I have seen racism. I have seen bullying in childhood as well as in adult life. I have also been a victim of underlying racism and xenophobia while living as a foreigner in Japan for nearly a decade. The ‘gaijin’ concept in Japan is certainly systemic. I was questioned by the police on my relationships and told I had no place in the country regularly as I walked to and from the train station. At other times, mothers scooped their kids up and took them inside when I walked by their house. People would refuse to sit next to me on the train unless they had a rude request or a curious fascination. Some places flat out told me that their restaurant or clothing store was for natives only, and kindly redirected me to the tourist district.
Some of the things that went on are still hard to believe. This behavior was directed against me as a foreigner – systemic, pervasive, part of the underlying culture. To be a foreigner was to be suspect, assumed to be up to no good, distrusted, hated by some as messing with the cultural way of life by my very presence. It is a subconscious bias, woven into the history taught in elementary schools, the tv commercials, the pop culture, the news. It is subtle, ubiquitous, and ‘common sense’ among the general populace. That is what systemic means.
I would concede there are places in our great country of the United States where a culture of racist belief is firmly entrenched, but not everywhere nor to the same extent. I would also need to concede that as a white guy growing up in a predominantly white community between the ages of 10 and 20, there is likely a great deal I was insulated from or unaware of. Your experience with racism or bigotry may certainly differ.
I have seen it raise its ugly head in the way news is presented or the accused treated by authorities. But not everywhere and again, it is subtle. Most folks, if accused, would not believe it, would not believe they are guilty of being a part of it. Some victims have bought into it, assuming this is the way things are.
However, even the tiniest mote of such a scapegoating and xenophobic and demeaning attitude (whether subconscious or intentional) is unacceptable in our nation. It poisons the well. It clouds the freedoms we have declared as immutable for every person by our Constitution and Declaration of Independence.
In many other places, such behavior and thought are encouraged as a means to solidify the ruling class or national genetic heritage. But the USA is founded on the belief that humanity has a set of common human rights, that governance should be by the people – not by a ruling class, and that all people are created equal. A racist mentality goes strongly counter to the ‘why’ of our existence as a nation. It is, therefore, more apt to secrecy and more publicly hated when unearthed. It comes out as a big deal and gets used by politicians of all designations to point fingers at the other … interestingly, another type of xenophobism, and deeply hypocritical at that.
Although I am still a bit skeptical of a national, systemic racist bias – or at least an organized and intentional one – I do, of course, see even intense racism in specific cities and communities. I am also aware of several inherent biases I am personally working to overcome. Interestingly, none of them surround the color of one’s skin – but that’s just how I was personally brought up. I am not any better or worse than anyone. Everyone has inherent and often unconscious biases, stemming from personal experience as much as upbringing. Awareness is key to combating this. I highly recommend taking several bias tests at Project Implicit® from Harvard University for some curious introspection.
Any racism is intolerable. Any bias starts to fray the very fabric of what we are about as a nation and society. We all need one another. That is not to say we are all exactly the same – otherwise, we would not need one another. We need diversity exactly because we are all diverse. The key is that no one has lesser or greater value, potential, or worth – but we are each a unique and inestimably valuable work of art. My faith tells me that the Creator intentionally made us all unique. Divisions such as male or female or somewhere in-between are all a part of who we are. Skin color and heritage and language and culture are all a rich contribution to the larger society in which we each live, breathe, and have our being. We need each other; we need peaceful discourse over our differences and over our different mindsets to enrich society as a whole.
The United States is a grand experiment toward equality from its inception. Not a perfect one, by any means, but one with grand and sweeping ideals and lofty goals. Reading our founding documents is inspiring. Government of, by, and for the people. All people created equally. Working together for a common defense and welfare. Noble ideas way ahead of their time.
Since our humble beginings, we have matured some – disavowed slavery, passed laws to ensure equality in pay and opportunity, and granted universal suffrage for all citizenry. But not without terrible growing pains – and there is certainly a great deal more left for us to do. Humanity will always have a distrust for the unfamiliar or unique while at the same time curiosity and fascination. Our founding principles demand we continue seeking justice and equality and provisions of equity regardless of how difficult it may be – while refraining from revenge. Revenge merely moves the weight of bias and racism to a new victim instead of removing it.
What we need is systemic acceptance. We need the arguably Voltairean concept of “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” The understanding that we are all in the same sinking ship and need to work together to keep even partially afloat. We desperately need each other – especially when we disagree or are different in some way or have an out-of-the-box thought. That is the benefit of our great land, we the people are an eclectic mix and have the legal right to be different and speak out about our differences. We bring various ideas and unique perspectives together in ways that few others can.
Yet we are still wrestling through the struggle actually to achieve the intended and declared goals of our founding. This is not because our forefathers were racist or intolerant bigots – it is because we are people, humans on a journey, imperfect and in need of both grace and deep repentance and change. We need to overcome and stand alongside the persecuted and privileged alike, aligning ourselves with the motto on the Statue of Liberty, the ‘Mother of Exiles’ – gatepost to entry to our Land of the Free…
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.Send these,
the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
Such are all who chose to come here; yearning to be free, deemed wretched by our homelands, not fitting in, seeking rest from the tempest – regardless of (and often due to) the color of our skin or language or culture or race. Undeniably, this is how we owe to treat those who were brought here without choice or found themselves in our midst as well.
Systemic inclusion, systemic acceptance needs to be our cry and our daily action as written on our founding code. As difficult as it may seem. Bringing about a Land that rings true to the goals and dreams of our inception. An ideal that echoes in the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, a few excerpts I will post here in closing for your pondering, although I recommend the entirety of this great message …
“When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”…
And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”…
And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.…
And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:Free at last! Free at last!Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”