Another lifetime ago, I lived in Ferndale, Wash., in order to commute to Vancouver, British Columbia as I pursued a specialized degree. There are both similarities and differences between the two countries and our ways of life (“eh!”): we share a lengthy common border; we share a rough, but similar, European-discovery/conquer-and-assimilate-native-peoples pattern of development; and, although there are actual provinces in Canada, for some reason the U.S. seems to be much more provincial.
I still regularly visit CBC.ca News for a not-quite-the-same perspective on things, especially politics. And in this pre-election period for both countries, to see how our neighbors deal provincial and national elections. (Their entire process is limited to 90 days; we could all live with that.)
A recent CBC.ca story (Sept. 20) was titled “You Can’t Fix What You Don’t Know,” an article about the under-reporting of abuses perpetrated on home-healthcare workers. Tough problem; not unique to Canada. That title also got me to thinking about the racist/racism debate frequently recurring on this page of the New-Times. (I’m one of the left-leaning fomenters.)
Into the breach:
There are distinct differences between the words prejudice, racism and xenophobia; although we seldom use the word prejudice, as few of us wish to appear prejudicial. Xenophobia (the fear of others) is foreign to common discourse; besides, few of us want to publically acknowledge any kind of phobia. So, all of those distinctions have been, unfortunately, wrapped up in the word racist, and none of us want to be so branded.
To be brutally honest, all of us are prejudiced, xenophobic or racist. Most of us simply seem to be more comfortable around similar-looking, similarly colored, similarly dressed folks like us; we live in similarly designed homes in similar neighborhoods, and we tend to socialize, for the most part, with those similar and familiar folks. This is to be expected, I guess. Generally, we’ve been brought up to be nice people, to play nicely with others and to “not run with scissors.” For many of us, though, being nice to others has been based on being nice to the others in our homogenous neighborhoods and communities. There is safety in numbers, so to speak; it’s why urban gangs are formed, perhaps.
This sticking together is called into account, though, when we move to bigger cities or venture outside our safety zone, or when someone “unlike me” turns up unexpectedly on my turf. Suddenly, there is a totally other feel to our comfort level: what was once homogenous and safe (like milk) has become heterogeneous, mixed-up, “polluted,” dis-familiar, sour and maybe even threatening.
To be painfully honest, the problem lies not with our fear or distrust of others, it is in our uses of that fear. Whether or not we were born in Nigeria, Santiago, Chicago or Mindanao; whether or not our eyes are almond-shaped or round; whether or not we have brown, black, sallow or pale skin; whether or not we drive our lifted 4X4s through town with Confederate flags, Union Jacks or rainbow banners; whether or not we wear turbans, yarmulkes or red ball caps; whether or not we vote Republican, Democrat or independent; whether or not we are gay, straight or transgender — it should make no difference. No. It makes no difference: we all have the right to be the who-it-is that we are meant, or want to be. After all, there are different blood types, but there is only one blood color.
But you can’t fix what you don’t know. That fix rests in our choice, our ability, our willingness to interact with and accept those who differ from our norm: sit down and actually talk (without raised eyebrows or voices) with someone who votes differently; invite someone for coffee whose skin tone differs; worship at a synagogue, an orthodox church, a mainline or neighborhood church; volunteer someplace away from familiarity; exercise patience instead of road rage; do something, anything, that leads us to know the other. It may be altruistic and left-leaning(?) to celebrate our differences, but it’s a start.
The tough part is to know our ridiculous selves before we figure out those pesky others. You can’t fix what you don’t know.
Chris Torp is a resident of South Beach.