We’re in Melbourne, Australia. It is cool but warming up by the day here. Today we enjoyed a gentle breeze and a clear sky, a perfect early summer day. After many months in warm humid weather it’s actually a bit of a relief for us to wear a light jacket.
Yesterday, as we were approaching a grocery store, we experienced a rather blatant display of racism against us. There was hate in his eyes as he snarled at us and my immediate reaction was equally angered and hateful. These occurrences can immediately conjure up the past, like the open disdain displayed by the immigration lady during our passport check at the airport, the stories related to us by a Tibetan woman about blatant prejudice at her by an all white workplace in Melbourne or the group of Australian women we met in Singapore who, if you can believe it, contemptuously blurted out “we’re surrounded by Asians on all sides” and hurried off in embarrassment after hearing my daughter’s fluent American accent. It conjured up many instances of the past that caused me pain and anger. However a few moments later a smile from a little child in the cereal lane quickly disconnected me from this frustration and the compassionate lenses kicked in again. It’s not a refined process to get to this state but I’m working on it.
The night came and I drifted off to sleep quickly. I was awakened early morning by my restlessness kids who were having difficulty sleeping due to our time change. So I massaged both of them to sleep and during this I thought about writing on this issue for the blog.
As I laid awake at night I was able to reflect back to my own mental journey on the issue of racism. As children we are all born free of racism. I was fortunate to go to a diverse school in India where we bonded at a young age with kids of many different backgrounds. As we grew up we began to learn about racism but it was very difficult to grasp. I remember memorizing the definition of “prejudice” because I could not understand it as we studied Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. India has its share of dysfunctionality – class systems, religious groups and great economic divides but race wasn’t that big of a factor for me as I grew up there.
In 1990 I went to America and spent a year in Alabama. I remember thinking about prejudice in a whole new light. My own reactions to racist experiences have been varied, in some situations I became angry, defiant and aggressive and in other situations I felt self pity, demoralized and lacked confidence. I was flexible..in situations where I felt genuine friendship I gave people my love and in situations where I felt hostility I was an aggressive and angry man. Once at a Guns and Roses concert in Alabama these three big white guys shouted “Pig!” as they looked at me. Before I knew it we were in a fist fight and I ended up with quite a bloody face. A good feeling came upon me that I stood my ground but it also gave me a sense of hopelessness. The experiences continued as would be expected in a society dominated by one race.
My daughter has also approached me on racist experiences she had at her school. I wonder if some of my anger may have rubbed on her perspective. My son on the other hand is not at all aware of this issue.
There is another part of racism that is seldom talked about and that is by the people who feel victimized. They too hate in retaliation. It is an equal and opposite reaction. It might not cause as much damage to the other person but it is equal in terms of hate. Look at all the recent incidents in USA, both sides are at fault yet both sides only see the fault in others.
Racism is acquired as a part of the process of growing up in society. We all grow up to be racists. As I see it, racism comes from our inability to compassionately connect with each other without first noticing our differences. Why is that? Why is it that we notice each other’s skin colors or our societal differences as a first response when we meet people. We didn’t do that as children. Why do we fail to connect? Why doesn’t the educational process try to eliminate this great incompetency? Why can’t we all have an astronaut’s frame of reference as they look back on earth, they only see one race – the human race. Yuri Gagarin’s initial reactions when he looked back at earth was the silliness he found in his identity as a communist Russian, to him all the boundaries we have on earth seemed ridiculous-there is not boundary line visible from space, all he saw was one beautiful earth.
Racism is just a small branch of our inability to connect to each other as humans-there are plenty of other reasons why we fail to connect. We have acquired this incompetency to connect through our religions, our education, our passports, our languages, the politicians, the media, our cultures, our economic status, our social status, our inability to observe our egos, our styles, our music interests, our families and our total lack of maturity as human beings. We’re all culturally incompetent human beings. We do not know how to connect.
As we travel we are trying to develop this skill in making connections. As a family we are learning to approach people with a genuine wish to make a connection, to emulate with our speech and body language that we are genuinely interested in making a connection. We have to try and emulate a compassionate nature in which we try to listen and provide something of value to the people we meet. I don’t mean value in a materialistic sense but of providing a valuable human exchange. We are mostly observers so this makes it easy, we have in many ways escaped societal pressures and obligations. We are just drifting and observing. We have met some great people along the way. They come from various backgrounds but I can frankly say I do not remember them by the color of their skin but mostly by the way we felt a genuine bond. These people have provided me a great insight into our human experience and it is the best part of our travel story.
So in my past life of ignorance I dealt with racism in anger and hate. Needless to say, it was a wasted effort. Now I try to bring up my compassionate lenses, and I see the other person as a simple human being who is unaware that he or she has been taught to hate. The compassionate reaction is many times delayed but it is a worthy objective to have. We are still working on the ways to bring this as our innate nature but for now, it is good enough to have this awareness.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama has provided a great travel advice and it would be of great value to anyone who seeks to connect with our fellow human beings. He said: “When I meet people in different parts of the world, I am always reminded that we are all basically alike: we are all human beings. Maybe we have different clothes, our skin is of a different color, or we speak different languages. That is on the surface. But basically, we are the same human beings. That is what binds us to each other. That is what makes it possible for us to understand each other and to develop friendship and closeness.”