My journey so far has taught me to treat everyone in accordance with how I would wish to be treated - which happens to describe my favourite definition of respect. However - and here we enter territory which I believe is increasingly difficult to negotiate these days, I must, in being honest with myself and others, accept that I do have prejudices. To me, prejudice means an opinion formed on poor or little evidence. As an example, I know that I have a prejudice against a certain group of itinerant travellers in the UK known as 'Irish Tinkers' or sometimes 'Gypsies'. The names are inaccurate; this group is not ethnically Irish (at least the vast majority aren't) despite speaking with a bastardized Irish accent, and they are most definitely not Romany 'Gypsies' - they do not belong to any ethnically defined group. My prejudice (which, put simply, is that they are ALL probably the same) is based upon universally negative experiences with members of this fraternity/sorority. The people I have met from this group have consistently demonstrated a total disregard for law, the rights of others, and the meaning of the word 'respect'. I'm not prejudiced against the people I have met and dealt with - that's a justified position based upon my experiences - but I must admit to being prejudiced against their peers and fellow group members whom I have not met but whom I regard instinctively with suspicion. That's my prejudice, and I must take responsibility for it. I'm not proud of it but I believe I should recognise it, if only to reinforce that I am quite capable of being prejudiced, and to help prevent me from acting upon it.
Having admitted to myself (and now, to you) that I am capable of prejudice, I am of course aware of other prejudices which run quietly in the background of my consciousness. Having prejudices is - in my experience of conducting a wonderful lesson called 'The paradigm of prejudice' with several hundred people - rather universal. I wouldn't be too surprised to hear that, for example, someone like the Dalai Llama is free from such human baggage, but my guess is that such folk are quite rare.
The part that matters is whether or not we ACT upon our prejudices. Thought does not harm others- acting upon such thoughts, however, clearly does.The moment we begin to behave towards someone in a way driven by our prejudices, we are discriminating. Prejudice and discrimination are therefore separate issues, but they really love to get into bed with one another. NOT discriminating is difficult, I think - after all humans tend to wear their emotions in their body language, which rarely tells lies. Body language tends to be immediate and, unfortunately at times; blunt. Being aware of our prejudices and the possibility of what I shall call 'leakage' in our body language is a step towards minimising discrimination.
Acting upon our prejudices in full awareness of them is, of course, a choice, although we may not recognise some of our beliefs as prejudices. When we do act, however, there are often 'isms' that are waiting to be hurled at us. I wanted to address the most common one that I hear flung around in the media - racism (as you may have guessed from the title of this post).
Racism or 'racist' is used like a club in public debate - it's the ultimate topic-changer, the perfect interruption, a highly effective way to take a debate away from the subject at hand. An accusation of racism (justified or otherwise) MUST be defended against by anyone in public office as it places the accused in grave peril.
Wikipedia defines racism as follows: 'Racism is usually defined as views, practices and actions reflecting the belief that humanity is divided into distinct biological groups called races and that members of a certain race share certain attributes which make that group as a whole less desirable, more desirable, inferior, or superior.'
That's somewhat close to the definition that I was taught as a child in the UK, and it makes perfect sense to me. I don't happen to agree with the idea of 'race', but I get the idea. The part that makes me twist my already hideous face into an even more gargoyle-like shape is the 'desirable' phrase. Hmmmm...I think that's an unfortunate wording, because by one meaning it implies that every black person who is more attracted to other black people than to non-black people is therefore racist, and that cannot be the case in the spirit of the definition.
I'm going to assume that 'desirable' is intended to be taken in its broader, non-sexual meaning for the purpose of what I have to say, which is really about the way in which the word 'racism' (or 'racist') is used in everyday terms.
I was once accused of being a racist, because I had just shared out loud something that I had read the previous day about a very small physical difference in anatomy which went some way to explain why sprinters of African descent seem to occupy all the top places in world athletics. Apparently, for the person concerned, the fact that I had shared this (what I took to be a factual, scientific piece of information) indicated that I was a racist. I assume, therefore, that pointing out different environmental evolutionary adaptations which seem to be the main differences between ethnic groups would also be classed in the same way. Clearly this is nonsense: if a difference exists (and differences clearly do), it is an objective fact with an explanation, not an expression of some belief in inferiority or superiority. In defence of what I had shared in order to be so labelled: apparently there are differences in anatomy which might explain why black athletes dominate sprinting and long distance running - while the same differences may explain why caucasian folks tend to dominate in events such as swimming, for example. Neither instance is uttered with any intention of indicating superiority of one ethnic group over the other. Facts must remain facts.
