Looking Past the Differences: On Racism

Posted on June 8, 2012 in Society

By Nazreen Fazal:

I don’t remember when exactly it was that I started noticing differences among people. As children we rarely think about such things. You can put 4 yea-olds from 50 different nations in a playground, and within 5 minutes you’ll have them sharing swing sets or eating mud together. The only differentiation at that age would be ‘She has a doll, I don’t’. Or ‘She has a lollipop and I don’t.’ At that age one NEVER thinks ‘She looks different’ or ‘He speaks differently’.

Then as we grow up, and family, society, culture and the environment forces us to notice the differences and makes us form our worlds around these differences. The society tells me that I am not supposed to play with the girl in rags. Or it tells me that I cannot identify with those who don’t look like me. I hate to admit it, but I bought it. I thought I’d find it difficult to interact with those who aren’t like me. I made the world into ‘those like me’ and the ‘others’. And then I homogenised all the others. I might sound racist, but I really used to say ‘All Chinese people look the same‘. And I am ashamed I would say something like that even in jest. When I came to Malaysia I had a tough time for the first few days keeping track of faces. When I came to the UK I thought ‘Wow, all white people look the same!’ Then when I’d spent a few days I started seeing differences within them. The girl with the beautiful auburn hair does NOT look the same as the girl with a beautiful smile. The person sitting next to me in class is not the same as the girl across my hall. It is then that I realized what I’d been doing which had made me group them in the first place. When I travelled across the sea and out of my comfort zone (in India) I carried with me a preconceived notion that they can never be like me and I can never be like them. What I’d done was draw this imaginary Venn diagram with mutually exclusive circles. All this was subconscious for me. I always thought that I was fairly open-minded when it came down to accepting difference. But I’ve realized I am not as human as I like to think I am. However, the past one year has made me erase that imaginary Venn diagram and what I have now is two circles which have a huge overlap.

We humans are always scared of what we aren’t familiar with. Anything we don’t know is viewed as unpleasant. So Easterners wrinkle their noses at the mention of ‘Western Culture’, and the Westerners throw around the word exotic (a euphemism for ‘backward’) while talking about the East. We become so busy discriminating on the basis of how our skin tones differ or how our eyes are shaped that we fail to see that if we remove the skin from each of our bodies no one can identify a Chinese from an Arab or an American from an African. We fail to see that inside we are all the same. We all have one heart (except a few), we all have blood running through our veins and we all have this magnificent brain that we refuse to use.

We say we aren’t racist. But the fact is that we just manifest it in different ways. We might be highly educated but we still have this mental block which does not let us accept differences. Don’t trust me? Next time you go to a hospital and you see a list of doctors who belong to some place you don’t and there is one doctor who belongs to your country (but isn’t as accomplished as the others) whom would you choose? I was in this situation and I chose the Indian doctor. It was only when my friend pointed it out to me that I realized how I had discriminated on the basis of nationality rather than qualification.

What’s different is not bad. Give it some time and you might even come to appreciate it. So the next time let’s not say ‘Oh they all are the same’ or ‘They all look the same’. Let’s sit and talk with them, share a meal with them and get to know them. Engage with them and then you’ll realize that you aren’t that different from the person sitting across you. That you share the same values with him; that you have the same fears as her; that their dreams are ours too. And once everyone realizes this we can truly call ourselves civilized.