Kippa: Reminders for Microsoft Teams.

“We have evolved as a species to pay the utmost attention to that which is just beyond our reach.”
A Gentleman in Moscow – Amor Towles.

Like most of us, the events of the past two weeks have horrified and shocked me, and then distressed and depressed me, and then given me hope and uplifted me. We have arrived at a moment in time when injustice, racial discrimination and prejudice have been elevated to public debate with enough people joining in to compel our leaders to take a knee and listen.

We stand poised to change the world for the better. But…

The protests are just the first step on this long-overdue journey. The first step in the process to change a person’s point of view is the most important: you don’t begin to change your mind until you acknowledge that you need to do so. And yes, if a journey well begun is half done, this first step, taken by millions of people simultaneously, is a great start. But the next steps are much more difficult. We’re trying to change the way people think about other people. Studies show that the first thing people use to evaluate people they have just met is their gender. The second is their race and ethnicity. It’s a part of our DNA and dates back to cave dweller days when you trusted the folks who shared your campfire and mistrusted anyone who didn’t. As more and more people compete for the slowly dwindling resources of our planet, this can only become more of an issue.

I don’t pretend to know what the next steps are on our journey to eradicate racial, ethnic, cultural and gender bias, but I do know that humans are capable of the most astonishing feats of cognitive dissonance: we all are capable of holding two conflicting ideas in our heads, accepting them both as valid without acknowledging that one of them must be wrong.

For example, I received three unsolicited emails this week from people urging me to support local stores because they are owned by black people. And then an email forwarded by a friend with a link to a post penned by a site dedicated to Jewish affairs. It was a rant about how yes, Black Lives Matter, but how some of the rioters and looters had targeted Jewish businesses in LA, and how the movement is obscuring the fact that the Jews remain the most persecuted race in the world (her words…).

In the first example, I get it: it’s time to support black people who have had to work harder to get where they are now than the average white person may have had to.  And the second example resonates on a more personal level: In the South Africa of my youth, ruled by the Nationalist Party at a time when many of its supporters felt that South Africa had lost the second world war, I, too, was beaten and arrested for the crime of being Jewish.

But both of these cases are appealing against racism by being racist themselves. The newscast I watched last night contained a clip of a protester in an American city, a young black woman, being interviewed by a journalist. She was pointing out the white people in the crowd who had joined the march in solidarity for the cause. To her this was something to celebrate. And it is! But this is precisely the problem – to eradicate racism we have to stop using it to differentiate people. It truly should not matter to us what the colour of a person’s skin is; what God they pray to or whether they pray at all; or what gender they are.  But we have not been raised to think like this and changing this attitude won’t happen quickly. We’re all going to have to:

  • Keep our minds on the goal, keep striving for that which is just beyond our reach. It is after all what makes us human. We can and will eradicate these injustices, but only if we keep trying to recognize our own biases.
  • Solve the root causes which make it more difficult for people of one race or culture to succeed in a system which is geared to benefit a different race or culture. Yes, more crimes are committed by black people, per capita, in the USA, than by whites, but no thinking person can deny that if the majority of white people lived in the same desperate circumstances that the majority of black people live in today, the same skewed percentages would exist.
  • Dedicate much of the money spent on militarizing police forces around the world to helping disadvantaged people rise up to become respectable citizens who don’t need to steal food to feed their children. To educate them to a level where they get their share of high-paying jobs and rewarding careers.
  • Spend the rest of the money that police are spending on the arms race, on counselling to help them deal with their extremely stress-filled jobs. Subject people to years of dealing with the dregs of human depravities and they become disillusioned, lacking empathy or a willingness to believe that people are inherently good. Did you know that the moderators hired by Facebook, after only months at their jobs, experience PTSD from the task of merely reading these disturbing posts, seeing these horrific photos and videos? Imagine what the average police officer is subjected to.
  • Encourage people of different social standing and cultural backgrounds to mix and mingle. Toronto is North America’s most ethnically diverse city and in some ways it owes this distinction to its basketball team, The Raptors. Not only is the team made up of mixed-race players, but its fan base is a wonderful example of what can be achieved when everyone leaves their prejudices at home and joins in the fun as fans – just regular, undifferentiated fans of Team Human.
  • Tell stories of successful mixed marriages, laud places where different races work and play together in harmony, create movies, books and plays which celebrate the benefits of cultural and ethnic diversity. By shining a light on that which is, today, most often but not always, just beyond our reach, we bring it close enough to inspire us to keep reaching for it.