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The ‘R’ word didn’t really exist hundred years ago, because this issue was a way of life.
It has gradually, FAR too slowly, become part of a global consciousness, but is now a term flung about with reckless abandon, and I’m not sure everyone really understands what it means.
The ‘R’ word is divisive and contentious, because people don’t agree on its definition.
I am, of course, talking about ‘racism’.
As a foreigner, living in the UK, maybe I should assume that I can talk about racism with some kind of authority. But I have been living with my head in the sand for decades, simply sad and puzzled that the colour of someone’s skin can cause such violent and irrational hatred in some people.
Many years ago, I discovered something very interesting about how my mother views the world.
We were talking about one of my classmates she had noticed at a school event, and I was trying to ascertain who she was referring to.
“What did he look like?” I asked.
“Hmmm. He looked kind… but maybe not particularly intelligent,” she replied.
I laughed. “I mean, what colour hair did he have?”
She shook her head and shrugged.
“Was he tall, short? Dark, fair? Were his eyes blue or brown? What?” I asked, starting to feel a little exasperated.
It transpired that she couldn’t remember ONE SINGLE THING about this boy’s physiological appearance. She described his character. She described the way he moved. She likened him to a deer. She said she imagined he’d be patient with young children, and would probably grow up to be a vegetarian.
“How could you look at this guy, and NOT SEE his hair or notice how tall he was?” I asked, frustrated.
She thought for a minute, then said slowly, “In Japan, everyone looks the same. You can’t describe someone by saying they have black hair, brown eyes, and they’re not very tall. You could be talking about any of the 500 children in my school. So you stop seeing those external qualities. You notice their personalities.”
We looked at each other, suddenly aware of a vast difference in the way we each viewed the world.
And wasn’t her way better?? Wasn’t that a valuable skill? To be able to see past the external features – the features we have no control over, like the colour of our hair or eyes, the colour of our skin, whether our hair is straight or curly, whether our eyes turn up or down at the corners, whether our noses are flat or hooked or snub?
Once we see past those irrelevant trappings, wouldn’t we become aware of the human being within? The shape of someone’s soul, spirit, and character? We’d see their principles, their beliefs, their habits, ethics and tendencies. Shouldn’t we all have the right to be defined by what’s on the inside? We’d stop making assumptions and snap judgements based on a person’s outward appearance, and start bothering to find out what they think? Isn’t THINKING the fundamental difference that sets us apart from most species??
I think it’s important to remember that racism and stereotyping are not the same thing. Yes, it can be irritating to have people jump to conclusions about you based on your colour, but it’s not necessarily racism.
When people assume I have been playing the violin since I was 3, that’s not racism. When people assume I can’t speak English, that’s not racism. When people assume I’m Chinese, that’s not racism.
I have learned not to see a fight in every comment or situation – life is too short to seek battles, and most of the time, no harm is intended. When these presumptions become spiteful, when they are used as an attack, when they prevent fair appraisal and equal opportunity…then it becomes racism.
Only once, have I really felt the sting of utterly unfounded, uncalled-for prejudice.
This happened in the very early days of my teaching career. I was interested in a job advertised in a nearby school. As instructed, I phoned to ask for an application form and register my interest. My phone call happened to be answered by the head teacher himself, who welcomed my application and was particularly delighted to hear that I had a music specialism. He was VERY friendly – almost flirty - his manner exuberantly warm…right up until the point he asked for my name and address.
When I gave my name, he said, “Oh! Is that…er… Italian?” with the air of giving me one last chance for redemption.
“No. It’s Japanese.”
Instantly, the temperature dropped 20 degrees. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see icicles forming on the telephone. He couldn’t get rid of me quickly enough. He was abrupt and rude.
The application form never arrived in the post. Must have been ‘lost’…
Now, I realise that, in the big scheme of things, my experience was very mild – no one broke any bones, no one was killed and countries were not subjugated. You might remind me that people get beaten up EVERY DAY in the name of racism.
Beating people up for their colour though… is that really racism? Should that kind of mindless thuggery, no more cognisant or mindful than the brutal instinct of an enraged boar trampling on another animal, be validated by an ‘ism’? Doesn’t true racism require a degree of knowledge, of deliberate disparagement, of belief in your own superiority, and an insidious need to undermine others to further your own cause?
Do not misunderstand me. I absolutely abhor discrimination of any kind. I think it is tunnel visioned, selfish, mean-spirited, arrogant and, above all, unintelligent to discriminate due to gender, race, religion or sexual preference.
I just think it is important, especially now, not to see racism around EVERY corner. Perceiving everything as a racism issue is, in a weird way, a form of racism in itself.
Having the patience and intellectual ability to separate the tangled threads that are often muddled in with racism, obscuring the real picture, is a skill that we all need to cultivate in ourselves and in our children if we want the human race to go forward together.
I, for one, am going to try and adopt my mother’s way of seeing people – to look past their skins and into the real person within.
P.S Unsurprisingly enough, my mother is hilariously bad at playing this game...