A Year End Meditation: On Race, Both Here and There
From the Field
When you’re committed to social justice, it matters not where you are or what issue you are most involved with, you fight and cry for justice every where. Though our work is in the remotest villages of Thailand, part of our hearts still smolder and mourn for the injustices found on the streets at home. When we hear about what’s happening in America, from Ferguson to New York, and the state of race relations, whether it’s #blacklivesmatter or #alllivesmatter, we can’t help but reflect on what racism looks like, both here and at home.
It’s an insidious beast. One that, in the U.S. we’ve learned is so bad and evil that we’ve learned to hush it up, to hide it where it exists, to deny it happens at all. Minorities have been so systematically excluded that racism, in the U.S., is very difficult to tease apart from class, as the marginalized groups have been relegated to the lowest socio-economic strata. Poverty and lack of education are the results of discrimination, but deniers turn them into symptoms of a lack of moral character, proof of just desserts rather than evidence of social dysfunction. We read the story how we want to, and it all makes racism that much easier to hide.
In Thailand, racism is so unabashedly ubiquitous most don’t even bother to conceal it. People are named by the color of their skin; they are relegated to social strata by their ethnicity and class, and the stateless peoples (whether you call them nomadic hill tribes, illegal immigrants, or refugees) are marginalized by both custom and law. Yet ironically, if you were to point out the racism, many Thais would be surprised to learn it exists.
But it is much easier to see where race and class intersect here. At first glance, when you walk through the stores and see the bevy of whitening creams, you think maybe white skin is held up as an ideal – it is in one sense: Thais don’t want darker skin because it’s associated with a lower class, the skin of workers toiling all day in the open fields. Whites encounter discrimination in a variety of ways (some humorous or benign, others more frustrating), but by the virtue of the dollar or the euro, enjoy the privilege of being able to buy their way out. It’s not the same kind of subjugation as experienced by American minorities, nor the one experienced by ethnic minorities here. Some of the children and families we serve have to fight so hard to get education or health care – when their applications don’t have their national ID number, they get lost, shuffled to the bottom of the pile, tied up in too many bureaucratic knots.
We assume that, if a person puts in the hard work and perseverance, they can get ahead just like anybody else. That assumption falls apart when the system methodically pushes certain groups of people down – or out altogether.
Whether you hide it or call it by name, racism contributes to the sale of humans, to their pain and debasement, to their servitude and torture. It did so in the American slave trade; it does so now in the modern one.
The fight for social justice is rooted entirely in the fight to demonstrate that all human beings – even people of color, even women, even children – have basic rights, and that it is incumbent upon society as a whole to recognize their humanity and treat them with the respect that is their due. It’s not about freebies. It’s about freedom.
It is a centuries long battle, and it is not near won, but despite all the clamor in the news and on social media about the pervasive evils we face today, it is also not without hope. The very fact that we are talking about it so openly suggests that we are at a new point in human history. In a recent Slate article, authors Stephen Pinker and Andrew Mack argue that we are actually enjoying the most peaceful times in human history, and it appears that violence against women and children are on the decline.
I don’t mean to underestimate the suffering that still exists or to suggest the battle is anywhere near won. But, as we close on 2014 and turn to a new year, I would like to think that maybe our voices are being heard – one day, they may finally ring loud and clear.
— Dr. Jade Keller
Education Program Manager