There is a transformative power in trying a different perspective. It’s in the in-between where we find understanding and progress. It’s in intercultural communication where we can correct individual prejudices, promote people’s sense of humanity and instill a broad-mindedness rooted in sociability and interaction, where we can be human, kind.
As a transracial adoptee I grew up in an interracial, multicultural, multilingual and cross-continental environment. The colors of my family ranged from dark brown to pale white, nationalities ranged from Dutch to American to Indonesian. My childhood friends contained kids from Iran, Iraq, Morocco, Turkey, Indonesia, US, Surinam, Curacao, China, to name a few. I experienced poverty and violence in the neighborhood I grew up in, and I experienced the worlds of manicured lawns, wealth and privilege when my grades and test scores granted me access to a high school in a different city. My life seemed to be a continuous walk across different bridges. It led me to define the world as a mosaic in which everyone’s singularity was present, but from a distance, resembled a unified picture.
In the last ten years, my perspective was upended over and over again through my interracial, multicultural, multilingual, and cross-continental relationship with Markus, through becoming a mom and raising a wonderful, curious, brave third culture kid, through extensive travel and living and building a business in different countries, and through the continuous frank conversations about race, culture, politics, religion, business, and class I’ve had and still have with Markus, Indy, and a multitude of people in the Middle-East, US, Europe, Africa, and Asia, over pancake breakfasts, Iftar dinners, Hanukkah celebrations, family picnics, and rooftop barbecues. Over the years, Markus, Indy, and I, walked and talked through deserts, cobble-stoned streets, grande avenues, large malls, and souks. And no matter where we traveled, we were eager to ask, listen, and foster a climate of dialogue and opinion which in turn affected our strategic choices as a family business, and broadened our horizon as a mixed family.
All of my experiences as an outsider looking in, exposed me to the vagaries and injustices that divide people around the world, and also to the many yearnings we have in common. Yearnings for a better life for our loved ones, for health, opportunity, kindness, peace, and safety. All of my experiences convinced me that despite attempts to divide us through mainstream propaganda, racism, and xenophobia, we are all descendants of human, kind.
As I turn to the news headlines, I again feel like an outsider looking in. My emotions range from desperation to anger to hope in the span of turning a page, or one scroll down. If in today’s conversation about race, silence is not the answer, then what is? What can be the answer to hundreds of years of indoctrination about race through politics, laws, books, religion, media, school systems, trade and industry? What can be the answer to hundreds of years of effort to turn one human race, into different races based on skin color or nationality or birthplace, and have this turned into a class system based on race? Because that is systemic racism. It’s the lasting effect of repeating an idea about race until you accept it without criticism or question.
In that socially constructed idea, I am inferior simply because I am brown. In that idea, Markus is doing something wrong simply because he’s in a relationship with me. In that idea, Indy is the outcome of what not so long ago, was a crime.
Who came up with this idea? There’s not one person we can point fingers at. As with all deeply rooted convictions, it’s a multitude of people, events, and time that define our unconscious biases, today.
During colonial times, European supremacy abroad relied on the maintenance of difference, hence the laws that forbade inter-racial sexual relations, and the prohibitions formulated in response to frequent transgression between colonizers and natives. Eighteenth century philosophers classified humans into disparate races. David Hume wrote that he was “apt to suspect the negroes to be naturally inferior to the whites.” Voltaire’s point of view wasn’t much different: “If their understanding is not of a different nature from ours, it is at least greatly inferior.” In the nineteenth century, US scientist, Dr. Samuel George Morton, claimed that people with the biggest brains were people of European origin and that social inequality had biological roots. His ideas were used to justify colonization and slavery, yet not a shred of evidence supported Morton’s ideas.
History has taught us that racism is an effective tool to work against human, kind, to justify inhumane political actions and to divide and conquer. It has been a profitable play on our negativity bias. It still is today. Politicians use racism to win votes or enforce trade agreements. Judges use racism to justify convictions or install laws. Media uses racism as headlines to increase advertiser spending. And even though statistics show that companies with diverse board members who actively embrace diverse perspectives and adopt diversity as a central part of their business and operating strategies are much more profitable, most boards, including the ones I have worked for and with, consist of white men with identical mindsets from identical backgrounds and with identical degrees. Now, without having the benefit of different thinking or diversity of thought, how will you pick up the nuances of an increasingly diverse market? It doesn’t make sense. And that’s just it, isn’t it? Even though racism is still part of everyday life today, it doesn’t make much sense anymore. In other words, racism has outgrown its stay.
So, how do we effect positive change? How do we make the world a safe, healthy, enjoyable place for all members of human, kind? As the song goes, let’s “start with the man in the mirror and ask him to change his ways.” The kind of change that enables us to become aware of our unconscious biases and tackle them.
To me, and my family, systemic racism is not an extreme of burning crosses and running from cloaked men with torches. To us, racism is not in others seeing color, it’s in others criminalizing, fetishizing, patronizing and marginalizing color. It’s in the seemingly innocuous comments, gestures, and micro-aggressions. It’s in stopping me while shopping as a new mom, and asking me to remove Indy from his stroller to check if I haven’t stolen anything while allowing white moms with strollers to leave the store without even blinking an eye. It’s walking into me because you refuse to step aside when I walk towards you, even though you are the one who walks on the wrong side of the street, and you do move away when a white man or woman walks towards you. It’s in tightening your grip around your handbag when you pass me. It’s that guy at the front desk of a global hotel chain who screamed, “You DO NOT walk away from me!” when I removed myself from his aggression, prejudice and racial slur. It’s sending a chain of emails to discuss this situation with the hotel chain, and continuously receiving the answer, “We’re very sorry for your inconvenience, we hope you stay with us again.” It’s in sharing this story with acquaintances who reply, “I think he just had a bad day,” and quickly change the subject. It’s being laughed at during a class in a fitness studio for having the name, “Priscilla,” and having to listen to a young woman in her 20s say, “Wass fuer ein verrueckter Name ist das denn? Aber, ja, du bist dann auch Auslaender!” (translation: What kind of crazy name is that? Ah yes, but you’re of course a foreigner!). It’s in listening to people say that they don’t travel to Dubai because Arabs will kill them, it’s in people telling Markus and me that Asians are unhygienic, and I should know (editorial note: I don’t). Racism isn’t only in the extremes, it’s in petty slights and day-to-day interactions with each other. It’s in assuming the worst about me while giving a white woman the benefit of the doubt in the same situation. It’s in the nuances where racism is most powerful.
But, what if institutions would operate on a whole different view of human nature? What if schools, businesses, cities and nations expect the best of all people, instead of presuming the worst of some based on the color of their skin? Ah, what if?
To understand the case for harnessing and embracing differences, for learning from each other’s wealth of experiences to create and innovate, we must look in the mirror and accept that all we know about race is an implemented idea, a figment of historical, political ambition. And it’s intercultural communication that is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness. We must challenge our ideas about race, ask questions to those who do not look or talk exactly like us, listen to their answers, no matter how confrontational, and ask ourselves: do we continue to allow others to divide us, to define race for us, for their benefit and gain, or do we accept that we are independent thinkers with common yearnings, that we ALL are in fact…. human, KIND.
With Love and Humanity,