Your Online Cup of Tea
The story is told of a guy who was to retire from 40 years in the construction business. His boss however commissioned him for one last job. Which the man, desperate to stop working, secretly resented. It didn’t help that this particular project was for a large mansion estate. Which would take almost twice as long to complete than usual. All of this infuriated the man. Thus a combination of spite and eagerness to leave drove him to constructing a terrible house. As quickly and as badly as he could get away with. The foundation wasn’t checked properly, the materials poor, designs were flawed and cheap inexperienced labourers hired. It was without a doubt the worst thing this man had ever built.
After everything was done, his boss came to inspect the house. Of course he noticed that everything was either done wrong or subpar. The man smiling to himself, waited for his boss to come out and give an expected telling off. The boss however didn’t look angry at all. His face looked like it was trying to hold back tears. Reaching into his pocket, he handed the guy a set of keys.
“I wanted to surprise you,” began his boss, “the house you were building was supposed to be my gift to you.”
Racism is multifaceted and complicated. I’d like to look at one particular aspect of it; Discrimination by appearance. It’s true that people often associate various traits with certain ethnic groups. Or project past bad experiences or media perceptions onto anyone that looks like they are part of a particular people. But there is an aspect of racism where the perpetrator may know that these generalisations don’t apply to a particular individual. But they will still show favour to a person from one group over another simply because of their appearance. This doesn’t just apply to racism. But even employing someone less qualified from the same ethnicity or gender simply because they look better. This superficiality of racism leads to what I like to call “the four corners of racism.” These are the four wrongs that arise from the act of racism; Wronging, Imitation, Corruption, the Devaluing (WICD).
For this particular piece we will focus on the last three. Looking at how the analogy of the house relates to the issue at hand. The first corner deals with the person who is discriminated against. They are being wronged by the perpetrator through no fault of their own. Simply because their appearance is not someone else’s preference. There is nothing wrong with preference per se. Everyone has them in almost anything at all that exists. It can be right to act on certain preferences when dealing with others. People generally prefer those that are kind, and good to get along with. They will therefore choose such persons to invite on special events, over others who are not. That’s fine. At the same time, it would be unjust to use certain other preferences in contexts that would make such criteria unjust. If a film crew is doing a documentary on the history of medieval Anglo-Saxons, it would not make sense if half the extras were black. It would not be racism to turn down a black person who applies for these roles simply due to their appearance. But turning down a student who qualifies for a Postgraduate programme simply because there are “too many of them on campus” would be wrong. A wronging against someone who has done nothing to deserve it.
This wronging can often lead to imitation. By this I don’t mean that the victim will then go on to actively discriminate against the ethnic group of the one that wronged them. Though that does happen. Nor the imitation of wanting to be like the one preferred. What I’m speaking of is a far more subtle and passive form of discrimination. This hit me one day while I was out on a walk. For the most part, growing up in Europe I’ve had a pretty good experience. Ireland in particular is quite a homogenous society. And Irish people are generally friendly and great to get along with. I truly do consider Ireland a home. Sure I’ve experienced racism, but it has been quite infrequent. But there have been times when an overwhelming (and 9.5 times out of 10 wrong) and unjustified fear of experiencing racism had taken over me. It happened that day as I went about my business walking to run some errands. I was gripped with the awareness that I was the only black guy as far as the eye could see. At that moment, every white person I walked by, I feared was judging me based on my appearance. Already writing me off or thinking ill of me. Projecting any bias against foreigners that they had, on me. Just because I was darker than them. But they didn’t know me. They didn’t know that my family worked hard for everything we had. How my parents have singlehandedly put me through college alongside my sister without grant or aid. How I am well assimilated into the culture. How I have a great love for the Island and its people. But then it hit me. I was doing to these strangers, the very thing I feared they were doing to me. The thing that they for the most part never even considered. I was the one being… racist.
