1. No more lip service anti-racial campaigns
In a dramatic change from what the world has known only a century ago, ‘racism’ today is a derogatory term and even a cruel curse word. While in the past the Western world was proud of its cultural and biological superiority openly and expressed it in its policies addressing ‘underdeveloped’ countries and ethnic minorities within its borders, today racism is the ‘enemy’. Nevertheless, while anti-racism campaigns conquer the educational and public spheres in most countries, much less attention is given to discuss and understand what racism today means.
I don’t have the energetic and intelligence resources to seriously analyze here the manipulative nature of many governmental policies, that ‘fight’ racism as means to maintain political stability but on a deeper level they hardly want to exterminate racism. Power holders belong to the old superior groups and they need to justify exploitation of underdeveloped countries must be without expressing any racist vocabulary.
Post 9/11 suspicion towards Muslims was reinforced by stereotypes in the American public media. ‘Liberal’ stereptypers could claim that this is not a racist problem but a cultural gap and blame the evil religion of Islam for contaminating the naïve minds of young followers of Muhammad. Racism, in an alliance with fear and hate, finds way to disguise itself and reason itself in manners other than ‘biological’ difference such as different culture, lack of education or brainwash. We can even in moments of ‘sympathy’ regard our stereotyped object as a victim of a terrible cultural regime, as long as it keeps the prejudice in tact.
Power holders warn us from the evil potential of prejudice (reminding us that ‘history repeats itself’) while the rhetoric and images they use do the opposite: they keep our ‘racist muscle’ pumping, because only racist minds would support policies that exploit minorities, rather than point out at social injustice. After all, once true openness towards minorities rises, how would people accept discrimination and or remain indifferent to it?!
Sociologist Frank Furedi, in a recent article in the Australian asks how in fact is racism still such a salient phenomenon at the same time that it is so widely fought against. Furedi, focusing on Australian politics, claims that the anti-racism rhetoric allows people to interpret every behavior through the ‘prism of race’ and that today being sensitive to racism or blaming someone for being racist is a ‘risk-free enterprise’.
I am not familiar with the Australian landscape. I agree with Furedi’s analysis of the ironic result of anti-racial campaigns, yet one should be careful not to interpret his article by thinking that most ‘victims’ of racism are no more than over-sensitive subjective souls. Emotional wounds that derive from racism are a burning scar that can heal only through reconciliation, compensation and remorse.
The climate that reduces ‘racism’ into a cheap and popular concept, actually allow it to be less sincerely dealt with in domains where it is most intense. Not taking racism seriously and understanding its mechanisms (including systems that wish to maintain it) hurts both the victims and the entire society, which keeps breathing prejudicial air.
2. Ethnic identity is not everything, yet it cannot be stripped off
One of the problems in fighting racism is that our everlasting Orientalist approach associates modernity and development with Western ethnicities. Caucasians who wish to see themselves as tolerant often embrace features of an ethnic minority that are culturally similar to their own. By doing this, society sends a message that only individuals who strip off the unique features of their ethnic culture can be accepted as true equals. An opposite approach, that its exaggerative manifestations and can also be damaging, is cherishing specifically the most typical ethnic symbols of a minority, not acknowledging the fact individual normally represent greater complexity, rather than exhibiting a ‘cultural fossil’.
Chad, Becky andArnoldwaited in their college campus for Rose to join them for lunch at the cafeteria. Rose arrived with Said, a schoolmate who studies plastic art with her.Chad, Becky andArnoldcould not remember the last time they shared a friendly meeting with a Muslim, but they did not mind, after all, they even protested against the war inIraq.
After having a cup of coffee, Becky wanted to share her knowledge and the flexibility of her taste buds: “Said, don’t you miss eating Hummus when you are on campus? Last summer I traveled with my sister toSpain. InSevillethere was this Arab guy who made the most fantastic Hummus, and also some kind of salad with coriander.”
“It’s ok, I eat it when I visit my mom on the weekends”, replied Said.
“Common Becky, can’t you see that he is not into this oriental staff, he can probably swallow more Big Mac’s thanArnoldcan”,Chadjoked.
“I’m more into pizza”, Said clarified, hoping that this interesting discussion would soon fade away.
“Yes, pizza is more Middle Eastern, I guess you would be more used to its texture”, Becky returned to share her culinary wisdom.
“But can I ask you something?”Arnoldasked Said politely; “it seems that you are open the fact that you are gay.”
“Your parents know and all.”
“So surely you are not a typical Muslim, you probably can’t stand religion. You are just like us, so can we stop talking about tradition and just see Said as our friend?!”
It is not easy to walk between the drops of racist generalization. Most of us swim in a world of imagery that classifies and stereotypes all aspects of life. In the situation depicted above, Becky wanted to show warm heartedness and not ignore the ethnic issue, but ended up dragging Said to a corner that would not necessarily make him comfortable in this early social encounter. Chad wanted to emphasize the American common ground, assuming that an American resident would prefer hamburgers over Hummus, ignoring the possibility that tradition does not simply evaporate once one enters the jurisdiction of Uncle Sam.Arnoldtook this one step further, determining that since a Muslim is non-conservative sexually he must negate all religious and traditional motifs and basically resist his entire ethnic identity.Arnold didn’t consider that Said and his household might still strong emotional and social links to their ethnic roots.
Let us take Frank, a wealthy African American who wears a polo shirt and glasses and Tim, a rude African American who lives in the slums. For a middle class Caucasian named Eddie, the former is more easily respected and accepted as a friend. This is normal, friendship is not socioeconomic blind and there is no big problem in that. However, when Eddie suggests that Frank is an ideal role model for African Americans then he might be ‘rewarding’ him for an appearance and manners that represent Eddie’s own Caucasian culture (clearly there are varieties also in what I call here ‘Caucasian’). On the other hand, if Eddie shows extra tolerance towards rude Tim only because he is an African American from the slums, and therefore is ‘expected’ to act this way, he would basically justify stereotypes instead of promoting assimilation.
There are several keys to fight prejudice in a sincere and positive manner. First is knowing that stereotypes incubate within us and that we are not biased free. We should also remember that when we approach someone of a different ethnicity we might be more preoccupied in portraying ourselves in a tolerant way than we are interested in establishing a genuine contact.
Building a society where certain groups don’t exercise moral power over the others requires acknowledging the variety that exists within each group, not tagging individuals with certain attributes before truly becoming acquainted with them. At the same time, it is important to respect ethnic/religious identities and not try to blur them out. Unless an individual of a minority feels that the outer group does not aspire to make him or her deny this identity, one would not feel socially secure. At the same time, each individual hopes that every social encounter begins from a tabula rasa state, allowing the encounter to grow according to what one shares and expresses, rather than according to pre-determined stigmas.
Above all, we need to admit that our societies, while fighting certain symptoms of racism are not really interested in looking into racism’s eyes and understanding how it works. Understanding this mechanism inevitably requires that each soul questions itself, though happily, this introspection becomes quite simple when meaningful new interactions take place. I admit that publicists as myself should also give people some benefit of doubt and not see racism before it actually manifests.