This is the second essay in a series called, The World in Flux, which reflects on moral dilemmas surrounding racism and how to rise above personally and collectively.
My upbringing taught that everyone was equal. As an adult, I’ve learned that racism and poverty are ingrained in society. The job to right this reality belongs to all of us.
THE IDEALISM OF YOUTH
I was brought up to believe everyone was equal and to regard a person based on character; and that behaviour should spring from kindness and honesty, in line with “The Golden Rule” (do unto others as you would have them do unto you).
My experience as a kid in the 1970s bore this out. I played cars with my brother and he played house with me. At public school we spun the dreidel to celebrate Hannukah, then the Jewish kids sang Christmas carols with us. My experience was the melting pot of the greater New York City area and I did notice that the poorer areas of the inner city wore a darker complexion. I do remember, around age seven, asking my mother, “Why do they call Black people, “black”? They’re not really black.” She answered, “They call us “white” and we’re not really white, are we?”
Years later, I recall my parents (who hail from The Bronx and Brooklyn) saying that a couple of neighbours weren’t enthusiastic that we sold our Westport, Conn., house to a Black man in 1980. “That’s exactly what that place needed,” they said, meaning diversity. (The man was Nile Rodgers, who parked his red Ferrari (license plate: CHIC5) out front when viewing the house for the first time. I have to wonder what those peoples’ perception was based on his rock star flash and lifestyle, or something else?)
When we moved below the Mason-Dixon line to Virginia in 1980, there were sparse remnants of segregation and ears perked up at our different accent. It was the land of the first settlements by the English, who worked slaves on their plantations. We attended a private school, run by the Catholic Sisters of Mercy order, and the mission was (and is) to instill excellent character and scholarship in young people. The student body was mostly White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, and the few exceptions were my friends. Coming from the ‘all are equal’ viewpoint, I had no idea what it felt like to be in the minority.
Until I was the only non-Muslim on a London bus one night. I can’t say I was as comfortable as I would’ve been on a mixed bus. I felt if they knew I was American, they really wouldn’t like me.
The most drastic experience I’ve had was witnessing life in Capetown, South Africa, in 1999. I was there for a friend of a friend’s wedding, which coincided with spending the millennial New Year’s Eve there.
There’s no amount of reading about context that compares to experiencing it. Three moments stay with me:
- A group of us were staying at a hostel about 10 minutes’ walk from city centre, and on Sunday morning I got up for a run by myself. I was being extra careful. Toward the end of my exercise, I jogged down a cobbled lane in the old part of the city, just as church was letting out. The finely dressed Black parishioners were spilling out onto the street, all a chatter, and I felt eyes on me. For about 10 paces, I felt I was getting the stare-down from someone’s gaze. I looked up and caught his eyes just as I was passing, and a 50- or 60-something man said calm, “Keep running, don’t stop.” It was a warning. I had broken the norm. I was asking for trouble.
I am grateful to that man because I learned this lesson in a way that could have been much harder. I never ran so fast home.
- Another day, we went to visit the home of the parents of the bride, whose wedding we were attending in Pretoria. I had heard they were wealthy and part of society life. I was a bit surprised to see 10-foot tall security fencing with a mechanised gate into the driveway. I was shocked to see, upon leaving, the occasional poor person laying outside someone’s gate on the grass. Yes, each was Black.
- Our road trip wound through different townships and long stretches of the staggeringly beautiful landscapes and coastline. It was very strange and sad to see men without shoes walking along the highway. I was holding my breath throughout this experience. Toward the end of the trip, we rolled through some small town and stopped when a traffic light turned red. A beggar came up to the car window. I finally let it out in twisted relief: He was white.
However, none of this — from studying history in school to being a bystander — helped me understand the ‘why’ of racism or its depth.
But I do now, since watching Oprah Winfrey’s two-part series, OWN Spotlight: Where Do We Go From Here?
I got chills watching this programme. I got angry. I got motivated. And I got hopeful.
This excellent programme, available to stream free online, is must-see TV. While Oprah’s conversation with Black thought leaders, activists and artists on systemic racism focuses on the current state of America, it’s relevant everywhere. And, rightly so, as the Floyd murder has sparked protests in North America, Europe and other places because racism and police brutality are widespread.
My biggest take-away is that the anti-racism movement in America isn’t just about curing individual or group prejudice and discrimination against a variety of labels (like “Black” for the colour of one’s skin), it’s about governmental policy and practise that sustain disadvantage. The fight for women’s equality and LGBTQ equality still are going on, but because of our roots in slavery, systemic racism has endured.
I can no longer think of America as ‘The Land of the Free’ and ‘The Land of Opportunity.’ Maybe it was for the Native Americans before the white man arrived.
