Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Non-racism is not-news

Something about racism has been on my mind since a couple of months. Indignation was widespread when a white woman staff member at Starbucks called the police because two black men sat in the cafe for a few minutes without ordering (they were expecting someone), something which white people regularly do. Today is actually the day when all Starbucks outlets in the US will undergo a symbolic closure for "racial bias education".

In another incident, a white student called the police on a black student legitimately napping in the common room of her dorm. Reading the details, there is little doubt that racist feelings in both cases motivated the unnecessary calls to the police. Indeed, in the latter case the police scolded the caller. These and several similar incidents have outraged people both in the US and elsewhere in the world, including myself and people like me. But it's begun to bother me that some double standards are operating here.

Liberals (a race of which I'm entirely proud to be a member) regularly object that one should not judge a community by the acts of a few of its members. This is brought up every time terrorist attacks take place in the name of Islam, and quite rightly too. However the same consideration is not typically extended after the many attacks perpetrated by white, right-wing terrorists. While their actions indicate that some white people are murderous racists, it is hardly the case that all white people are like that. And yet each time it happens there is a generic outcry. Particularly in India, I sense a kind of scorn about the intrinsic racism of white people.

Now I am aware of the counter-argument: one must call out bad behaviour by the dominant community because they have systemic biases, as well as the potential to do more harm. When Hindus attack minority Muslims in India, or Muslims attack minority Hindus in Pakistan, one should support the minority on principle. And the same logic says that liberals should strongly condemn white racism and terrorism. Indeed, illiberals (or whatever they are called) have a consistency problem: if you believe the majority community should force minorities to accept the dominant culture and discourse, you need to believe that everywhere. But those Hindus -- and I think they are not many -- who feel that churches and mosques deserve to be attacked in India, would rarely agree that the same should be done to Hindu temples in the USA.

Yet the liberal approach exhibits some fault lines. Some of us are disinclined to condemn vicious attacks on innocent civilians at the hands of Islamic fundamentalists, or even the horrendous treatment of women at home by similar people. By the same token, we fail to sufficiently credit the Caucasian world (particularly the US, Canada, the UK and Western Europe) for creating the kind of multi-cultural societies that exist in these countries. To be sure there are strenuous debates and sometimes unpleasant actions that seem to threaten multi-culturalism, but it is very much alive and functioning nonetheless. The problem is that incidents of non-racism are not news.

I've been in London for the last two weeks and the point comes home to me on a daily basis. Walk around Central London and you see ordinary Britishers of diverse racial backgrounds mingle, chatter and cooperate all the time, day after day. Arab, Chinese, English families meet in the Tube and smile at each others' children. Yes I know Central London is not the UK, but it would be nice if someone noticed and celebrated the multi-cultural spirit that's alive here, and I'm just writing to highlight the point.

To conclude I'd like to recount my recent experience at a Sushi restaurant off Carnaby Street. It was a small and crowded place where I sat at the bar watching a Japanese chef create beautiful art works out of fish, avocados and not much else. This chef and his assistant were the only Japanese working there, the remaining staff were two Pakistanis and two Italians. The chef had a perpetual scowl of concentration and didn't seem very cheerful at all. But suddenly, in the midst of much activity, the Pakistani waiter shouted out to him "Bhai, how are you doing?". The Japanese chef gave a warm smile and replied "Bhai is doing fine, thanks."

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