I had an interesting conversation with someone at work recently, and I'd like to hear your thoughts.
I'll preface this by emphasizing that the person I spoke with - we'll call her PA, for Person A - is not a bigot, not overtly racist, and seems open-minded. She grew up in Canada, and has traveled in many parts of the world.
I'll also say that my conversation with PA was not confrontational or adversarial at all. I mostly just listened, or gently offered my own perspective from my own experience.
PA said Canadians are "too easy-going," too unlikely to make a fuss when they should stand up for themselves. When I asked what she was referring to, it turned out to be about immigration and multiculturalism.
PA took pains to emphasize that she appreciates a multicultural society, that she believes it enriches everyone, that Canadian society is stronger and more interesting for its diversity. I believe her.
PA's central gripe went something like this. (I'll paraphrase.) "We welcome these people into our country, we go out of our way to make them feel comfortable and accepted and not second-class citizens, and that's as it should be, but then they turn around and tell us our customs and traditions are offensive, and we can't display the traditional symbols of our society."
When I probed further, she said (again, paraphrasing), "We respect everyone's right to celebrate their own religion and their own holidays and customs, but now people are telling me I can't have a Christmas tree? I'm sorry, that's going too far."
I gently offered that no one has told her she can't have a Christmas tree in her own home. Correct?
PA softened a little. Yes, that's true. No one is saying we can't have a Christmas tree at home. But we can't in school. In my child's school, we can't call it a Christmas tree, it can only be a holiday tree, for the winter holiday. There can't be any mention of Christmas, because it excludes the children who don't celebrate Christmas. Now how could anyone be offended by a Christmas tree?
Poor PA, she didn't know who she was sitting next to. I told her that as a Jewish person, and an atheist, I am not offended by other people's Christmas trees, but I was always bothered that there was a Christmas tree on the White House lawn, in a country that is not supposed to have an official religion - and that Christian symbolism in public places has been a source of discomfort and alienation for me.
PA said that when she was growing up, students stood and recited the [so-called] Lord's Prayer every morning, and the Jewish students left the room during that time. She said, "I never thought of them any differently, I never looked down on them."
I offered that, although she may not have looked down on the students who left the room, those students were singled out, made to feel different, and may indeed have felt unwelcome. They had to accommodate the majority. The majority religion was being practiced in public, taxpayer-funded space - rather than the public space being neutral, and each of us practicing religion in our own private space.
PA ignored this. She was very huffy and worked up that Canada "has gone too far," and has "allowed" "these people" too much leeway, without sticking up for "ourselves". Her main issue seems to be the Christmas tree, which she insists is not a religious symbol. She claims the Christmas tree is a neutral symbol of the winter holiday season. Yet she is incensed that her child's school says the tree must now be called a "winter holiday" tree. She is angry that her children can no longer sing Christmas carols in public school.
I pointed out that the Christmas tree is indeed, in our modern world, a religious symbol. If it truly were a neutral "winter holiday" tree, why would she have a problem with it being called a winter holiday tree?
(Please, no need to point out the pre-Christian, pagan roots of the Christmas tree, or how Christians in other eras condemned its use. It's true, but irrelevant.)
I asked PA if it would be ok with her if Muslim or Jewish parents brought religious symbols to school and asked all students to sing songs of their faiths. She said that in Canada, everyone is free to celebrate their own religious traditions, but that has no place in public school.
PA saw no irony in this.
She insisted that the Christmas tree is part of "how we've always lived" and should be seen and accepted as neutral. She said that her family has been in Canada for hundreds of years, and that part of her family is First Nations. (Again, no irony.) "We're not making them become Christian! But why shouldn't we be able to practice our religion the way we always have?"
We talked like this for a while. When the conversation threatened to become a little touchy, I tried to validate her concerns: "Your point of view is valid and should be listened to and respected." She said, "Well, that's the problem. Canadians don't speak up, so we just get walked on."
I segued into a different subject.
So to summarize: Multiculturalism is good, but "Canadian ways" are Christian. Christian symbols are the default setting, because that's the way it's always been. "We" have accommodated "them", but "they" cannot ask us to change our ways. Religion should not be in public school, but Christmas trees should be, because that's what "we've" always done.
So at what point do "they" become "us"? How many generations removed from immigration must someone be to be truly "us"? Could it be that unless one is nominally Christian, one will always be "them"? Chances are good that PA's child's classmates who are Muslim and Jewish are themselves Canadian citizens. Why are those children still "them", the ones who've been accommodated? Why is it so difficult for some people to grasp that Christian symbols are not universal?