I don’t normally get political or socially conscious on this blog, but damn it, I can’t hold back anymore. Not after the conversation I had with my three-year-old this evening when an Indian gentleman appeared on the TV.
‘Look, daddy!’ my daughter cried. ‘What’s he got on his skin?’
I frowned, unable to see what she was talking about. ‘He hasn’t got anything on his skin.’
‘It’s all black!’ she said.
Ah. The penny dropped. Since an early age she’s been exposed to people of many different ethnicities, but this is the first time she’s mentioned it.
Knowing my response might impact her view of the world, I phrased my words very carefully. ‘It’s not black, it’s brown,’ I replied. ‘That’s just the colour of his skin. It’s perfectly normal.’
‘But, but, he’s a boy!’ she said. ‘He’s supposed to be white!’
As you can imagine, this threw me through a loop. ‘What do you mean he’s supposed to be white?’ I demanded. ‘Who told you that? And who do you know who has white skin?’
‘We do,’ she said.
‘No we don’t,’ I replied. ‘Our skin is a kind of pinky peach colour. Why do you think our skin is white?’
She ummed and ahhed about this, and then started pointing out other people on TV, and saying, ‘He’s white,’ and ‘She’s black,’ depending on their ethnicity.
‘People aren’t black or white,’ I told her. ‘People have different skin tones, from very pale like ours through olive and bronze and all shades of brown to very dark. Like people have different coloured hair and different coloured eyes, people have different coloured skin too, but inside we’re all the same.’
I could have dismissed it as simple childish curiosity, but what really disturbed me was that she somehow knew the manmade categories of white and black – skin tones that rarely, if ever, exist in nature. I have deliberately never spoken to her about race as I want her to treat people as individuals, not as belonging to one group or another. Once you start lumping people together into groups you begin to assign values and assumptions to those groups, and that’s why I’m so determined that she takes people as she finds them – especially living in a county that at the last census was 98% white. The fact that even kids as young as three are arbitrarily dividing people into ‘us’ and ‘ them’ is indicative of the world as a whole, and, I have to admit, makes me fear for the future.
I recently commented on a blog called Pointless Overthinking that asked readers to suggest the biggest problem facing humanity right now. I didn’t have to consider my answer because it’s something I’ve been thinking about for months.
In my opinion, the biggest problem afflicting society right now – in the West, at least – is polarisation: the division of people into discrete, competing and mutually exclusive categories. While this has always been a problem, the last five years seem to have launched us into a face-off with one another that has reached truly frightening proportions, from the level of the individual right up to that of government and state. It isn’t good for any of us and it really needs to stop.
We live in the age of Black Lives Matter, of Fourth Wave Feminism, of #MeToo and MGTOW (Men Going Their Own Way); Donald Trump and Women’s Marches; Brexit and Trans-Acivists. Every day we hear about patriarchy, white privilege, rape culture, mansplaining. We’re increasingly being divided by our sex, our skin colour, our sexuality – even whether our genitals match our gender identity. We’re being put into boxes, stripped of our individual identities and judged on the basis of arbitrary characteristics that don’t really mean anything at all.
These days, you’re either left or right; a bleeding-heart Democrat or an evil Republican; a racist Brexiteer or an unpatriotic Remoaner. You’re an oppressed person of colour or a privileged white person; a female victim or a male rapist; a trans or a cis. And instead of reaching across the divide and trying to understand the other side as people, all we’re doing is throwing insults, and spreading hatred, and treating whole categories of people as though they all share the same opinions, the same values, the same attitudes and beliefs.
People blame Trump for this polarisation, but it started before him. He wasn’t the cause of it, but a symptom of the growing divisions that are pushing everything to the opposite extremes and leaving the middle ground empty. People are mostly reasonable, rational if complex beings, and should be treated as such, but instead of finding what we have in common, we’re using terms like racist and sexist and transphobic to reduce people on the other side to simplistic bogeymen. Calling somebody a Communist while they call you a Nazi isn’t going to build bridges – quite the opposite, in fact.
What I don’t understand is how we got here. How did social categories – those things I was brought up to believe were unimportant – become so damned important again? I thought we were beyond the male/female thing, the white/black thing, the straight/gay thing. I thought we’d reached a point where we judged people by who they are rather than what they are. But apparently not.
That’s why we have books like Why I’m No Longer Talking (To White People) About Race: white people are unable to understand racism because of the colour of their skin. And why men are frequently told they are not allowed an opinion on abortion because of their sex. And why the voices of cisgendered individuals are often marginalised, even within the LGBTQ+ community, because of their gender identity. In a society that everywhere tells us not to judge a book by its cover, we are everywhere judging and being judged by our covers. The rich individualities we hold inside are being ignored.
The circus of the Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing over the alleged sexual assault of Christine Blasey Ford by Brett Kavanaugh shows just how divided we’ve all become. Instead of the solemnity and seriousness with which such an allegation should have been treated, it became the focal point for all the various polarised tensions that exist today, an explosion of anger and judgment and partisanship, of emotion and categorisation. The truth of what happened to those people all those years ago seemed less important than what they represented and how they could be used to score points against the other side.
And there is the truth of today’s world. Political discourse these days is about demonizing the other side and reducing the wondrously individual entity that is the human being to a mere cipher for everything you hate. ‘Us and them’ is alive and well in a day and age intelligent and aware enough to know that such a division is not only dangerous, it is untrue.
So how about we stop treating people as men and women, straights and gays, blacks and whites, trans- and cisgenders, evil this and evil that, and start treating one another as people again? All sides, left and right, male, female, woke and still asleep – you’re all equally to blame. Try explaining your point of view to one another, instead of simply shouting, and try listening to what the other person has to say, instead of hearing only what you expect to hear.
It was 1963 that Martin Luther King Jr had a dream that his children would not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their characters. Those words are as resonant today as they were all those years ago. I will continue to teach my kids to take people as they find them. I just hope that others will show them the same courtesy in return.