Here are Top 5 statements that impacted me while watching the show:
- The officer’s knee-on-neck move is a known technique among hunters who shoot an animal, then suffocate them in this way. Municipal police departments have different policies regarding this technique of restraint. In Minneapolis, it was allowed, though critics say this situation didn’t warrant it. Since this incident, many places that previously allowed this move have banned it.
- Floyd’s murder is much bigger than police brutality against Blacks. It’s one part of systemic racism.Systemic Racism means the power model keeps Blacks down by limiting their opportunities for education, healthcare and wealth (poverty). Until the government changes policy on these matters, there is no hope, the panel said.
- “This is about power,” one guest said. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said, “Power is who gets to set the laws, who gets to vote for them, who gets to sign them, who gets to enforce them, and who gets to judge them. And that happens at the local level, it happens and the state level, and the federal level.”
- “White Privilege” is described as the advantage a person who isn’t Black has in America. One guest explained the Black experience as swimming upstream — against the current, all the time — whereas Whites swim with the current; a friction-less experience.
- White kids (like me) who are taught to be colour-blind in regard to race, learn not to see skin colour as a factor in dealings when they are adults. So, the speaker said, we are likely not to recognise discrimination on the basis of colour when it occurs.
The statements above were made during the two-part series. Please watch the episodes to learn who said what.
WORKING FOR CHANGE
Progress is going to take the work of individuals, communities and industry. Each of us can vote and complete to census form to be sure our voices are counted. it’s voting and filling in the census form. The panelists also suggested that the entertainment industry review how it reinforces racism in TV and film; that businesses and organisations prioritise diversity; and that the government provide economic restitution for the descendants of slaves. Resources against racism were offered by the panel. One of them is The Poor People’s Campaign, a movement “to change the moral narrative and demand that the interlocking injustices of systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, the war economy/militarism and the distorted moral narrative of religious nationalism all be ended.” Here’s NPR’s wrap of yesterday’s “moral march” in Washington, D.C. The largely virtual gathering took place one day after “Juneteenth,” a holiday recognising the end of slavery in America.
What we can do
It can feel like the system is too big and the problems too entrenched to do anything. These are big mountains we are climbing, but we’ll never know the magnificent view if we don’t take a step. It comes down to each of us to do what’s in our own power to act for good. Here are five things we can do starting today:
- Vote. Educate yourself on your local, regional and federal representatives by going to their websites to read their platforms. Speak up about what you want to see in your community by emailing their offices. Register to vote (U.S. | U.K.), then tell 10 friends to do the same. When election day comes, get to your polling place and cast your vote. Keep track that their words are matched by their actions.
- Complete the census. Make sure you are being counted so the truth about populations, lifestyle habits and beliefs are represented. This informs leaders and the media about the needs and preferences of its citizens.
2020 U.S. Census | Census 2021 England & Wales | Census 2021 Scotland
- Listen and share. Sharing thoughts, feelings and points of view with others goes a long way to learning, processing the goings-on, and synthesizing all the inputs to decide your stance and behaviour on matters; how you show up in the world. As many issues are politicised today, we risk further polarisation of views if we disconnect from each other. Rise above the “Us vs. Them” thinking.
- Speak up. If you witness an injustice, give the benefit of the doubt and ask for clarification. At best, the person may not realise how he or she comes across. If serious or dangerous, do call the authorities.
- Question yourself. Stay in the moment as you go about everyday tasks and conversations. Really think before speaking or acting. Ask yourself, Does this ring 100% true for me? Does it align with my values? Does this reflect who I wish to be?
- Ask for help or inspiration. Sometimes just expressing the frustration, sadness or anger in a voice recording, a handwritten journal, or a phone call can ease the burden. Other times, more is needed. Whether it’s a friend, a family member, a neighbour, a stranger, a phone helpline, a therapist, or a member of the clergy, they will be glad you did.
- Pray. For the things that seem too big, too out-of-reach or too complicated to affect, offer your positive intentions and thoughts to a higher energy. Prayers are always heard.
Please comment below with your thoughts, experiences, resources, and tips on positive actions to take.
The World in Flux | Read the series
Let’s make this a dialogue. Please comment at the bottom of this and other stories.
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Part I: Racism begs for morality to make a comeback
George Floyd’s murder wakes up America to systemic racism.
This story is Part II.
Coming Monday, 22 June Part III: Morality mourns the loss of leadership
When the authorities can’t be trusted, they must be led by the people.
Coming Tuesday, 23 June Part IV: Facing the nature/nurture bias of prejudice
How much of bias is hard-wired in us, and how can we overcome it?