Skin color and the scale of discrimination

Everyone knows that skin color can be a source of discrimination, but few people wonder about the mechanism behind it. I learned the mechanism from a friend of Indian origin who told me that skin color determined the distance at which people could start discriminating.

In a society of white majority, a black person can be detected at a hundred meters, and that is the distance at which people take action to avoid them if they want to. An Asian-looking person, traditionally referred to as yellow although many of them are as white as the white, cannot be told from a white unless their facial features are seen, which happens usually within five meters. This distance allows people plenty of time to decide if they want to talk to them without being socially rude. A common complaint by people from the Middle East or eastern Europe is that they are often asked about where they are from five minutes into a conversation, and discrimination comes right then. More luckily than the black and the Asian, but sadly nonetheless, they are given five minutes’ opportunity to prove themselves interesting, or pleasant, and most important of all, a human being.

Skin color and facial appearance provide people a way of sticking to negative stereotypes and avoiding knowing others. Ignorance cultivates misunderstanding and distrust, which reinforce negative stereotypes. Many people react with fear when they see a group of black people on the street. On the other hand, imagine yourself black: being excluded and alienated from a society understandably pushes you towards hostility and crime, because what difference does it make to be good if you will always be regarded as bad anyway, even if you do nothing wrong. Thus, the society is polarized and the vicious circle goes on and on. This applies to every minority group to one extent or another.

Again as everyone knows, the media have not played a helpful role in preventing negative stereotypes. Crime suspects of minority groups are mentioned often in news headlines, but given little prominence when their names are cleared. Movies usually depict them as stupid, unreliable, shallow, annoying, or unimportant. Even when they do appear as heroes, their personalities are so unrealistic that the audience has difficulty connecting with them. That is why “Hotel Rwanda” strikes me as a wonderful movie. It is one of the rare movies that portray black people as ordinary people like everyone else, with feelings, fear, and the desire to live. You stop seeing skin colors. You see their hearts and their minds. You understand them and identify with them.

What we need in our society is exactly to overcome our fear and start seeing people as people. This takes courage, a great deal of courage. Is it possible? I have always doubted. “Compared to thirty years ago when I first moved here, people are much more open-minded nowadays. Because children of different colors and cultures grow up together and get used to each other. I believe things will get better and better in the future.” This is what a black person told me, simple and wise. Whenever I feel frustrated and pessimistic, these words give me hope, hope that some day every effort will be rewarded and there will be a better future.

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