autobiography, Canada, Ibram X. Kendi, identity, Ireland, Leo Varadkar, Martin Luther King Jr., race
While I think it is important not to pretend our society is post-racial or colour-blind now, I insist on the importance of colour-blindness (in a racial sense) as a future ideal to strive for. And I maintain that the ideal of a colour-blind society, a post-racial world, is not a pipe dream. How do I know that? Because I’ve lived it.
A little while ago I took a “privilege points questionnaire“, one of those questionnaires that assess how much “privilege” you supposedly have on the basis of your race. When I took it, my results put me in the most racially privileged category, proclaiming to me that “In U.S. society many resources will be offered to you, whether or not you want them or ask for them, that will support you to get the things required to have what the society considers a good life, simply because of your race.” Keep in mind, I am not white! With my visibly brown skin and Indian name, the Indian side of my ethnicity is clear to observers. Yet nobody’s ever called me a credit to my race, I’ve never been hassled by store security because of my race, nobody’s thought I was financially unreliable because of my race – or if they did, they hid it well enough that I never noticed.
I have had this “privilege” for most of my life, even though I am visibly non-white. The racism I’ve been a victim of is real, but it always stood out because it was an exception. The bullies who bullied me for my skin colour were known bullies who would have found something else to bully this nerd about even if I had been white. (When I came home from school one afternoon and asked my mother “what’s a Paki?” I think it was much more traumatic for her than for me.) When the taxi driver sped away from me on 11 September 2001, one of my thoughts soon after was “oh, I guess that’s what it’s like to be black.” That had never happened to me before in my previous twenty-five years.
When I was a child, I wanted to be prime minister of Canada. There had never been a non-white prime minister; there still has not. There were no non-white politicians whose profile was high enough for me to consider them models. (Ujjal Dosanjh would not become premier of British Columbia until I was an adult.) Yet for all that, it just never occurred to me that my race could be a barrier to my becoming prime minister. The thought just never crossed my mind. Was that a product of a child’s naïveté? Perhaps. In the 1980s there was good reason to expect that the racism that was such a minor presence in my childhood world would have become more significant had I become a public figure. But I don’t think even such naïveté would have been possible if race and race consciousness had been major features of my childhood. And as it turns out – happily – they weren’t. The oppressions I’ve faced in my life have been less racial and more generational.
I don’t pretend that my experience is typical for non-white people in majority-white societies, but it’s not unique either. In Ireland, which is considerably less diverse than Canada, Leo Varadkar, who is about my age and the same racial background, does not seem to have been held back by that background. He proclaimed: “I’m not a half-Indian politician, or a doctor politician or a gay politician for that matter. It’s just part of who I am. It doesn’t define me.” And perhaps more poignantly: “I know when my father travelled 5,000 miles to build a new home in Ireland, I doubt that he ever dreamed that one day his son would grow up to be its leader and despite his differences, his son would be judged by his actions not his identity.” He and I, it turns out, have been judged by the content of our characters more than by the colour of our skin – in a way that we wouldn’t have had we been born fifty years earlier, in the era of Bhagat Singh Thind. Martin Luther King’s dream did not come true for his own children, and has largely not yet come true for American black people, but it had come true for other non-white people, whose lives began not long after King’s ended. I count myself lucky to be among them.
One of the major themes in contemporary racial movements is representation: we need more non-white people in high places and in popular culture so that non-white children can imagine themselves in those roles. I think that’s a good thing to support, because I can see how it might be important for some people. But it also matters that it wasn’t important for me. (It doesn’t seem to have been important for Varadkar either.) I didn’t need to be represented by people whose skin looked like mine, because I just didn’t think of my skin colour as important to who I was. I could be myself, not my race. That was a gift that society had unintentionally given me, and it is a gift that I hope many more will have in the future. I want a world where children can look at careers done by people with different physical features and think “I’m going to do that”, not “I can’t do that because they don’t look like me” – and I want them to be right.
All this is why I think something has gone very wrong when, as Ibram X. Kendi appears to do, we deny even the possibility of being not racist (as opposed to proactively antiracist.) For if it is impossible to be not racist, under any conditions ever, then the world of Martin Luther King’s dream – the world he advocated and sought for – can never exist. That world is one where racism is a minor enough problem that one does not need to be actively antiracist, one can simply be not racist. And I think that world remains both possible and worth fighting for – with affirmative action as a key weapon in the fight. It is a world where black people get treated in the way that I, of mixed Indian and white stock, was treated. Surely that is not even an implausible dream, let alone an impossible one.
I think one could plausibly argue that under the current system, given current conditions, it is not possible to be simply non-racist. (I hope that this is what Kendi intends to mean; I haven’t yet read enough of his work to see whether it is.) But one would then need to specify: at what point would this system have changed sufficiently that it would be possible to be non-racist? If no such point could exist even hypothetically, that would doom anti-racist struggles to failure, which necessarily raises the question of whether such a doomed quest would even be worth the time. Fortunately, I think my own lived experience, as a non-white person in North America, is very good evidence that it can. We can build a post-racial, non-racist society where other non-white people have a life experience like mine. Let us do so.
Paul D. Van Pelt said:
I applaud your cautious optimism. I have written about a career I pursued and partially achieved in civil rights. I also noted that partial success was a foregone conclusion because I was the wrong race and sex to be successful in that rather exclusive profession. I don’t think of it so much anymore because it is old history for a retired such as myself. But, insofar as my work and thinking now entail philosophy, the subject re-emerges. I lived in Canada for several years and remember attitudes toward certain people from Eastern cultures. This was, for me, culture shock at the time. I had seen such things in the USA, but was unprepared for it in a country with one-tenth of the population. It changed my perspective—that is putting it mildly. Paki was not a term I think expected. Living back in the states, I quickly found things had not changed much.
Have read of Microaggression…a softpeddling of discrimination. Maybe things will get better. I am not cautiously optimistic.
Amod Lele said:
Thank you, Paul. I remain optimistic, with my experiences in both Canada and the US. I do think things have gotten worse over the past decade, in a variety of ways; I no longer can count my life as post-racial anymore. But I saw what it was like before that, and see no reason it can’t be that again – for others in different situations as well as for me.
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