Hackery, Math & Design

Steven Wittens i

Think Culture, not Race

The Edge Foundation has this event called the World Question Center where every year, they ask some of the world's brightest thinkers one Big Question. Last year it was What have you changed your mind about and why?

I loved pouring over the answers, mostly because many of them described a shift in the writer's thinking, rather than just changing their opinion on a particular fact.

However thinking about what my answer would be, I couldn't really come up with something I felt strongly about. That was until recently, when I saw a very poignant speech on racism. The crystallization of 'race' as an artificial descriptor of culture finally put concrete words onto something that had been in the back of my head for years now. Here goes.

What did I change my mind about and why?

Growing up liberal and secular, I was imbued with all the virtues of humanistic thinking: freedom of thought, freedom of speech, equality and justice. Part of that was the often repeated mantra that racism was bad. All of us kids accepted it without question, and as we grew up, we applied it in our own life. Meet someone who's darker skinned than you? Whose eyes are different? They are equal to you and you should treat them with respect. So would it echo in my head. But in the homogeneity of ex-catholic Belgium, this was still the exception rather than commonplace. Which meant that every time I had that thought running through my head, it felt like an uneasy reminder rather than something that was just part of my own values and ethics.

It wasn't until I moved to Vancouver that I really figured out why, because I was suddenly transplanted into the melting pot of this American-Asian city. It didn't take much for me to lose that guilty reminder about racism and to learn to take people truly at face value. People here come in all sorts of colors and sizes, living in one community, and everyone acts like they are part of the same culture. It's a very diverse and populous culture, but one culture nevertheless.

Whereas back in pastoral Belgium, it was a pretty good rule of thumb that someone would only think and talk like you if they also looked like you. Physical traits, grouped by 'race', became a predictor of culture. Which meant that the tension that comes with differences between cultures became associated with people's physical appearance.

But what most people forget is that our modern, western lines of 'race' (Caucasian, Latino, African-American, Asian, ...) are just the latest version of an age-old concept. These qualifiers used to be much more numerous and specific. Today's caucasians used to be Slavs, Celts, Normans, Gauls, Moors, etc. But as populations grew, and political divisions shifted, cultures got mixed, and some notions of 'race' became obsolete. Racial divisions evolved, and as such are not arbitrary lines that someone has drawn somewhere just based on looks. They are almost always drawn on top of existing cultural borders.

And this is the lesson that I was never really taught. Nobody ever really said that the feeling of unease that I would have around what I perceived to be 'other races' was just cultural tension, and that lumping that in with this person looks different from me was the mistake. Not the fact that I was feeling uneasy. The giant guilt trip that I had been saddled with about inequality and racism left me so uptight, that I was handicapped in relating to the diversity in my own culture as well as other cultures. For a very long time, I was the awkward guy who could say he 'hangs out with plenty of ______ people' and still felt bad about it. But not anymore.

It's only when you get over that that you can truly work on the real problem: how to get all our different cultures to live together on the same planet. Which is still a real problem, and one that needs to be tackled, not ignored, and certainly not to be shushed with overzealous accusations of racism.

Belgium  Canada  Culture  Freethinking  Humanism  Racism
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