In this, the 21st Century of our so-called enlightened era, we are still in our infancy as a human race, clinging to those animal instincts like a breastfed monkey to its mother. This is in no small way demonstrated by the way we treat each other based on our birthplace, face or religious bent. This highly illogical yet entirely instinctive behaviour still permeates all societies and cultures and is expressed by everyone in some way or another.
We all, including God-fearing Christian sinners and devout Buddhists, make judgements on others’ actions on an individual basis. We implicitly or explicitly criticise them for wrongs against ourselves or society. When this criticism is generalised based on the inverted premise that the deeds of an individual dictate the actions of the rest, we cross the rocky border into racism.
We are all racists to a certain degree on a very low level. We spot anyone who is different from ourselves (visually or audibly) and subconsciously make a judgement about that person based on our past experiences or learned behaviour. This very subtle cerebral shortcut helps us to make sense of the world by instilling some predictability within it. This thought process rarely manifests itself in action and we get on with our day, literally none the wiser. There are many interesting psychological studies which claim to prove this.
A less common form of racism that shows itself by miniscule reflex reactions when confronted by others different from ourselves. This could be the enabling of the fight or flight response when this person walks toward us. An entirely instinctive behaviour, it is now observable to a judgmental eye.
For some of us, this response can go from being autonomic to entirely conscious, showing itself as words and/or actions, from the use of racially abusive words and imagery to suicide bombings and other racially motivated killings. These acts are only exhibited by a small but highly visible minority, most of us having evolved beyond such practices.
However, there is a sizeable group of us which contribute to a constant, “background” racism, bubbling under the veneer of the fanatics. Average, seemingly mild-mannered and intelligent people are making their opinions known, never thinking themselves as racists. They retroactively apply some economic, political or social logic to their inherent prejudices against those from other countries/cultures/faiths to justify their thoughts. These arguments are debated by political parties all over the world and usually result in the formation or election of right wing extremist parties such as the National Front, BNP, BJP, Hamas or Taleban, supported by this sizable minority. The logic of this group falls down for some very simple reasons:
Our place of birth, and how we were raised, is an accident of genetics and circumstance. This fact is immutable and cannot be changed however much we abuse or criticise others for it, making racism an ultimately futile pursuit. Our personalities or actions, however, can be changed with some mild criticism or costly therapy. Therefore pillorying someone for the way they act is at least minutely constructive and certainly more rewarding for the giver as well as the receiver.
Other people are different from us: not exactly a world exclusive. And so what? Even monozygotic twins are different from each other in subtle ways and these differences become more apparent the further we leave the family circle. Where do we draw the line at our prejudices: different hemispheres…countries…cities…streets…rooms…? Differences should be celebrated, like opening a party popper full of coloured confetti. How better to celebrate the best in each other if we lived as neighbours? It would certainly save on airfares and vaccinations.
We can’t dismiss a whole group of people based on observed behaviour of a few individuals. At best this is unscientific and at worst, pig ignorant. To make statements such as: “All *****s are *****s” we would have to meet every single member of that particular group and confirm or worst fears. Even then some of them may have been having a bad day and may subsequently fit into our idea of acceptability the very next day.
As with all those who suffer phobias, I think the structured arguments and plain logic in the previous 700 words will have had no effect on our overtly racist brothers and sisters, much like saying “Cheer up” to the clinically depressed. It seems that we cannot possibly be angry with the object of our racist ire, due to its utter fultility. The person that we are angry at is ourselves, frustrated at our lack of tolerance and inability to transcend the surprises that migrate into our lives. In this materialistic world, we still take things at face value and fail to remind ourselves that “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so: to [us] it is a prison.”*
*The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Act II, Scene 2