Why Prejudice Continues, Despite Good Intentions

None of us are perfect as human beings. No matter how much we try, we unintentionally will all end up upsetting someone, knowing someone, excluding someone, hurting someone. And, unfortunately, we will all be on the receiving end of those negative behaviors, inevitably. When these things happen systematically, as so many in the Black Lives Matter movement have tried to point out, the offended parties will naturally speak out. We can even see this on personal level in groups we belong to, when one person is somehow not treated well. And the offenders who truly care listen, and genuinely wish to do well. But why do some problems still get perpetuated?

I believe there is one key psychological/sociological process behind this: people are operating from a place of abstraction rather than personal experience. And when the reality hits, it is NIMBY–Not In My Back Yard.

It is easy for someone for someone to say they oppose the mistreatment of others, that they are pained (and genuinely so) to hear of someone being treated badly. Someone who is actively involved, for example, in a human rights group that protests against the abuses of an indigenous tribe might find it uncomfortable and not want to listen when a friend tells them they were abused by clergy in the Catholic Church. It is easy for people to talk about what they hear on the news about people’s lives being affected by the pandemic, but when someone in a group talks about how their own career status is at peril, they change the subject or do not respond. Recently, I was talking with an open-minded American friend who has friends of different backgrounds, and is widely traveled. However, when I told her that a European friend had suggested I move to her country, but my hesitation was the growing racism I could face there (implying I could be mistaken for a South Asian laborer), she was not able to respond.

I believe a truly psychologically healthy, Zen-like solution to this is to allow ourselves to feel discomfort that comes up. By this, I am not implying that we should torture ourselves or voluntarily be unhappy–this is a very unconstructive way of dealing with problems, and I truly believe that joy, laughter, and happiness are what will move us ahead. However, we cannot deny the difficulties that happen to those around us. Only in accepting the fact that we are uncomfortable, that things are not abstractions but realities that happen to our loved ones and those we know, can we see the reality of a problem and take constructive action to move forward. We have to accept that in hearing about these unpleasant things, sometimes we might feel powerless and not know what to say. Perhaps guilt is what is underlying people’s unwillingness to respond.

But simply taking the time to accept people’s individual experiences can go a long way. A more constructive response would be to offer empathy, a willingness to listen, and compassion. And we should feel gratitude for the good things we do have rather than embarrassment or shame. Sometimes there may be a limit to how much we can hear or handle, especially during this pandemic, and we may have to set limits on what we hear from others on a personal level or in the news. We have to offer ourselves compassion as well.

These are not easy things to do. I am by no means perfect in practicing this, nor is anyone. But understanding people’s experiences firsthand, on an individual level, just might be a first step to making larger changes. A professor of international education in developing countries at Columbia University’s Teachers College told us something so simple and yet profound when thinking about how we look at societal ills: “They’re people, not problems.”

Black Lives Don’t Matter Enough

There was supposed to be a different post today, but I feel compelled to write on recent events. I do not in any way consider myself an authority on the current situation; I can only bring an awareness to what I see and perceive as a writer.

Like so many of you, I feel absolutely horrified and saddened beyond belief with the killing of George Floyd. We don’t need *yet another* incident of police brutality. Imagine, for those of us who are not black, if we hear a rattle at the door and suspect a thief, we call the police, feeling safe and trusting enough to do so. Imagine if you are a black person, especially a man, and you did the same thing–you might get arrested for being in your own home, or even killed.

Look at the intersection of trust and race. I belong to a minority group that is considered the “most successful” group in the United States: we have CEOs, Pulitzer Prize winners, Ivy League professors, and a handful of nationally-known entertainers–not to mention your garden variety of doctors, scientists, and IT professionals! Though I have indeed experienced racism and discrimination (in one case so badly that I had to leave a graduate program, but then eventually so did three other white students in my cohort), I can generally trust that the institutions in American society are going to work to help me. While people may have trouble pronouncing my name, my name and my type of American accent are likely not going to prevent me from being able to rent an apartment. If I go up to a police officer and say that I saw an abandoned, full backpack or suitcase next to a building, they will take me seriously and investigate it.

But imagine if this is not the case. Imagine you cannot trust the institutions in your society to support you. Imagine that there are people who still hold subtle prejudices against your ethnic group, or, more innocently, who may be a bit dismissive of your concerns. Sure, they might not use the N-word, nor would they condone the KKK or white supremacist protesters holding a noose. Yet they might say that “you’re complaining too much,” or “all lives matter.” But just because someone is tired of hearing something, or finds certain things repetitive does not mean the problem is over. Just because you as an individual have absolutely no discrimination against black people and treat them as equals–which is an admirable and necessary thing–does not mean that discrimination against black people does not exist. Just because individuals do not discriminate does not mean that institutions do not.

I do empathize and understand where these people are coming from. I also agree that they often see too much violence and a need for more personal responsibility in the communities they criticize. I do not, personally, agree with the horrifying violence that has been going on in response. Violence only escalates negative situations and accomplishes very little other than destruction. I read a Detroit Free Press article about protests in Detroit that turned violent, and many of the violent individuals were actually white protesters from the suburbs. These are not helpful allies.

