BUILDING BRIDGES: Youth keep an open mind

Friendships made while young can help avert prejudice later, writes columnist Taslim Jaffer.

My son was invited to a birthday party that took place the other day.

Some of the parents were sticking around, and I decided to, as well.

Near the start of the party, I struck up a conversation with one of the other parents who I’ve known for a few years now.

Children’s birthday parties or not, conversations with me generally go from ‘small talk’ to deep in minutes. It’s a classic habit of an introvert, in case you have an odd friend who does the same and you weren’t quite sure why.

And when I’m speaking to a first-generation Canadian, like myself, I find there are so many interesting things to talk about. When I was younger, it was almost like a relief to have someone on whom I could unload my frustrations about living in between two cultures: my South Asian one and my Canadian one. Now, as an adult, feeling more settled in an identity that includes both, I like to talk to others who have been through the same and have fared just as well. This was the case at the birthday party.

One of the topics we engaged in was the North American Muslim experience post 9-11.

A non-Muslim, he confided in me: “Some people in my family have an issue with Muslims. And I think that’s crazy because how can you have a problem with an entire group of people you don’t even know? What’s even more crazy is that they don’t realize there are some people out there who feel the same way about them, just because of the group they belong to.”

He was preaching to the choir, because I don’t understand it either. I don’t understand how someone can dislike an entire group of people, as though this group were not made up of individuals with diverse values, beliefs and ideologies.

But anyway, it happens, or I wouldn’t be writing this column.

The next point he made was right up my alley, too. He recounted a childhood experience of having only one black student in his elementary school. He got to know this boy and they became friends.

So later on, as they were growing up, and he would hear comments made about black people, it was easy for him to discount those messages; they did not hold up to this boy who he was friends with.

Now, had he not had this experience, this friendship, with a black person, who knows? Maybe some things he heard may not have sat well, but it might have been easier for his judgment to be swayed.

It’s difficult to speculate what might have happened had he not had this friendship. On the other hand, he was 100 per cent certain that getting to know this boy made it easy to see the absurdity in prejudice thinking.

Is it really that simple? Can one friendship really shift the way we think?

Look at your own life. Has being friends with people outside of your own ethnic background made a difference in your ability to keep an open mind?

If you haven’t been lucky enough to have such an experience yet, it’s an experience worth finding.

This is a really important time in the world’s history to test out this theory.

Taslim Jaffer writes monthly on multicultural connections.

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