since deborah wrote her post entitled "where did i learn my racism", i've been thinking that i should write a corresponding piece along the lines of "where did i learn about racism". wherein, i would document my experiences of racism toward me, particularly growing up in new zealand. however, thinking about it, i didn't like the construction of the two titles in that way. it puts me in the position of victim, while putting deborah in the position of aggressor; neither of which roles are attractive or accurate. also, it's not really what her post is about.
so let me reframe the question for myself: when did i become conscious of being a coloured person; conscious of having an ethnicity that was different from the norm?
surprisingly, or maybe not, i can't pinpoint an exact occasion or an age when i became aware of this. i left india when i was less than 2 years old, so have no conscious memory of living there as a baby. ever since i can remember, i've been a racial minority. and because it was always so, it never occured to me for quite a long time, that things could be otherwise. being different was normality for me.
i remember being the only indian, in fact the only asian (i'm using the dept of statistics definition of asian here) at both primary schools i attended. i remember isolation. i remember being asked "what does is feel like being indian?". weird question, and around 7 years old, i had no answer. i remember my mum coming home from some charity event she'd been helping with at school, absolutely fuming because someone had asked her if her daughter (ie me) was going to have an arranged marriage. i couldn't see the problem, as practically every person i ever came across (brown or white) would ask me if i was going to have an arranged marriage. i thought that's just what people did. she snapped at me "i don't ask them how their daughters are going to get married". this must be the first time i became aware of a double standard.
i think it wasn't really until i reached my teenage years that i became really conscious of colour and race. i visited india when i was twelve, after a ten-year gap. one thing i remember distinctly was the very odd feeling of no longer standing out in a crowd. i was just another brown face in a sea of brown faces, and that was a good and bad thing. good because i felt a strong sense of belonging, that was comforting and comfortable. bad because i was no longer someone special, someone distinct and different and therefore automatically noticed.
one memory that i do have to share is of my brother coming home from kindy one day. there's quite an age difference between us, so i was in my teens. at 4 years old, he pinched the skin on his arm and said "why do i have to be this colour? why can't i be like everyone else?" all i can remember is feeling a deep sadness that a child his age was aware of such a thing. it didn't help that he was the only, yes only, coloured child at the kindy of about 60 kids. there weren't even any maori kids.
of course religion was always a part of the equation as well. being muslim meant i dressed differently, i didn't eat the same things as everyone else; in fact there were so few points of commonality with the world around me that it's hardly surprising that i felt so isolated from it. i don't feel that so much anymore. partly because i've matured, partly because the demographics of the country have changed, partly because the world has become much more globalised so that foreign countries and cultures are no longer so far away, and partly because racism has been exposed for the ugly thing that it is.
it would be wrong of me to not to mention that my experience of racism includes brown people being racist towards white people. it goes like this: these white people are shameless with few morals, they lived like animals, and we must never become like them. they have no family values, are addicted to drugs and alcohols, etc etc etc. the diatribe is no different, the hatred and anger and distrust follow exactly the same pattern as white racism towards coloured people. the only difference is that the brown people, being a minority in this country, are rarely in a position of power, at least not in sufficient numbers, to do any significant damage.
and it's even more complicated than that. if you go to the middle east, the level of racism against south asians is high, and against blacks is higher still. within india, you have the caste system as well as religious tensions. i'm sure you could pick absolutely any country in the world, and there is a minority group or a section of society that bears the brunt of bigotry. i guess racism by white people is so much more prominent because it has, worldwide, caused the most damage; at least in recent history (i'm talking the last three to four hundred years).
the crux of the matter then comes down to this. why does one group of people need to feel superior to another group of people? what is it in the human psyche that makes us want to look down on others? it's something that manifests itself in so many ways; racism is just the most obvious and ugly of them. academics will often feel superior to the uneducated; the rich will look down on the poor; the thin will look down on the overweight (funny that it was the other way around 100 years ago!). i'm sure you can think of many more examples.
my own analysis is that the cause is insecurity; a lack of inner confidence and a confusion about our own place in the world. from my experience of interfaith activities, i've found that it's the people who are the most grounded in their own faith and spirituality, most confident in their relationship with their creator, who work best in an interfaith environment. they are the ones who are most able to respect and work with difference, because they respect and are sure of themselves.
so is that the answer? in order to reduce racism, we need first to inculcate a love of one's self and one's own culture, race, ethnicity. i'm ok, you're ok. in that order. it's a good place to start.