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Friendly Fire

Friendly Fire

Tesh Ekman

A “Fun” Story about Racism

A racist experience can hardly be classified as something good, but here’s a “fun” story that’s about as close as it gets. 

It was Dec. 26, 1991 in London. Cold, dark, and probably foggy – it was England after all. I was 13. At that point, I had never been to a real football (or soccer, if you prefer) match because my dad was concerned about the hooligans and racist elements that existed, especially back then, in the U.K. around the sport. 

On this day, he finally relented and allowed me to go. My older cousins and their friends took me to watch Liverpool FC play Queens Park Rangers (QPR). I was the typical, annoying, younger kid tagging along. For context, I still lived in the U.K. and moved to the U.S. the following June. Try as we did to get tickets into the stadium, we failed. 

I was completely crestfallen. We wandered down Loftus Road and ended up watching a riveting 0-0 draw in a Spud-U-Like down the road. For those unaware of SpudULike, it’s like a Subway, but for what Brits call jacket potatoes (aka baked potatoes). 

After the match, we stood on the train platform – a group of brown, Indian teens, all bundled up in jackets. A group of white, older youths wearing Liverpool FC paraphernalia appeared further down the platform about 20 feet away. They started to yell something at us in thick Scouser accents. 

“Oi! You fuckin’ Pakis! C’mon then. Dirty Pakis.” 

Pakis is an extremely derogatory term for South Asians in the U.K. Think of it as the “P-Word.” It was used and heard commonly back then as a slur, even to mine and my parents’ faces by strangers.

We looked down the platform. The racist pack gestured and got louder now that they knew they had our attention after several futile attempts to ignore them. We were about to get jumped – “done in” as we’d say in local parlance. This was the stuff of worst fears that my dad had anticipated and warned me about. I convinced him to let me go this time. He was right, which for a child is devastating in itself to admit to a parent at that age.

With the knowledge that the aggressors were also Liverpool fans, we unzipped our jackets and showed them our matching gear underneath. Suddenly, everything changed. Being fans of the same team is what would prove to be our saving grace.

Smiles now. The tone went from threatening and angry to almost apologetic. “Alright mates. You’re alright.” There was a huge sigh of relief, which was immediately followed by a huge urge to piss. Whew. 

“It’s okay,” we replied. “We’re on your side.” We even discussed the disappointing nil-nil result and went back to waiting for the train like nothing had happened. 

This experience begs the question – how “sincere” are racist thoughts and feelings if they can be undone by being fans of the same sports team. Which belief – the one against other races or, in this case, soccer team affiliation – overrides the other? 

Even here at home, I know I’m not the only one who’s been a spectator at a local bar or in FirstEnergy Stadium itself that’s heard a racial slur used against a Black player who made a mistake on one play, only to have that same person cheer and call him a “stud” when he scores on the next. Doesn’t that seem a bit odd? I hate you because of the color of your skin, but at the same time I’m your fan because you play for the team I like. How does one even reconcile such thinking when it’s presented like that? Where have the wires got crossed to cause this massive contradiction?

This incongruity isn’t limited to sports fandom and racism. Look at religion – every one of them, whatever flavor. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism…they all sing the virtues of kindness to every fellow human in their own ways, but how has that worked out? It seems there’s an unspoken asterisk next to “every” which denotes, “as long as they’re of the same religion.” It’s saying, “belong to the group or at best you’re unvirtuous, to be looked down upon, and, at worst, a sworn enemy that has to be destroyed.” 

For example, there have been decades of violent incidents against Muslims in India because many there feel India should be a Hindu nation. In fact, it’s often referred to as “Hindustan” with a national newspaper introduced by none other than Mahatma Gandhi bearing the name Hindustan Times. Gandhi himself was assassinated by Hindu extremists for being too accepting of Muslims in India during the fight for independence against the British. History is rife with such examples – The Crusades, The Spanish Inquisition, ISIS and its desire to bring about an Islamic Caliphate, The Westboro Baptist Church, or even those polite Mormons who go on missions to far away lands to convert the Heathens. 

Related to religion, it’s stated clearly in the Constitution that “separation of Church and State” is an important pillar of our nation. Any true American should be fighting to the death to make sure that was enforced and God played no role in the governing of our nation or education of our children at a public level. 

But is that true? How many claim to be “patriots” while at the same time asking the state to take away abortion rights? Aren’t those the same people who ask for and support candidates that promise to do exactly that? It seems to go against the very same document that they so exalt and claim to live by as Americans. But then they say the same about the Bible. How is that conflict of ideals reconciled within them? How do they call themselves Americans and Christians at the same time when that line’s been crossed?

Beliefs come from the stories we tell ourselves or are taught. It’s our narratives that make up who we are. These narratives aren’t a bad thing. They’re essential. They’re natural and important to who we are, how we define ourselves, and the world around us – how we perceive things, feel, behave, and act. We’d be empty without them. It’s our personality. It’s how we “survive” as people in the world we live in. 

These tales we tell ourselves can be something simple or even obvious that we take for granted. For example, we know a car when we see one because we’ve learned what cars look like, what they do, how they work, how to operate one, etc. If you take a man from the 1800s and show him the traffic on a major interstate during rush hour, he’s going to be very, very confused. 

The man from the past may even be afraid because he doesn’t have a narrative or context to explain what he’s seeing. The poor, hapless time-hopper might invent one about monstrous, mechanized carriages lined-up on massive stone paths, lit up by flameless candles, or something like that. People will use what they know to explain something to themselves that doesn’t make sense, but the answer they arrive at will be affected by the information a person has and how they frame it in terms of who they think they are as an individual.

