Saturday, 25 January 2014

Racist butts, part 1.

"I gotta say, not to be racist or anything, but I'm glad you're Swedish."
"Actually, I'm from Somalia."

A common problem we face in the western world is the phenomenon of "Not Racist But". We've all seen it: a grossly racist remark prefaced by a disclaimer, made without a trace of irony. The phenomenon is so ingrained in our culture that you're almost tempted to think that there truly is no racism in the world, just a whole lot of horrible people of various non-caucasian ethnicities.

Now, I personally subscribe to the view that true, born-and-bred racists, people who genuinely and actively despise other people because of the colour of their skin / differences of culture are a minority. In a world of six billion people, I think only a few (but still far, far too many) are genuine racists. However, I also believe that out of six billion people, the amount who are genuinely not bigoted are so small a minority, that they are utterly irrelevant in any serious discussion of the human condition.

Tl;dr: Few people are racists, but everybody is a bigot, one way or the other.

(Students of sociology, psychology or, hell, any kind of humanity-related academia can skip the next few paragraphs. Continue reading under the header "STORY")

Before you gasp and angrily tell me that I'm an asshole for calling you a bigot, let try to explain my view. Human beings are creatures of immense complexity. The ways we express ourselves, be it through language, culture or habit, are infinitely varied. We are complex beings in a complex universe, made even more complex by our own complex expressions.. Butwe have our limits. Our brain hangs off an evolutionary branch millions of years long. From that same branch hangs the brains of apes, monkeys, lemurs, and endless other species.

We may be the most astounding species of ape, but in the end we are still apes.

So what's an ape to do, in a world that is in essence immeasurably complex and strange? The ape can't hold the entire world in its head. Why would it? Its got bananas to eat, trees to climb, and feces to fling. So, instead of trying to process the entirety of Existence and blowing every neural fuse it has in the process, the ape simplifies the world. It filters out and organizes the various aspects of world in order of relevance to its its own existence. The ape cathegorizes the world.

That is essentially what bigotry is. A survival instinct, created to allow our primate brains to function in a dangerous world that's far larger than it can grasp. All stereotypes have their founding in a kernel of truth, interpreted from a limited perspective, creating a perceived reality so limited as to be considered false. None of us are entirelly free of it.

What makes human beings so amazing is that we have the capacity of being aware of the limits of our perspective. Having an open mind does not mean accepting everything, but rather questioning everything. Having an open mind is the ability to ask "Hey, could it be that I'm the asshole in all this?"

Indeed, I would go so far as to suggest that an open mind is nothing something you have, but something you have to make a conscious effort every day to attain. It's the difference between knowledge and belief; between awareness and instinct. And when push comes to shove, instinct tends to win, regardless of knowledge.

All right, Crabby, I hear you groan. We get it. You want people to be less ignorant and more considerate. What does this have to do with wasting your life away behind a steering wheel?

I'm glad you asked. Because the answer is EVERYTHING.

Quick, imagine a cab driver. Unless you live in London, or outside what we call The Western World (a term which is itself a generalization so broad it could almost be considered a stereotype), I'm going to assume (due to my own bigotry) that you imagine a brown-skinned fellow with a strange accent, who was a lawyer/doctor/businessman in his home country. And you wouldn't be entirelly incorrect. Ethnic minorities are highly overrepresented in the western cab business. Becoming a cabbie does not require a lot of skill (as opposed to becoming a good cabbie), and we're always in demand. Thus, its a popular job for those who for various reasons couldn't get a job elsewhere, a cathegory under which many members of ethnic/cultural minorities find themselves.

As an eloquent, well-educated white dude with roots in the upper middle class, I am often met with relief when my customers find that I'm not one of those nasty brown-skinned people who come here to steal our jobs, wellfare and women.

I fucking despise it.

So what can I do? I can't change human nature and I can't change an entire culture. And I'm not so arrogant as to think that I can change a person's entire outlook in the short time they spend in my car. But what I can do is show them directly that the world is in fact bigger than their bigotry. What they do with that knowledge is up to them (though my hopes aren't particularly high).