I was once accused of being racist by a man I had just arrested who happened to be black. He decided that I was only taking him into custody because of the colour of his skin. The fact that he was driving a stolen car and was drunk at the time I met him seemed to have entirely escaped his attention. Facts are facts.
I do wonder about the way in which we in society throw around the word 'racist'. Here in BC, Canada, we have a vibrant and thriving Indian population (among many other ethnic groups). The Indo-Canadians that I know frequently refer to themselves as 'brown people' - in a gentle, humourous and affectionate way. For a white person to use the same term in the same way (gentle, humourous, affectionate) is no less 'racist' than the first instance, however to do so will likely be regarded as a 'racist' act, and the perpetrator labelled as such. That doesn't actually make sense.
The intent is everything - if a person's intention is not racist, then they cannot BE racist, even if they are using words which someone else interprets as language OF a racist. In such circumstances, the speaker may certainly be guilty of insensitivity, they may be naive, or they may simply be ignorant of the likelihood of causing offence. As a teacher of police recruits, I and my colleagues used to go to great lengths to impress upon the rookie officers the need to deal with people with equanimity, to be fair at all times, and to avoid causing offence by using inflammatory language. 'Isms' of any kind were (and remain) taboo.
At that time, anyone expressing racist views or behaving in a racist way was summarily - and quite correctly - dismissed from the police service. This sometimes led to mild paranoia among the ranks. On more than one occasion I was required to quell fears of immediate dismissal when a phrase or word was used inappropriately but without the intention to confer offence, disrespect or any racist theology. We lived in a world of intense political correctness, and almost daily I had to emphasise that the intent of the speaker was important issue - the learning opportunities arose around appropriate use of language, and adjusting verbal communication strategies to convey meaning while avoiding causing unintentional offence. Common sense, in other words.
Racists are among us, there can be no denying that. The fact that racism is an antiquated bigotry based upon ancient ideas themselves having no basis in truth seems to do little to remove it from our societies around the globe. It's probably here to stay, just as are every other kind of prejudice and discrimination - they are ideas which seek out their own evidence and avoid or attack contradictory evidence. Unfortunately, the over-use of the word 'racism' or 'racist' allows the true bigot to hide among us, and for such ideas about 'race' and racial superiority and inferiority to survive. A 'racist' is not someone who occasionally uses an inappropriate phrase or words - the true racist is someone who deliberately uses the words in the belief that they have a right to do so because the ideas that the words convey are correct. Not meaning it doesn't mean that it's OK to say it, of course - unless the person is genuinely unaware of the offence being caused.
Here's an example: I grew up in the UK using the vernacular of the time (1960s, 70s). Two very common phrases were (and I use these phrases in illustration only):
"The nigger in the woodpile..." (i.e: "the problem with that is...") and
One that we all used at school: "Eeny-meeny, miney-mo, catch a nigger by the toe, if he squeals, let him go, eeny-meeny, miney-mo..." (used to choose between two or three things)
Now, of course both these phrases are deeply inappropriate. It's clear to me now that both phrases probably stem from the days and attitudes of the slavery trade, but at the time - as a child - I never gave the words any thought - I lived in a part of the world where we never saw a black person except on TV. I genuinely never thought about the word 'nigger' - it was just part of the phrase I used. Using the words did not make me a racist - I was simply ignorant of their meaning.
Would using the words today make me a racist? Some might say yes, but I don't believe so, because I don't believe that people of any different ethnic background are superior or inferior to my own - I don't find any ethnic group any more or less 'desirable' than my own. We're just people. If I were to use those phrases, however, I'd be behaving irresponsibly, insensitively, and stupidly - or if I intended to cause offence by using them, I'd be behaving in a criminal way. Having been educated in their meaning at an early age, I certainly have no excuse for using those phrases again.
I hope that racism is an idea that dies with my generation, or at least the next, but, sadly, I doubt that it will. Racism is a justified taboo, but while we as a society fling the word around without thinking about what it really means, those that would like to propagate such ideas - such evil - can do so under the cover of the hysterical political correctness we see around us in the media and in the political spheres. Who, after all, can ignore an accusation of racism whether it is levelled against them with cause, or without? It is one of the worst accusations that can be made in public and I believe that it's time for us as a society to start properly defining what we mean when we make such accusations.
Call me stupid if you wish, call me insensitive, call me thoughtless or careless, but if anyone wants to erroneously label me a racist, they had better understand what the word means and have the appropriate evidence to back up the accusation - and that should be the same for all of us.