So, here’s the thing. I am about as white as it gets, with my Dutch and Scottish heritage in a Canadian package. Under normal conditions, I would not ever experience racism, so it might be hard for me to really understand what it means, and how it feels, to be judged based on the colour of my skin.
Fortunately for me, though, I have lived in Japan for around 20 years and this has put my lily white skin in the position of being judged. AND IT DRIVES ME CRAZY. Let me assure you that it would drive you nuts too. You would be vocal about it and want to change it. You would not make excuses for it or tell people that they are being over-sensitive.
Let me give you an example. It is an entirely harmless example, but it illustrates the point that even a little bit of judgement can be really annoying.
I have been square dancing since 2007 (so nine years now, for those of you who are reading this in the future). I have learned how to dance to the choreography in three different programmes (basic, mainstream, and plus), and I have danced in Japan, New Zealand, Australia, Germany, and as of this past week, Canada. I am not a perfect dancer, and I certainly do make mistakes, especially because I sometimes have trouble distinguishing my left from my right quickly enough, but under normal conditions, I don’t usually make “square-breaking mistakes” that completely mess everything up.
Some people do make square-breaking mistakes. Beginners will do it all the time because they are not used to hearing the calls and performing them fast enough to keep up with the music. People who have no rhythm, or who are not musically inclined will sometimes break squares. And older people who might have hearing problems, or who are just not fast enough to keep up can often break a square. This happens, and when it does, you just get into a certain formation (facing lines) and wait for the caller to call something that you can do from the formation. It’s no big deal.
Anyway, the point that I am making is that breaking a square is not that big a deal. It is fixable. However, when I dance in Japan, sometimes I get into a square that has some weak dancers. I hate it when this happens because the other people in the square will often make it clear that they think I was the one who broke the square. You can usually tell when someone thinks that you are a square breaker because they will handle you a bit more forcefully, by leading you with their hands to the correct positioning after every call, or by repeating the call loudly to you. Sometimes I do make mistakes, but as I said, I am not usually the reason that a whole square breaks down. However, if I am in a square that has broken down with dancers who do not know me, I will almost always be seen as the “culprit” and be “kindly” guided for the rest of the song even if I have danced perfectly the entire time.
THIS DRIVES ME CRAZY! Just because the square broke down and I am in it (one white person with seven Japanese people), it is assumed that it is my fault. There isn’t anything I can do to stop this from happening when it does. It is a natural prejudice that some people have and stopping the square to talk about sociological issues is not going to make me a more popular dancer. There isn’t anything I can do about it, other than tell people about it after the fact.
This is a small example, a small annoyance, and it does not affect my personal safety. However, it is a clear example of prejudice, and it illustrates to me exactly how it feels to be judged (and judged incorrectly) based on nothing other than the colour of my skin.
Because of this (and other examples that I am certainly willing to share if anyone is interested), I do have a small understanding of how people who are black/brown in Canada/US feel. If you have not ever felt that way, then you may not understand, and you may think that people who point out this particular kind of unfairness are over-reacting. Trust me, they are not over-reacting. It is annoying and unfair to be judged based on your physical appearance.
Prejudice and bias exist in all of us, and many of us are not aware of the fact that these themes infect our thinking. I do not consider myself to be racist, and I hope that my words and actions reflect that, but I admit to myself that I have prejudices and that I am susceptible to bias. I don’t want those to be my defining features, though, so I work hard to try to fight them. If you think you are a person entirely free of prejudice and bias, I would invite you to take the following test.
I would wager a large amount of money that the test revealed that you are biased.
When one person is biased against you, it can be annoying and frustrating. If that one person is someone who has power over other people, like a police officer, it can be dangerous. And if an entire system is biased against you, it will impact on every part of your life, on a regular basis, in ways that cannot even be imagined by the people who are not affected by the bias.
Have you ever been in this situation? Someone you have never met before starts treating you in a certain way that doesn’t match with how you see yourself. That person takes a look at you and makes decisions about you, and starts treating you according to what they believe about you. They might be treating you like you are stupid, or like you are older or younger, or richer or poorer, than you are. It can even happen when someone asks you for directions when you are in a place that is unfamiliar, or someone thinks you work at a store that you are shopping in. Or when you are in a foreign country and someone speaks to you in a different language, assuming that you can speak it fluently. You can tell when you are not being treated right (according to what you know about yourself) and it is weird and uncomfortable.
That is a brief taste of what it feels like to be a person in a minority. Imagine if that happened ALL THE TIME. Imagine what it would feel life if people ALWAYS assumed that you were aggressive. Or that you were poor. Or that you were up to no good. Or even that you can or cannot dance. It would certainly start to become annoying after the first few times.
What I am trying to say, in my rambling way, is that you should not dismiss racism, prejudice, or bias as not real, or not relevant, or not important. People who face it on a daily basis are not making it up. Just because you don’t get it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It does. You just don’t know what you don’t know.