My aunt and uncle were among the first Westerners to settle in China in the mid eighties when economic doors to foreign investment opened. They lived in Dalian in northern China, almost on the border with North Korea. In 1988, Ben and I got to spend a few days visiting them. One day my aunt took us to visit an old Buddhist temple. The care-taker remembered her from a previous visit so after greeting my aunt, he pointed to me and asked in Chinese where my baby was. My aunt responded that we were not the same couple who had come out with her before. Obviously, I had reminded the man of the last set of guests. When we returned to the house, my aunt showed us some pictures of her friends who had visited them recently and among them was one of the woman who supposedly looked like me. To my surprise, she looked nothing like me. She had blond hair and much lighter skin. At the time, I had dark hair and have what you would call olive skin. During our time in China, I realized that we "foreigners" all looked the same to the Chinese. People even thought my husband, who is of Anglo-Saxon decent, looked like me!
When I tell this story, most people are surprised. How can anyone think that Ben and I look alike? But aren't we all guilty of doing the same thing? Haven't we heard remarks like that spoken about Asians or African Americans or Middle Easterners? That "they" all look alike? It happens because we don't take the time to really see each other as individuals, as people just like ourselves. We look at those whom we consider different from us as a lump; all bunched together, sometimes defined only by our prejudices and stereotypes.
The truth is prejudice is a disease. And it is a contagious disease. Whether we like it or nor, living in our fragmented world has affected all of us in how we see each other. But just as in the flu season, when we take precautions to wash our hands and be aware of what we touch, we have to protect ourselves against this disease as well. So when we catch ourselves thinking of "those people", we can stop and re-examine our thinking. Ask ourselves: How much do I know about this person individually and how much do I think I know about his or her cultural background that may have influenced the behavior and beliefs that are different from mine? How would I like it if I was lumped together with every other person that belonged to my subset of humanity? How would people who only know one thing about that subset judge me?
If prejudice is an infections disease, is it possible to inoculate ourselves against it? I think education is the only effective vaccine for this disease. And by that I mean an education that recognizes the need for diversity on one hand and the importance of identifying common human principals that we can all strive for, on the other; an education that teaches the minds and the hearts. It is not easy, and it will take at least a couple of generations to see the results. But it has taken many more generations to create this problem. So there is no quick fix. There are no short cuts. We must step out of our comfort zones, take our blinders off and extend a genuine and sincere hand of friendship to ALL who cross our path and take the time to look at each other as human beings first.
We think of our tendency to stick to our own kind as human "nature". It is really our human "weakness". You can't fight nature but you can overcome a weakness. We must help each other do this. Otherwise, the consequences are grave for all of us.