Monday, October 3, 2016

The key to conquering racial prejudice is respecting and working with our differences, not negating them

Many people think the solution to racial prejudice is that we become “color-blind.” The call to be color-blind implies that racial differences do not matter, that we should form our opinions about people based on their actions and their overall character. While the point about choosing our alliances based on people’s behavior and intentions instead of on assumptions about their heritage is valid, there is also a major flaw in this argument.

This proposed solution assumes that if we think race “matters,” then that must be a bad thing. To seek to throw away the idea of our differences is actually a negation of the ideal of inclusion, because it implies doing away with diversity.

Being “color-blind” implies that we should all be the same, which sounds creepily like the flipside of racism, don’t you think? Some reframing of how race and cultural differences matter to us, then, is a more helpful solution than to pretend they don’t exist.

Racial and cultural prejudice represent one extreme; ignoring or denying difference is another extreme. The middle ground between these two extremes is to acknowledge and respect the physical and cultural differences of the people around us without letting these differences hinder us from being able to bridge cultures and histories to form fulfilling relationships. We need to learn to see our human differences as a source of enrichment in our community lives rather than as a liability.

Abdul-Baha of the Bahá’í Faith often makes the point in his writings how boring a garden would be if all the flowers were all one color. I see this same idea all around me every day in my SGI Nichiren Buddhist community, which also emphasizes bridging cultures and colors to work together in harmony, not homogeneity. Incidentally, both of these religions have one of their most-frequently-used slogans in common: “unity in diversity.”

To me, deciding to be color-blind would be like looking at a colorful, interesting garden, and choosing to see it in monochrome instead, like how everything looks on the grayest winter day when all the color has faded out of the plants as they hibernate for the winter.

One of the things I love about my friends is the way they are all different from me. My closest friends are Philipino, black, Indian, Pakistani, Native American, and white, and various mixes of the above. Our lives are enriched by the different histories and perspectives we bring to our relationships with each other; we also learn a lot more from each other than we would if we said, “You know, our differences of color and culture don’t matter--Let’s just look at each other’s character and hearts and not worry about any of that surface stuff that’s caused so many historical problems, okay?”

While that approach might seem easier on the surface, it would actually make for quite a shallow existence. If I was to ignore the color and culture of every black, Native American, Japanese, Indian, Persian, Arabic, European, or Chinese person I meet, I would actually be insulting them, by negating their heritage in the name of being politically correct or to avoid any uncomfortable culture clash.

While culture clashes can sometimes be embarrassing or even painful, they are great opportunities to learn something new, if we muster the courage to get past the initial discomfort and see that we are being presented with the opportunity to expand our lives and our capacity to give and receive love unconditionally, without fear.

Color-blindness is a fear-based choice. Embracing unity in diversity is a love-based choice. So ask yourself, which do you want to rule your life: The conservativism of fear, or the risky courage of love? Which do you think is the most likely to enable you to do your part toward finally creating a truly prejudice-free society?

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Image: “Cosmic Dancer 2” by Karla Joy Huber, 2008; Colored pencil and silver Sharpie marker. (Original drawing on left; right is the same drawing with colors electronically inverted)

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