Sunday, March 27, 2016

On diversity and biases

Looking at the Donald Trump circus playing out right now, it’s abundantly clear that biases are alive and well in our society.
Trump is not creating these feelings in people, he’s simply harnessing them.
I see this as a wake up call to double down on working to eliminate biases in our society, if anything.
Trump is blatant and in your face. What most people usually do, though, is keep their biases well-hidden below the surface, suppressed by political correctness and other social norms. But that doesn’t get rid of them. And it’s not much better than what Trump is doing if you ask me, to put it bluntly.
I personally see Trump’s affronts as an opportunity to publicly acknowledge that biases still exist and to recognize that they should be worked on so as to be eventually eliminated.
It takes real work to do this.
Take me as an example, I’ve been raised in a borderline rural, predominantly white, area outside of Quebec city; and when I grew up, biases and racist comments were not uncommon. They were a way of life, sadly.
They consequently were ingrained deeply in my upbringing and I’ve been fighting them all my life and I still uncover some of them at times. I didn’t put them there. They were seeded by my environment. But it’s up to me to rid myself of them.
But what I’ve come to realize is not to try to pretend that they’re not there — that’s easy to do — but to me, the right thing is to tackle them head-on when they come up and confront them. And to not let them get by me "unscathed".
One of the problems is that often people aren’t even aware that they have gender, religious or ethnic biases.
A few Saturdays ago, I went downhill skiing and went relaxing in the resort’s outdoor spa afterwards, soaking in the hot water with my head exposed to the winter temperatures — lovely.
Anyway there was also a couple in the spa and I couldn’t help but hear what they were saying. They were discussing plans to add more living quarters for the mother of one of them and were contemplating how this would be a subsequent source of income when they would eventually rent the space to the “ideal tenant”: a single white female.
That’s two biases in a four-word phrase, but the lady was very-matter-of-fact about uttering those words.
Once casually discussing the career of a woman that both my father and I know, he said to me, “She’s making pretty good money for a woman.” There’s actually a good amount of baggage that goes with this one. The world was very different when my father grew up in the 50’s. When he got married in the 60’s, there were values to take pride in in supporting a wife and a child, and having the woman under the man’s wing. You were a good man if you did those things. And so I know that if I try to bring up this bias with him, I’m in for a long conversation that might lead to nowhere, as it’s below his awareness level to even consider. You’d have to peel the onion slowly one layer at a time. And you’d be in for several bottles of hard liquor — or beers, in his case!
In many ways, it comes down to one’s comfort zone and stepping outside one’s bubble. Stepping out of the zone can be hard — more for some than others, I suppose. It’s a conscious effort that may require an initial effort.
Throwing myself in intimate relationships with women at the other end of the religious / ethnic spectrum has gone a long way to help me embrace diversity.
I was once engaged with an African-Arabic Canadian woman. Her parents were Muslims. I met them once as they lived far away. We were eating buffet-style, and they would repeatedly slap her on the wrist during the meal if she had failed to serve my food (and I therefore had to reach for it myself). Then they absolutely insisted that she put my boots on for me before we left. Normal for them, way out there for me. I wanted her skinny, they gave her shit for letting herself getting so thin. She said it was what I wanted. They looked at me with disbelief and even contempt. Normal for me, way out there for them. But we could have worked it out. 
By the way, racism goes both ways. When I would drop her off at home after a date in the early days, before we moved in together, black guys would often approach her after I had left and ask her why she bothered going out with a “white trash”.
Or, when we would walk down a public street holding hands, we quite often had “Jungle fever” thrown at us as we would walk by a couple of black dudes.
That relationship didn’t ultimately work out and I ended up marrying a Chinese-Vietnamese girl instead. We’ve been together 17 years, as of a week ago today.
Getting married is hard enough in its own right, but with someone who is very culturally different and with different religious views, it can be a much wilder ride, as I have found out.
We also live in a profoundly diversified neighborhood: as a white guy, I’m the minority. There are no majorities in fact. There are Cambodians, Vietnamese, Portuguese, Latinos, Indians, East Europeans, you name it.
What I have discovered is that it takes real work to break down the barriers of ethnicity and religion if you make the effort to step outside of your bubble and really bust those walls and truly connect; but it’s worth it.
Having gone through it in our marriage has given me a lot of experience.
The same thing goes for the gender issue to a large degree, IMO.
You have to be willing to work at it, you have to communicate it out and develop enough empathy to understand what’s it’s like to be the other person.
That’ll be too much work for some to consider pursuing, but it’s up to the rest of us to get the ball rolling in earnest.
Being blunt, politically incorrect and “in your face”, as Donald Trump would have you believe, is not what is going to make “America great again”, but having become bias-free through collective soul searching is what can make the world at large great at last.

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