Monday, October 20, 2008

Racial violence

I'm going to step back a bit from my usual focus on politics and economics and turn to the subject of race and racial violence.

A week ago in a small town in Hungary my cousin was attacked and beaten in a racially-motivated incident that resulted in his ankle being severely broken in multiple places. He now has a metal plate holding his ankle together.

My cousin is a Hungarian. His mother is Hungarian, he's lived in Hungary for most of his life, he has a Hungarian passport, and he speaks Hungarian fluently. He is more Hungarian, in fact, than many Hungarians living outside Hungary's borders.

My cousin also happens to be half Nigerian. And so it happened that he and his half-Japanese, half-Hungarian friend, were in a bar in the small town where his friend's father lives having a drink. Because they stood out and looked racially different, and because neither of them is particularly menacing, they were targeted by a couple of thugs who followed them out of the bar, yelled racial epithets and proceeded to attack them without provocation.

Like my cousin, I am also half Hungarian. Unlike my cousin, however, I speak grammatically incorrect Hungarian, have never actually lived more than a few months in the country, and consider myself more American than Hungarian. And yet, because of that other half, what happened to my cousin would never happen to me.

This attack against my cousin has hurt me deeply. I'm not some sort of naive idealist who believes we all live in a world of magical racial harmony. I can comprehend that to some people, particularly in Europe, the influx of 'others' into their formerly homogenous countries has created tension, both racial and economic. And in Hungary, which doesn't face those immigration concerns, racism against Roma has been painfully obvious and has remained largely unchecked in recent years. But this is my cousin. This is someone who is of my blood. This is someone who was attacked because he was black, not because he was an asshole, or because he had a beef with those guys. This is someone whose only fault was his skin-color and fro and there is no justification for the attack other than his race. That's racism at its ugliest and purest, and it's something I fear in Europe, and particularly in Eastern Europe.

In the aftermath of the attack, my cousin will likely be losing his fro and replacing it with an Obama-do. But is this the way to address things? His family doesn't want racial hatred - they're Hungarians and want to go on being Hungarians. And if that means changing appearance to fit in better, then so be it. I think that's the most awful part of all this - that my cousin can't just be who he is, and look how he wants to without fearing for his safety.

All I know is that I don't want to raise my children in a place where attacks like this happen. I don't want my children to view people of other races, creeds and nationalities as different. And in this respect, despite its racism, and narrow-mindedness, and religious fundamentalism, the US still has room for such tolerance. That's the magic - hope, enlightenment and freedom can coexist with the most abhorrent of close-mindedness, and in that oftentimes contentious mix, those who keep their minds and hearts open can learn not just about tolerance, but about human nature more generally, the good and the bad.


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