I'm  a firm believer in not only choosing my battles, but also choosing my weapons. Different people require different approaches. Sometimes I engage them in friendly discussion, forcing them through socratic questioning to examine their beliefs, until they realize that they don't have a leg to stand on. At other times I will simply hear them out and suggest to them that they google the phrase confirmation bias. And, if the person is particularly loathsome, I will tell them that if I have to listen any further to their racist bullshit, they'll be walking home.

But my favourite weapon is the Minority Card. It's a simple, hilarious, and morally questionable card to play. To put it simply, when someone makes a bigotted comment, I assume the cultural identity of whatever group the comment is aimed toward. Due to my own ethnicity, I'm limited to mainly religious identities, and perhaps that's a good thing.

Now, before I continue, I want you to understand that I don't do this lightly. Nor do I do it often. It is only rarely that this behaviour is even vaguely apropriate. I also take care not to play into stereotypes or in any way misrepresent them. Whatever expression I use, it is firmly based in fact. Even so, the very fact that I would dare to speak for a culture that is not my own is in itself problematic (even offensive). So I tend to tread carefully, never doing anything to deliberately fuel or confirm their bigotry. I don't try to ridicule, partially because that is not how I do, but also because a confirmed bigot will have no trouble tying his own ridiculus noose.

Last summer I was on Theatre Street, waiting for a fare. It was a slowish evening, and I wasn't really in the mood for anything. I just wanted my fares, my money, and my bed, in that order. So I wasn't particularly happy. There was a knock at my window and a girl leaned in.

"Hi, are you my cab?"

"That depends. What's your name?"

"Lisa. to Landwood?"

"That sounds about-"

Suddenly, a wild douche bag appeared. Popped collar, turned cap (nevermind that we left the nineties behind for a good reason), the full nine yards. His face was flushed and his eyes were glazed. Crumpled in his fist was a 500 sek bill.

"Three hundred off the meter to Landwood!"

Stifling the urge to strangle him by rolling up the window, I glared at him.

"Look here-"

"Three fifty!"

"In case you didn't notice, I was talking to the lady. Please step back."

She returned, looking worried.

"You Lisa?" I asked. "Heading to Landwood?"

"Yes," she said. "Is that right?"

"It is. Welcome in."

I unlocked the door. I saw Douche Baggins grab the handle. It is not uncommon for unrepentantly awful people to try to weasel themselves into a cab that's not their own, especially if they are going the same way as the current fare is. And, as if he wanted to get himself murdered, Mr. Baggins climbed into the shotgun seat. When Lisa and her boyfriend didn't protest this, I realized to my horror that Mr. Baggins was a part of her company.

I turned on the meter.

"No, bro!" cried Mr. Baggins. "Off the meter!"

I ignored him. Landwood is an area way outside of town. I figured that this fare would take a lot of time, earn me a lot of money, and drive me to suicide if I even for one moment engaged with the bastard sitting next to me. So I turned up the stereo a notch or two and zoned out, switching on the mental auto-pilot all cabbies develop at some point in their career. I was aware that there was a conversation of sorts going on between Mr. Baggins and Lisa,  but I couldn't hear what was being said. That is, until Mr. Baggins finished a sentence by saying:

"...but of course, I couldn't say that if a towelhead had been driving the cab."

I almost ignored it. I almost filed his words under Stupid Shit Conceited People Say. In fact, for that split second, I made up my mind to do just that. Then I opened my mouth.

"I'm sorry, what did you say?"

"I said, that I couldn't say that, if you'd been a towelhead."

"What do you mean by towelhead? A muslim?"

"Well," he said, suddenly hesitant. "yeah."

"But I am a muslim."


"It's true. And I find what you're saying horribly offensive."

"You're lying!"

"I'm not."

"I don't believe you."

"I couldn't give a damn about what you believe, sir. That's my faith. Whether you believe me is irrelevant."

The fare would prove to be quite enjoyable after all.

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