Some friends and I recently got together to shoot the breeze and just generally have a good time. As it happened, only one of us wasn’t black. Within a few minutes of meeting, our non-black friend remarked, “Today I’m hanging out with my black friends.” The statement took me by surprise, since I hadn’t even realized how the skin color decks were stacked that evening. It also rankled because of the kind of difference he chose to highlight. Had he said, “… my female friends,” instead, I wouldn’t have been as taken aback. Sadly, his statement also took me back to some of my less-than-pleasant days in Germany.
In Germany I was often the sole black face in a sea of white–at school, at a restaurant, in public transport, you name it. To be sure, there were other blacks in the same cities, but there weren’t enough of us to often bump into each other in public spaces. Despite that fact, I was never aware of my blackness in any given situation until someone pointed it out. My immediate reaction to such statements has always been, “And…? Why does that matter? Aren’t we all human?” Clearly, they weren’t pointing out the difference to celebrate it, but to proclaim that I was “other.”
This phenomenon is by no means peculiar to race. More times than I can recount, I have listened to Kenyans highlight the fact that so-and-so is from a particular (different) ethnic group, all with the intention of marginalizing the named person in some way. I have had experiences where fellow Kenyans have been unable to determine my ethnic heritage because my last name doesn’t give it away, as is common. Mercifully, I have a last name that is shared by 5 or so vastly different ethnic groups, and my facial features don’t lend themselves to identifying me with the ethnic group I actually come from. I always find it suspect when this is among the first things someone wants to know about me, so I have lots of fun by keeping him or her guessing.
By an amazing stroke of providence, I didn’t grow up thinking about the differences between me and others, even though I was surrounded by adults and peers who thought that way. And there were more than a few differences between me and the people I grew up with, given that Kenya has over 50 distinct people groups–each with a distinct language and culture. In addition, there are Kenyans of Caucasian, Arab and Indian descent, to name but a few, as well as all kinds of Mixed Races. I have always thought that human beings have more in common than they have differences. As a result, similarities between us are the first things I look for when I meet new people.
From my experiences, I have concluded that thinking in differences, be it skin color or something else, is a learned prejudice, as this UCLA study confirms. Pouncing on the differences between us and another relegates the different person to a box–a compartment that colors our assessment of him or her based on what we believe about those kinds of people. Conversely, seeking similarities fosters relationship and goodwill between people. I don’t claim to only notice similarities between me and others, but that is my primary stance when relating to people. When I do notice differences, as I inevitably must, they are usually worth celebrating, unless we are talking about negative differences, such as dysfunctional behavior.
I agree with the conclusion of the aforementioned UCLA study: we can unlearn the prejudices we have learned that cause us to prejudge people and relate to them unfairly. We can learn to first look for similarities between us and others, and then to celebrate our beautiful differences. We don’t have to think in color.