The word ‘racism’ or ‘racist’, at least in the Western world, generally evokes images of, in the extreme, white-robed Klu Klux Klan members or other symbols of America’s long-standing race issues shown so vividly recently through cell-phone videos of white police officers beating Black men (and women). Slightly less extreme, but potentially no less offensive, images come to mind of politicians like Donald Trump and others who have made repeated racist comments about Mexicans, Jews and Blacks. Every continent in the world has its share of racial issues and what often shows up as apparent hatred between different ethnic groups, usually emanating from the majority race in a given culture aimed at one or more minority groups, with the majority race feeling it is in some way superior to the minority. Both World Wars of the last century had racism as a cause to some extent.
Looking in the Mirror
And while I am a self-proclaimed open-minded and “enlightened” global citizen, if I’m honest with myself I can see the face of racism every day, simply when I look in the mirror. As alluded to above, racism stems from the belief that one racial group is somehow better/smarter/more entitled than another. Such beliefs are formed at a young age. No one is born a racist; however, our primary care givers (usually our parents) and then, as we get older, our peers, who were influenced by their parents, program fixed beliefs about our own race and its status in the social order, as well as stereotypes about different races and ethnicities. And by adulthood, those beliefs are largely fixed and very difficult to unlearn, especially at the sub-conscious level.
For me, I was raised largely in America’s south which has an especially sorted history with racism. Specifically, Black Americans and Mexican immigrants, in general, were regarded in my family and local culture as being of a lower status. Not hated, just of a “different” (i.e., lower) status. And as such, with few exceptions, this meant they should generally not be mingling with me and my kind. Of course, the fact that these beliefs were passed down to me is a result of the thinking and fixed beliefs of multiple previous generations. Humans being human.
A Pervasive Issue Throughout the World
Racism is by no meaning limited to the United States. Having now lived in 10 different countries/cultures so far in my life, I have witnessed forms of racism everywhere. The consistent thread seems to be that locally dominant racial group (or, in the case of Singapore, groups) feels some sort of animosity towards minority groups. Again, it is usually not hatred by any means, but rather and “us versus them” mentality which comes across in stereotypes, and the reticence of people to connect, or even at times communicate, with people of a different race. This of course does not apply to everyone in all countries, and in most cases temporary visitors are clearly exempted (i.e., they are not a threat) but it is often seen clearly in the communities and neighborhoods that racial groups tend to create, segregated from other groups. It can look very similar to the old walled cities of medieval times when fear of invasion from another people group (i.e., race) dominated thinking.
Get out of Denial
For those of us who have already been pre-programmed with some form of racism, I would argue that it is really too late to change our thinking. We can, however, change our actions but this first requires coming out of denial. Only from admitting and being aware of one’s racist tendencies can one then consciously choose to not act (or speak) from a place of racism. The racist is then left to live life much like a recovering alcoholic – always a racist, but doing his or her best to not act as one. So, in that vein, I suppose I would have to regard myself as a “recovering racist”.
Now that I have dealt with myself, let’s turn to the next generation where I believe the real hope lies – hope which I have seen it with my own eyes.
As I mentioned before, babies are not born as racists. But when parents and care-givers are able to come out of denial about their own fixed beliefs and at least make a reasonable attempt at not acting as racists, there is hope for the future.
Seeing a Human Being
My daughter had the fortune to attend schools in 4 different countries before going to university in the United States where she now resides. As evidenced by her Black-American husband, she sees past race. Their beautiful daughter, not yet 5 years old, will likely not identify as being Black or Caucasian. My sons have grown up and attended schools in 7 different countries and, in most cases, have attended international schools with children of many, many different nationalities, races and religions. I recently asked one of my sons, who currently studies with a number of Indian students what he sees when he looks across the table at one of his Indian classmates, knowing that I myself would be looking through a lens of stereotypes and prejudice. “I see a human being” was his reply. So beautiful, as that it what we all are.
As America today marks the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., a civil rights leader and activist (still a controversial figure in parts of America today), consider how you can play a part in setting up the next generation to be the cure for racism throughout the world.