You don’t need a DeLorean to see this thought process in action. We’re all affected this way because we’re human. Take Aoshima, Japan, a place known as “Cat Island” because the feline population outnumbers residents 36 to 1 and they’ve pretty much taken over the place. 

Now this can go two ways. I have dear friends who are cat lovers. Some just can’t resist Mr. Fluffykins who showed up on their porch one day – whatever the story they have about their attachment to felines, they are smitten with those kittens. They get wide-eyed and melt. Reactions range from “I would go there and just play with them all day” to “that’s like my heaven.” To them it’s a magical, wonderful place. 

On the other hand, those with severe cat allergies like myself are more inclined to look at the island and want to give it the Jurassic Park treatment – all humans leave by air, land, or sea and then we’ll nuke the place into oblivion. To us it’s an isle of suffering from watery eyes, itchy skin, and the inability to breath. 

Those are two very different reactions to the same exact stimuli. There’s one reaction where cats are the cutest and the best and another where cats are evil because they mean extreme discomfort and a possible health risk. The result of different self stories told oneself in opposing personal circumstances.

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Should I hate or resent my friends because they like something I don’t? Sure, I might avoid going over their house for long periods of time or load up on Zyrtec or some other allergy medication before I visit them. Either way, I won’t pet the cat no matter how cute it is or how much it wants my affection. If these friends talk about their love for cats, I don’t contradict them or try to tell them they’re wrong, bad, or ignorant because cats put my immune system into overdrive. One would hope I’m not such a shitty person where I immediately judge their quality as a human being purely based on their affinity for an animal I dislike due to their adverse effect on my autoimmune system. That would be terrible. I’m not sure I could call myself a friend or even a good person in that circumstance. 

The contradiction is that I don’t like cats because of my allergies, but I still like people who love cats. Which story or narrative wins? In the case of the football match, thankfully the Liverpudlian goons we encountered decided us supporting the same team was more important than their racist hate of Brown people. It was a close call, but should it really have been that tenuous given that one is sports related and the other to do with hate because of the color of another person’s skin? Would that time traveller want to destroy or ban all cars because the unknown scares the shit out of him? Should I hate cats simply because I’m allergic to them? Further, should I hate people who like cats because I don’t? 

There’s evidence to support that outside of my personal beliefs, cats might not be so bad based on how my friends feel. Also, a person who likes cats is not automatically a bad person if you’re allergic. I have to be able to not only see that evidence but also accept it so I can better shape the story I tell myself to be a more empathetic one. 

These conflicts and dissonances are a natural part of life. Personal fear, judgement, misperception, and prejudice all come with the territory of being a person and it can get twisted if we’re not careful. No one is free from this unless you’re the proverbial monk on a mountain, meditating 24/7. It’s how we choose to navigate and reconcile these differences and conflicts in the stories we tell ourselves that makes all the difference.

Friendly fire is all around us, especially today with the current political and socio economic climate with the racism protests. Here we have Black people who have been marginalized and sabotaged, even by their own government in their attempts to live the “American Dream” who are fighting for equality. However, how many people completely forgot the point of the protests when there were related skirmishes and property destruction? Too many times the narrative became about looting and violence as opposed to the racism that led up to it. In fact, the message was almost “We get racism is bad, but so is looting and violence so just stop it and let’s go back to how it was.” Some people’s sensibilities were so hurt by the protests that, in a way, they accepted racism. 

Like many, given current events, I now have a lot of former friends or estranged family. People who I’ve had to let go because their stories weren’t adding up. One specific example was someone who was adopted, had a medical condition, and brought up in foster care where access to medicine was precarious. She took that experience and advocated for those in need and volunteered a lot of time to help those in similar living situations. What a great way to take pain and turn it into something beautiful. It’s admirable. However, when the protests started and stories about looted pharmacies hit the news, she was so hurt by those events that she condemned the protests because of the theft of prescription drugs. 

There was no consideration given to the racism behind the protests and associated violence, no thought about if the looters were sincerely in need of meds or just troublemakers taking advantage of the situation. Her backstory and current events combined to where she told herself a story of protests being bad because people are stealing medicine. In many ways, she was an accidental racist. Complicit to a system that has marginalized a large percentage of Americans simply because they’re Black. 

Those societal wounds are now deepened by the friendly fire in America caused by fear. Make sure you haven’t spun a racist or discriminatory yarn because you’re not paying attention to the story you tell yourself. Don’t let fear, rhetoric, or notions of big government and anti-capitalism make perceived threats about immigration, terrorism, and lost freedom appear larger than they actually are.

It’s easy to say or think one thing and not realize what it really means to others without empathy. That means not only checking one’s personal narratives and why they exist in the first place, but also understanding and appreciating those of others.

Are your fears overblown when you look at your day-to-day life on a personal level? Is your religion conflicting with what’s happening in the world and you’re uncomfortable? Are you really that affected as a person or just telling yourself you are? Where is the fear coming from? What specific threats are you perceiving? What’s making those threats or issues seem so large that you’re willing to accept racism in our country or maybe even an obviously racist president? 

No matter what political or societal issue you hold so near, dear, and true – nothing is going to get better from any of our perspectives if we’re divided racially or discriminatorily as a country. That’s foundational. That’s why America is called “The Melting Pot.” Unfortunately, the country has curdled. That concoction of people that makes up our nation won’t improve until we look inside to examine the stories we’ve told ourselves, that define who we are as individuals, first.

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