I was viewing these people negatively simply based on their appearance. Why didn’t I give the benefit of the doubt? The same that I wanted. Why was I even assuming that every white person was Irish? I had basically done the equivalent of seeing two minorities who happen to be somewhat nearby each other and asking one of them “So do you know them? Are you guys related?’’. And even if they were Irish, why assume they’ll have negative views on foreigners? I’m here worrying that they don’t know me and shouldn’t judge me unfairly but… did I know them? No. Don’t get me wrong, racism is real. But there is a difference between always looking for it and actually facing it. Your mindset about people or a situation will affect your experience. You may start seeing racism where it really isn’t. Everyone who just happens to be in a bad mood that day or even looks at you funny becomes a racist. They’re probably not even thinking about you (am I really the centre of attention and conspiracy all the time?).
I like the saying that everyone is too worried about what other people think about them, to be thinking about you. Not to mention the self-fulfilling prophecies that occur. For the most part we don’t have the full picture, and shouldn’t act like we do. Just like the man who badly built his own house without knowing. Even if he just did business as usual, with a normal mindset, the results would have been good. Never mind if he actually knew what he was doing. There have been times when I stopped myself from doing things I really wanted simply due to this unjustified fear. How many opportunities have I missed because of it? I don’t want to be an imitator. I want to be a leader. Racism is wrong in all its forms. So I’m going to respond to hate with love. I’m going to be the kind of person I want others to be. To treat others as I would like to be treated. Easy to say but harder to do.
The third and fourth corners are harms inflicted by the racist to themselves (corruption) and to the one they are preferring (devaluing). They are corrupting their own character and giving in to a futile way of thinking. Like the man who thought he was hurting the boss by building the house badly. He didn’t realise that the harm was also being done to himself. Think too that no one chose how they would look like at birth. No one chose what ethnicity or nationality they would be born with. They didn’t choose their family. Nor their mental or physical capacities and features. Nor the history of their people. Which makes it a complete folly to feel better than someone because of things that neither of you had control over. Valuing someone and treating them better than others simply because they have the “right” hair colour or skin tone, says that the most important thing about them is appearance. Something that wasn’t up to them. Essentially it is not to truly value the person. What do the facts of someone’s natural skin, hair and eye colour really tell you about them as individuals? Even tastes and certain personalities can be answered by genetics. That’s why character is such an important criteria. It tells you how that individual person has chosen to use their personality. To use the various things about them that they did not have control over. Character tells you about the person themselves.
I’m aware it could be said that nature and environment determine the person, so really their character isn’t up to them either. I disagree. I think that those are very important factors, but I hold to a libertarian view of free will (not related to political Libertarianism). It means that in order to be responsible for our merits and demerits, our character in some ways needs to be up to us. Not necessarily determined by other factors. I also not of the opinion that human beings are reducible to their genetics or materiality. If so, then I don’t really see a good basis for responsibility. Philosopher Immanuel Kant said “man… must make or have made himself into whatever in the moral sense, whether good or evil that he is to become. Either character must be the effect of his free choice for otherwise he could not be held responsible for it and could therefore by neither morally good nor evil.” Without this free will, character would just be a morally neutral fact of nature. Like the fact fire is hot or ice is cold. This idea of character and responsibility seems to match well with Martin Luther King Jr’s words that people shouldn’t be “judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.” But what difference would it make if both were simply determined by nature?
Racism harms the victim by wronging them and if unchecked can spread like a cancer by passive imitation. Racism harms the perpetrator by corrupting their character and mind, as well as devaluing the person who is being favoured superficially. Education can only go so far, but ultimately it is up to the individual to want to change. It’s a character choice. The irony and sad thing is that the racist has actually made themselves lower than the victim by neglecting their character. The one thing that actually mattered. And like the boss who was more saddened than angry by his irresponsible employee, racists ought to be pitied, not feared. But as I said, if we want to make a difference, the place we start with is ourselves. Become who we want others to be, by loving them as we do ourselves. It’ll be a tough journey. But the alternative isn’t worth it. I’m speaking first and foremost to myself. At the same time I ask you to join me. Will you seek to minimise the WICD harms? Be a catalyst for change to smooth out racism’s four corners? Will you come around?
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