Tuesday, September 28, 2004

the way we look at others
Growing up in the UK in the 80s and 90s, racism and prejudice were very topical issues. A colourful variety of peoples from all the places us Brits had colonised were invited to come over and take the jobs we didn't want to do ourselves. In process of their integration we picked up on the civil rights ideas coming out of America in the 60s.

I was fortunate and the notion of not being nasty to people with a different skin was practically demonstrated to me by my parents through our close friendship with a family of seven exiled from Ethopia, their father still imprisoned for "crimes against the state", their mother speaking only rudimentary English.

Despite this education though I have still come to find even within myself that there's a particular ignorance that the safety of numbers fosters. It is a perceptual laziness which is induced by our absorption into a cultural commonality, and that prevents us from appreciating the variety of human differences.

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It was in Japan that I first experienced prejudice from the point of view of a minority. I learnt there how helpless you can feel when shouted at and told to go home by drunken yobs. I learnt there how angry it made me feel to be sent out of a bar for not being Japanese. And I remember my utter disbelief at being negatively stereotyped when the governor of Tokyo outrageously said that "Atrocious crimes have been committed again and again by sangokujin and other foreigners. We can expect them to riot in the event of a disastrous earthquake." [also see Joi Ito].

I left Japan after two years, completely void of emotion. I was totally sucked dry of any ounce of human warmth and needed to find a tolerant shelter where I could heal myself from the effects of prolonged exposure to prejudice. Instead, I found a country where our own politicians were playing the same game of manipulating the people's fears and prejudices to serve their ambition for power.

To avoid having to painfully listen to such inhuman and hateful nonsense, I left England and came to France. Of course, France has more than it's own fair share of depressing headline gathering prejudice. But I can insulate myself against it here by not having a TV, and by not suffering majority pressure to unthinkingly hold bigotted opinions.

Nevertheless, in the daily lives of us ex-pats, there continues to be a general background noise of the perceptual laziness I described above, as Thomas mentioned today. It shows itself in the policewoman who insisted I get a French driving licence despite me holding a perfectly valid European Union one, and in the stores that will refuse me credit on my professional salary while giving it to any old French bum.

It is in these daily trivia that prejudice really exists and needs to be tackled - right at the person to person level, at ourselves. Politicians may perpetuate and manipulate our prejudices, but it is we permit this by refusing to admit to ourselves that it is we who are prejudiced.

And before we smugly feel like we have understood the matter as being related to a clash of nationalities and skin colours, let us Brits not continue to deny that we do still judge each other on the basis of class, as Adam Tinworth experienced recently.

People are different and that is a valuable fact, since it is only by understanding our differences that we can truly learn about ourselves. Another fact is that we humans need inclusion as much as we need water.

How can we be surprised to see the people we reject behaving with bombastic animosity towards us when in the coldness of our prejudiced judgement we deny them a dignified humanity?

It's time to sort this out people.

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