…because some thoughts are worth remembering
Racism happens anywhere and everywhere. I knew this.
My mother’s friend was from Korea, who struggled to adjust to life in Japan because she came from a privileged Korean family and yet none of her networks mattered in Japan. I remember my mother telling me when I was younger that when you are an immigrant trying to make it in a new country, you should have more respect for the new country and be more humble, because hanging onto the privilege you had in your home country only makes you appear arrogant. I understood what she was saying, but having already experienced being a minority with less privilege in the US, and even in friendly Canada, I knew it wasn’t that easy.
As a child, I came across a story that took place in a Japanese village that did not have a bridge across this particular river. Across the river was an area where the Japanese equivalent of the untouchables called burakumin (the lowest class in the caste system) lived. As a child I couldn’t understand why something you couldn’t control (like being born into a family with a particular class) would deny you opportunities others seem to have as a birthright, even after the class system was abolished. I remember asking many questions of my father, who had to chuckle to hide his confusion and frustration in having to explain why prejudice exists despite the fact that even a child could tell it’s not right.
Privilege and prejudice are difficult concepts for adults to teach a child when a child has not yet experienced it herself. Having experienced different kinds of prejudice and different types of minority classes (foreigner, immigrant, woman) myself has shaped how I’ve come to understand racism. Racism, beyond being unfair, is fundamentally hurtful because it tells you that you don’t belong, for no fault of your own.
In an American court, a judge tells a dark-skinned person in a suit that only court personnel and attorneys are allowed in that room. The dark-skinned person was an attorney, awaiting to present his client’s case before that judge. (This really happened to Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative.) An educated man with professional credentials was told he didn’t belong, despite the fact that he was there to do his job according to the U.S. justice system.
In a different context (about choosing the right job), I heard the following quote an author, Wes Moore received from his mentor:
“Everyday you stay in a place you don’t belong in, you become extraordinarily ordinary.”
I know this feeling. Whatever made you sparkle dims down a little, when you feel you don’t belong. It may be the extra energy you exhaust to fight that force that tells you you are not welcome, or that the resources you used to have to draw from, are no longer there for you to perform to bring out the best in you. Your friends and community who know you to be extraordinary in your own way, aren’t around you any more to treat you that way. The new community, where you don’t belong, treat you as ordinary, because they don’t know any better.
Belonging is important, because it allows you to flourish. I think that’s what it means to have “white privilege”. Many spaces in the U.S. are considered “white people space” from restaurants and museums to universities and hiking trails. Just like being a woman in computer science, you feel like there needs to be an excuse for you to be there. Being privileged means you don’t have to have a reason. You can just be. And when you can just be, you are free to take advantage of opportunities that come with that space.
It’s not perfect but that’s what I’ve processed so far. I at least have an intellectual handle on racism as an adult.
But when racism happens to someone you know well, and in Denmark, it feels different.
My (Christian) Hispanic friend who was on a date at a bar was assaulted by a drunk Dane who mistook my friend for a Muslim immigrant. The incident would have been bad enough if my friend were Muslim but somehow, this was worse: collateral damage in a hate crime.
My friend didn’t know what hit him. He never even saw the Dane’s face. He only pieced together what happened to him afterwards when the bar security staff threw the assailant out and others helped my friend up.
The way I processed racism was that it was mostly a result of economic disparity and lack of education. There is a need to protect what’s “yours” because it was scarce, and sometimes it’s easy to assign someone else needing (or even perceiving to need) that scarce resource as your enemy. That enemy is often the most recent immigrant group, often economically challenged, often with a different culture and physical appearance.
The Danish government takes pride in calling itself a welfare state, where university education is not only free but a stipend is available for its citizens during their study. The standard of living is high, with most people viewing themselves as middle class.
It may be just this particular drunk Dane, but there have been other episodes I’ve personally witnessed. There seems to be a trend and a social acceptance of categorizing people by ethnicity when it is irrelevant. A language teacher teaching internationals questioning a dark-skinned person where he was from, despite the student already having answered the teacher’s question, as “Sweden”. “Nå!” said he, “Really, where do you come from?” As if it was not possible for you to be a Swede if you were ethnically African. The teacher was an intelligent individual who had been teaching internationals a long time.
So having a stable (and relatively wealthy) economy doesn’t prevent racism, and neither does public education. What does?
Having a mixed race community, like Hawaii, helps. Because there is no one majority, we get comfortable with different races, and we personally know someone from an ethnic group that defies the stereotype, or represents it but you know them as a whole person. Hawaii’s language, food and culture reflect this rich mix. Hawaii, however, is not perfect. There are a disproportionate number of native Hawaiians imprisoned than any other ethnicities. But I lived there for over 20 years and none of my Hawaiian friends got punched at a bar for being Hawaiian. Hawaii even had a Hawaiian governor (as well as a Jewish one, a Japanese one, and a Filipino one).
But not everywhere can be Hawaii. So, what else? While schooling hasn’t helped, offering privileged people an experience demonstrating what people without white privilege go through might. Here are two examples I found.
Group “Card Game” Game (see the followup post on the link to the exact instructions for the game)
By the winner from the previous group playing by the rules no longer applicable in the new group (but not knowing), he or she experiences confusion and frustration. I heard about this game when it was played at a Buddhist retreat to demonstrate racism (and presumably the compassion we should have, by being able to understand the experience first). My friend who played the game said that they were able to realize something was wrong externally when there was a critical mass of people in the group who received the same instructions about which card was designated as the trump card. My friend also mentioned that it took more rounds to be able to silently communicate to the group that there was something wrong and confront the others who believed in a different trump card.
To use the analogies from the above games, Denmark is an old country that managed itself to sit “at the front of the class” economically, but also prides itself on having established a fair classroom. Denmark has experienced an unprecedented and relatively sudden influx of immigrants, or people joining them from other tables who were taught different rules. Denmark spends resources to integrate immigrants by financing their language education, but teaching their rules alone won’t work. For true integration, the goal cannot be assimilation. Maybe if the drunken Dane who punched my friend had sat at the back of the class even once, he may have realized that, too.
Photo: Even vandalism involves a bike in Denmark