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Sadly, bigotry is ever with us

Published August 19, 2006

Last weekend, after the bomb plot in England had crippled the airlines and before the cease fire between Israel and Hezbollah, my daughter was outside a New York City mosque where she is taking a class in Islam. She was still wearing a head scarf, as she had inside the mosque.

A man came up to her, and began talking rapidly in Arabic.

"English, please," she said, and he immediately switched to English. He apologized for his assumption. All he wanted was to ask where to find the entrance to the mosque.

When I heard this anecdote, I was filled with relief. Next summer she will be in Cairo with her husband, who is Egyptian and Muslim, while he finishes his medical studies. With the anti-American feeling in that part of the world, I had been reassuring myself that, with her long, thick, dark hair and green eyes, she could be Egyptian.

What she is, is German-English Protestant my side and Scots-Russian Jewish (her father's). In other words, an American. A friend who traveled to Egypt recently told me Egyptians love Americans; they just don't like American foreign policy. I've read the same thing many times about other countries in the Middle East and elsewhere. In that respect, I have to say they're more open minded than some of us.

I'm talking about people like the guys in Tampa who shouted "Drop the bomb!" at a Muslim woman as they drove by in a pickup truck. Or the guy who walked up to a Muslim man who was with his family in a St. Petersburg Wal-Mart, stared him in the face and called him "Osama."

These incidents clearly involved total jerks, but more subtle discrimination has been going on since 9/11.

The morning after 9/11, as I was going into a women's-only fitness club in St. Petersburg, right behind me was a young woman wearing a scarf. I don't know if she had said something or just looked a little scared, but the woman behind the desk said, softly but firmly, "If anyone gives you any trouble, just come to us."

The woman proceeded into the locker room, took off her scarf and changed into her workout clothes. She was about my daughter's age, and I felt protective of her, but five years ago I would never have anticipated I might have similar concerns for my own daughter.

Prejudice is a trendy thing. Some years, one group is in; others, it's out. When I was a little kid, even though my father had been an officer in the U. S. Navy during World War II and my grandparents were all born here, when I was asked where my family came from, I said, "England." It was one-quarter true; the other three-quarters are from Germany but, even then I knew that to some people, all Germans were Nazis.

In New York when a good friend and I were in our 20s, a guy spat at her on the street and hissed a four-letter slur usually aimed at Puerto Ricans. Maybe it was because of her curly, dark hair and hoop earrings, but, in fact, she is Irish, born in Georgia.

And when I was a freshman at a small Ohio college, I asked my parents if I could bring home the boy I was dating for Thanksgiving. It was too far to travel to his family, I explained, in Iran. My mother said, of course, bring him.

My father, who I am sorry to say was prejudiced against all the groups chosen to be hated at that time, was so fond of my new boyfriend he took us all for dinner and dancing at a posh hotel in Chicago.

Today I assume Charlie, whose given name was Farouk, was probably Muslim. At the time, though, the subject never came up.

Sandra Thompson, a Tampa writer, can be reached at sthompson125 City Life appears on Saturday.

[Last modified August 19, 2006, 01:30:21]

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