From a Buddhist point of view, one could say that the policemen who commit these horrific acts of violence against black people are not at peace with themselves. They lack empathy, they have serious issues with anger, and they have likely not been exposed to positive figures in the black community. They are often repeatedly thrown in situations where their own lives feel threatened, and the people who are threatening them are of an entirely different race and cultural background they are not comfortable with. They overreact to situations which require law enforcement, but not violence (George Floyd was using a counterfeit $20 bill, which was indeed an illegal act, but minor). I am aware that there have been programs with mindfulness training on police forces, but when the fire of anger is stoked, when there are biochemical forces at work, when racist feelings are hardwired into the reptilian brain, and lethal weapons are involved, this seems like a recipe for disaster.

We hear so frequently about black criminals, and yet we laud people like Julian Assange (who is no honorable freedom fighter but really an asocial criminal mastermind), law-dismissing Mark Zuckerberg (always in glossy magazine articles entitled something like “Thirty Billionaires Under 30”), and asshole-in-chief Jeff Bezos who doesn’t pay his corporate taxes. Why aren’t these people equally condemned? Why is white-collar so soft and under the radar? Why is being a sociopath in a suit or a hoodie acceptable?

We need to teach people, from the time they are very young, about differences. We need to expose children to others of all backgrounds. This is a huge challenge in the United States where we have such demographic variety and enormous distances. We need to hold our media accountable to the images and stories they feature, especially when it relates to certain ethnic groups. We need to socialize men–and women–so that they learn how to deal with anger in constructive ways (domestic violence cuts across all classes and backgrounds). Gun control is an urgent necessity, though the majority of us are powerless next to the gun lobby. We also need to study philosophy and understand why we have laws, study sociology and understand why and how we need to regulate human behavior.

Most of all, we really need to encourage everyone to develop empathy, to see beyond our own little narrow selves, and to really listen to what other people have to say, even when it’s uncomfortable.

For the Love of Globe

Though I feel that I should be writing on some sort of Covid-related issue, such as what to read or how to be introspective, I choose to write on the complete opposite: travel.

In a world that is alarmingly leaning toward the right, starting with our leaders like Donald Trump, and where there is extreme xenophobia, arising from different circumstances such as mass migration by refugees from parts of the world that are experiencing danger, it helps to think of the joys we have in our differences, and to be grateful for the privileges many of us have had in getting to see different parts of the world.

My childhood was marked by somewhat-quadrennial trips to India that, in the earlier years before super-long-haul flights, involved multiple stops. This, perhaps, planted the seed for my curiosity about different peoples and cultures that eventually led to a degree in anthropology and a number of global homestays. My young self wondered, “Will I ever get to see those places on the ground some day?” Even the sites of different tarmacs with different airports with different landscapes was fascinating to my little eyes. I recall laundry swaying in the wind behind a house next to the airport in Manchester. Being given two little sample bottles of Courrèges cologne–glass with a round golden orb on top–at Frankfurt airport that I kept for many years. The palm trees and concrete at Kuwait Airport where we stopped to refuel. The orange sunrise over the unbelievably flat horizon at Dubai airport, and inside, the gleaming red marble interior (even in the bathroom!) and men wearing a long thobe with a red-checkered ghutra on their head. How in Delhi, passengers got off on the tarmac and were bussed to the gate. And the relief when, at 9 AM, after traveling over 20 hours, we boarded the last flight on our journey from Bombay to Madras on Indian Airlines.

When I was 15, my dream finally came true, for we stopped in London en route to- and Rome en route from India as part of our journey. And both cities did not disappoint: if anything, they were exciting beyond belief, as it was my first time in a country other than India or the border countries of Mexico and Canada. For those of us who are Indian-Americans, our sense of place and the world is shaped by these trips, for we not only lived with two cultures in the United States, but came from two cultures that spanned the globe, on vastly opposite sides of the earth. 

I am fortunate to have traveled to places where many Americans don’t usually go, and to have been able to stay with friends or in ways that forced me to “go native.” I have given a talk to high school students in rural Denmark, shopped for groceries in Austria, visited Sibelius’s house Finland (where I was allowed to tinker on his piano!), bargained with shopkeepers in India, ridden a commuter boat with locals in Bangkok.

There are still so many places I want to see. Recently, I have enjoyed watching a wonderful BBC series with journalist Sadeq Saba called “A Taste of Iran” with the result being that the bug is now in me to visit that glorious country full of a variety of stunning landscapes, ancient history, and marvelous food. Perhaps because of the trips to India that were routed via Europe and over Central Asia, I have an interest in Middle Eastern and Central Asian cultures. It is interesting to see the progression of various cultural traits and histories and rituals from Europe through the Subcontinent, how certain elements have been carried through the regions. For example, some of the architecture I saw in Bulgaria is similar to that I saw in Bhutan.

It is quite heartbreaking to think that international travel may be curtailed and may not be safe for a number of years. The pandemic has, oddly, brought us together in teaching us about our shared humanity, just as travel does. The silver lining is that it has given the earth a chance to heal, reminding us that we are not the only creatures who live on this planet. But for those of us who love to see different people and places, right now we can only have empathy for our fellow human beings who are sick everywhere: in a worn hospital in Manhattan, in a dusty flat near Tehran, in a village in Lombardia, a crowded street in Wuhan. And then we can imagine we are there visiting in better times.