Racism is antithetical to the inherent worth and dignity of every human being. Yet overt and unbridled expressions of tribalism, nativism and populism are on the rise. Fear, intolerance and resentment of other ethnic and cultural groups are increasingly weaponized to stir inbred fears, influence voters and undermine the progress we thought had been made in the latter half of the last century. Hate speech and vitriol have regrettably become the new norm in political and social discourse.
Despite the myopia and ignorant blunders of history, such as human slavery, the view that race is a human construct, rather than a biological reality, became “politically correct” as a global reaction to Nazi war crimes against Jews, gypsies and others whom their persecutors defined as threateningly “different from us.” That said, race exists. We are all different from one another, just not better. It is an integral part of who we are as a species and also what makes the human condition both fascinating and thus difficult to comprehend.
We think our minds are free but we are, in various ways, culturally programmed from cradle to grave – in our families, schools and workplaces as well as by an increasingly intrusive and purposefully polarizing media. The ultimate effect of the onslaught of this divisive enculturation convinces people they are either normal or somehow special while others are abnormal and even eccentric. Why do “they” have to be so devious, unpunctual, unreliable, undisciplined, cunning, lazy, corrupt, two-faced or aloof? Why can’t they just be more like us?
We are not the same and we are not all necessarily equal. Inequality in financial, social and political terms is an unfortunate fact of life. Eight people in the world currently own as much as 3.6 billion. Half of the world’s population lives on less than $5 a day. In 2018, the richest got richer by 12% and the poor became even poorer by 11%. In the world’s richest country, the top tenth of 1% have more wealth than the bottom 95%.
Despite this excessive inequality, we do have a core of shared humanity. Yet our hard-wired instincts for tribalism and general fear or disdain of “others” results in ignorance, discrimination, unfairness and injustice. The data is incontrovertible – for example, while there are degrees of variation between Canada and the U.S.:
• Job applicants with Caucasian-sounding names elicit 30% more call-backs than equally qualified candidates with difficult-to-pronounce names and unemployment rates are dramatically different among ethnic groups;
• Black youth in the criminal justice system are 18 times more likely than white kids to be sentenced (blacks make up 13% of the US population but represent 34% of prison inmates);
• Although comprising about 5% of Canada’s population, indigenous people account for 27% of those in federal prisons;
• Visible minorities are 30% more likely than whites to be stopped for questioning by the police (in some urban neighbourhoods, the rate is close to 85%).
We like those who are like us. That too is a fact of life. No one is completely immune to the emotional pull of dislike or fear. It’s our nature, especially when others appear different. We cannot exist without a degree of stereotyping – it’s simply how the brain works … we need reference points to determine and understand our own traits. But we must learn to better cope with our tribal differences, appreciate the positive characteristics we see in others, and minimize (or perhaps laugh off) what we perceive as conflicting or seemingly inappropriate behaviours. lt takes courage, self-examination and intentional awareness to admit we are all, in different degrees, neurologically prejudiced.
A random walk through some of these stereotypes is revealing. Unlike Canadians, Americans tend to believe they’re the best, brightest and richest. Spaniards think they are the bravest (maybe because they kill bulls) and the French think they are intellectually superior to everybody else, although the Japanese are also reasonably sure they are. The Germans admit they’re not as big as Americans, as agile as the Japanese, as romantic as the French, or as sophisticated as the British. But what really counts? In their minds, efficiency, punctuality, consistency and organization are the cultural attributes that really matter.
Whatever our ethnic orientations, there’s a tongue in our heads that speaks to us about these differences. Some use it artfully, some hold it back when warranted and some try unsuccessfully to bite it. For the French, it can be a rapier thrusting in attack. English speakers use it more defensively, often in vague, hence confusing replies. For Spaniards, it’s an instrument of eloquence. East Asians can confound others with constructive silence, which they view as a form of speech. For a German or a Finn, the truth is the truth. In Japan and Britain, it’s okay if it doesn’t rock the boat. In China, there’s no absolute truth. In Italy, everything is negotiable.
What is the route to cultural empathy? To begin with, we need to openly acknowledge our own chauvinistic proclivities. We perceive and thus judge others from a point on the cultural spectrum where we were born and stand rooted. We have a relative, not a complete, view of others. Once we realize that we too can be (indeed likely are) a trifle strange to others, it becomes easier to appreciate the subjective nature and force of our ethnic generalizations. A working knowledge of the basic differences of the cultural traits of others can reduce the myopia of ethnocentrism.
Cultural empathy is based on recognizing, then understanding and finally accepting our differences. This requires sensitivity, flexibility, compromise, politeness, patience, the will to comprehend and clarify competing interests, caring enough to avoid or ignore the irritants, listening and, above all else, trying to see things from the other’s unique (hence different) point of view. We must also be mindful that excessive stereotyping is the bi-product of conflict and stress, whether economic or ideological. This inner tension serves to reinforce our own distinct image and trigger a self-confirming perceptual bias.
Humanists are fundamentally opposed to racism. They believe all people are important and equal. According to their manifesto, they deplore any form of racial, religious, ethnic or class antagonism. They encourage cultural diversity and envision an integrated community where people have maximum opportunities for free and voluntary association. Clearly, the world needs a bit more humanism and a lot less racism. An openness to self-evaluation, a more accurate assessment of why others are the way they are, a commitment to greater tolerance without sacrificing one’s integrity, and a grasp of the skill we call tact are the essential resources we need to draw upon when cultures collide.