Interestingly enough, no one wants to admit to being a racist. It is not a badge of honor one wants to wear. But many gladly point to others as being tainted with this deficiency. Make no mistake, humans of all races have been afflicted by this malady.
In this section, I don’t want to itemize the ways each culture promotes racism intentionally or subconsciously. Doing so would only reinforce stereotypes. Also, it is important to recognize that it may be happening in your social circle without you realizing it. Say there is a huge media headline concerning a murder, drug bust, or theft. When discussing such an event, have you noticed your group has a negative view of a certain race? And if it’s true, do you also notice that stereotype is reinforced? Another social ill is gossip and maligning another person or group. It is meant to diminish the value of others. Having laws against exhibitions of racial discrimination, such as against the Jews, Muslims, and other minorities, is a great step, but we also need a culture of zero tolerance at home, at work, and at social gatherings.
When having a conversation about racism, I have noticed everyone has an incident to tell. But when pressed for clarification, in many cases it turns out that the issue was not discrimination but something else. Here are examples for you to consider.
Preference should not be interpreted as racism. For example, my choice of Indian music over rap should not make me a racist. That is obvious. As we grow, we develop biases depending on our personality, which means we pick and choose food, music, language, and so on, but not liking curry, shawarma, or spaghetti doesn’t imply we hate races other than ours.
Also, an observation is not an indication of racial hatred. Once, my four-year-old granddaughter said, “Nana (grandpa), your skin is brown like mine.” A reasonable person would never interpret this comment as racist. But what if a white girl said to me, “Your skin is brown”? Some may find it offensive, but they shouldn’t. Are we sometimes too sensitive and quick to judge others?
Once when I was in Arizona for a conference, a white, elderly lady said, “Your skin is very dark. Are you of African descent?” I explained to her that I am of Southeast Asian descent and that in India one would find people of all colors, from very fair to dark. For me, it was an opportunity to educate her. In fact, during my stay in Arizona, I had many interactions with her, including going to the library to listen to a writer and going out for lunch. She is definitely not a racist.
I have also heard comments such as “She should know better.” I never assume to know someone else’s understanding. Many times, a quick clarification is needed and should be offered in a polite, not sarcastic, manner.
In 1974, during my third year living in Canada, I worked at the Computer Research Facility, University of Toronto. Within six months, I applied for a promotion for which I thought I had the qualifications. I was very disappointed when I did not get it. Immediately, thoughts of racism rang in my head. The manager, a white person, did not want a person of color to get ahead. It bothered me for a while until I realized that perhaps I was not the most qualified person for the position. It also occurred to me his best friend and neighbor, Krishna, was born in India and also worked in the department. I stopped harboring the idea that racism caused me not get a promotion.
Are we quick to conclude racism if we don’t get something we want? I have also noticed that even when a person from a minority does get what they want, they shout discrimination. We have to promote fairness.
A brown-skinned woman who works for a major broadcasting company, who was born in Canada, and who married a white person, complained that someone mistook her for the nanny of the two white children accompanying her. The children were her own. I wouldn’t call this remark racist. Misunderstanding and stereotyping do happen, and this was a perfect teaching moment if presented in a friendly manner.
A change in consciousness
So far, we have examined many facets of racism, including how to prevent contaminating young minds and hearts. As an adult, what if one admits one’s own prejudices, decides they are wrong, and in a moment of great awakening, this person decides to change? If this enlightenment happens, it is truly a sign of maturity. It is like accepting being an alcoholic, a gambler, or a bully. As with any other character flaw, once you acknowledge a certain part of the self must change, you have taken a liberating step.
To change my consciousness, I adopted four principles:
1. Accountability: recognizing prejudices in oneself.
2. Understanding: whatever is learned can be unlearned.
3. Purification: as with physical cancer, one must eliminate all forms of discrimination from the mind and heart.
4. Higher Cause: do it for social justice, peace, humanity, or God.
Searching beyond my own journey, I examined Albert Memmi’s approach to eradicate prejudices. Born in a poor section of Tunis, Tunisia, a Jew among Muslims, an Arab among Europeans, Memmi brings his own experience of the complex contours of prejudice to his analysis of a problem that divides societies the world over. Writing in the tradition of Frantz Fanon, Memmi redirects debates about racism and offers a rare chance for progress against social prejudice.
His recommendations are as follows:
1. Be as aware of racism in ourselves as we are aware of it in others. Disarming our own racism is, he says, “the first step, the price to be paid in advance.”
2. Because discrimination arises naturally through the psychosocial processes he has described, we must continually be educating people to resist it.
3. Since racism has an institutional life, it requires an institutional (which is to say a political) response.
In my case, eliminating prejudices has been a personal goal of transformation that has led to a higher state of living. What Memmi is suggesting is that the cure should be deployed at a broader level.