeks of my class with this girl, who I will refer to as Cruella, I was annoyed with her very presence; I sat right behind her, and she sat in front of me laughing too loud and making silly, unintelligent comments during class discussions, then giggling at her own ‘wittiness’. I don’t know what happened, but within two weeks I was laughing with her. I suddenly thought that I had misjudged her, that she was actually a nice person. I jokingly told her, “I usually hate girls like you,” to which she replied, “Me too! When I first saw you, I thought you were zalama because you’re white, but now I know you’re Kuwaiti so you’re cool.”
Somehow I laughed it off, even though I generally have zero tolerance for that kind of racism. But it kept coming, and it wouldn’t stop escalating. Being the analytical, probing person I am, however, I tried to dig deeper, tried to understand where all of this racism was coming from, thinking that maybe if I could get to the root of her racism, then it could possibly be extracted.
I started by introducing her to some of my Lebanese and Palestinian friends, who I naturally did not pick based on nationality. They were genuinely nice people whose company I enjoyed, so I thought Cruella would too – I thought wrong, of course, because she expressed a strange irritation at their presence, and when we left, she told me, “Never again please. You know I hate hanging out with people like them”, referring to their non-Kuwaiti nationalities.
She later confessed that she missed her high school friends – they were all Kuwaitis and all stuck with their cliques, never exploring possible friendships outside their own circle. She said that she felt lonely because she still hasn’t found her clique at our university; I was confused. I didn’t understand her need to be part of a group, and tried to tell her that it was okay to be an individual and to befriend many people. She dismissed my ridiculous idea by saying, I kid you not, “I’m a collectivist, I want to be part of a group.”
I tried to explain to her how racism could be bad in a way that did not include the nationalities she hated, but the one she loved: Kuwaitis. I told her that had we been in Saudi Arabia, a country where sectarianism deeply divided the society, she and I would not be sitting together, let alone having coffee and joking about our professor. Perplexed, she asked me why, and I told her that it was because she and I came from different Islamic sects. Bewildered, she could not understand the logic behind it; she said that since she and I were both Kuwaitis, what did sect have to do with our friendship?
Finally, I hit home!
“Exactly! It’s just like the way you feel about non-Kuwaitis; you’re both people, so what’s the problem?”
And then we went right back to where we started.
“It’s just different!”
I still tried fruitlessly to find some common ground, not wanting to rule out the possibility of her being a good friend to have. We still made small talk; about our families, our classes, our future goals, and other average university topics. After one of our classes was over, she casually asked me, “Where do you park?”
“Gate 1, usually. Sometimes Gate 2.”
“Oh, so you usually park where the zalamat park.”
“Gate 1 is where the zalamat park. Gate 2 is where the Kuwaitis park.”
I park wherever I manage to find a spot; I do not park based on how “Kuwaiti” I’m feeling that day. Still, I brushed it off once more.
The final straw was ironically pulled by her. I went to say hi to some of my Palestinian friends, and Cruella tagged along with me, though she awkwardly stood to the side with a scowl on her face. I told her to sit down, and she refused. A few minutes later, she angrily stalked off, and I shrugged my shoulders, not thinking much of it; I was more interested in the funny story my friend was telling us.
Moments after that, I received several messages from her telling me to never speak to her again, that I only “use” her to drop me off to my “zalamat friends”; I reminded her that it was she who constantly chose to be a sourpuss by not joining us, and that though she was being ridiculous, I was done with her racism anyway.
I don’t want to say that this category of Kuwaitis has a ‘separate but equal’ mentality. It is vital that we reaffirm the proper sequence of that phrase, which is ‘equal but separate’, shedding light on the unspoken segregation law that people seem so intent on following; The Coffee Shop is a Kuwaitis zone, the cafeteria is a “zalamat” zone. Gate 2 is a Kuwaitis zone, Gate 1 is a “zalamat” zone. And under no circumstances will these two groups mingle; break the law of ‘natural selection’ and those who follow it to the dot will never cease to throw snide remarks and give degrading glares at your disgusting acceptance of other backgrounds. It’s like being in America during the late 1800s.
Words cannot describe how glad I am to say that this mentality is not a dominant one at my university; at least, not based on what I am seeing now during my first semester. I do, nonetheless, feel that the enthusiasm towards not only tolerating but accepting and embracing other cultures is not what one would hope for. I see respect, which is the most important first step. I do see friendship, and I do see love; all I personally hope for is to see more of it, and less of Cruella. Parking is crazy enough as it is without having to worry what judgments people will pass on you!