This word should define 2017

Like many Americans, I don’t entirely know how long ago my family came to this land. I don’t know what kind of reception they initially enjoyed. But in my lifetime, my skin color and my class status have meant that no one has ever insinuated that I don’t belong here. No one has ever shouted “go back to France” at me.

Many, many other Americans have endured those kinds of suggestions and worse. Last year, as election rhetoric seeped from the campaign trail to our daily routines, friend after friend began to share fearsome stories of inhospitable behavior they had witnessed or experienced firsthand.

A Muslim friend confided that her elementary school-aged daughter had begun asking if her Syrian friends would have to leave and once even wondered if she should lie about her faith if asked about it in public. A child asked that question in a republic founded on the principle of freedom of religion. Another friend told a story about being approached at a gas station by a man who insisted that one could not be both a Muslim and an American

These aren’t the only stories I’ve heard from those close to me, and CNN has chronicled many other troubling incidents in which people’s ethnic identity, religion, political preference or skin color have prompted bullying behavior.

When we discuss difference in America, often the buzz word we use is tolerance. As in: the majority group will tolerate the difference or differences of a minority group. To me, though, the ideal for us to work toward isn’t tolerance, it’s hospitality. As a Southerner, I’ll take a welcome over mere acceptance any day.

Take a recent policy change for America’s biggest police department. The NYPD recently tweaked its rules to allow Sikh officers to wear a full turban. The move will also allow officers to grow a beard of half an inch if their religion requires it. This policy change tolerates religious difference, but at least one Muslim cop says it doesn’t go far enough.

Masood Syed sued NYPD after he says it took away his badge and gun for wearing a beard longer than protocol. He’s been reinstated, but told CNN in an interview that he’s “still disappointed” after this rules change. His suit seeks a policy that allows for a beard two inches in length, which would satisfy his religious doctrine. A change like that would mean he wouldn’t need to choose between his faith and his profession.

To me, Syed’s example shows the limitations of tolerance, when an institution or a person merely feels they must accept something or someone that’s different from themselves. Hospitality takes tolerance a step farther. It means working to make others feel welcome in spite of differences.

Examples of this abound. There’s the 70-year-old German woman who practices civil disobedience, painting over racist graffiti, making neighborhoods more hospitable in the process. At my mother’s church, an influx of Christian refugees from Myanmar have joined the congregation. Now, Sunday services feature English and Mizo and church potlucks have fried chicken and mango salads.

And then there’s Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who personally greeted Syrian refugees as they arrived in Canada in 2015. Last month, he reunited with one of them, Vanig Garabedian, to talk about how the father of three had found his first year in Canada. The two men sat across the table from each other recalling their first meeting. As CBC cameras rolled, both men grew emotional. Garabedian said that shaking the Prime Minister’s hand meant “that we were welcomed with the utmost dignity.” “Now after one year, I’m even more proud to be Canadian,” he told Trudeau, “as I always will be a proud Syrian.”

Every year, Merriam- Webster and Oxford dictionaries give us their pick for word of the year. For 2016 they tapped “surreal” and “post-truth,” respectively, for that honor.

With 65 million people displaced from their homes worldwide and many more feeling alienated from each other or disconnected from their humanity, hospitality would be a great word for us all to embrace in 2017.

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