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A better way to confront racism

5 min

Could cultural knowledge transfer be the antidote to discrimination?

It's a new – and welcome – development that anti-racism is so mainstream. In activism but also in education, literature, corporate settings.... pretty much everywhere you look.

This is not your mother's anti-racism, though. Underpinning much of it is a radical approach to social justice: critical race theory (CRT).

CNN describes it thus:

Critical race theorists believe that racism is an everyday experience for most people of colour, and that a large part of society has no interest in doing away with it because it benefits White elites.

CRT establishes a binary: a good side and a bad side, based on the immutable characteristic of skin colour. It draws sharp lines between the oppressed and the oppressors; 'the privileged' and 'the marginalised'. It describes 'white culture' as a system of oppression. To make progress, it argues, white people must come to terms with their inherent biases. And denying these biases, according to a leading thinker in the CRT movement, is itself racist.

Now, I'm not a fan of this approach. For a simple reason: I think racism is bad, and I like things that work. Using shame and guilt, dividing people further... doesn't seem like a promising way to confront racism.

And the data suggests that CRT-based initiatives aren't effective. A recent piece in the New York Times looked at the market for corporate diversity trainings – largely grounded in CRT, and now worth $7.5 billion globally (!) – and concluded that they don't work. In fact, the piece argues, they might be making racial disparities worse.

But I might be wrong. After centuries of injustice, suffering, slavery, segregation, maybe this is what's necessary. Maybe a big, bold jump-start in racial awareness, as aggressive and extreme as the inhumane policies that created the need for it, is a step towards changing hearts and minds.

However, I can't help thinking there are better ways to attack this problem. So here's my proposal for another approach.

Racism is a defence mechanism

External outcomes are driven by internal impulses. And racism (or xenophobia, or racial discrimination – the definitions are messy) is really a defence mechanism. It's a reaction to insecurity – whether from a lack of self-worth, control, meaning, or belonging – combined with another, very human impulse: a fear of the unknown.

So what typically happens in the mind of a racist person is this. Your life sucks. You're surrounded by people who aren't like you, whose lives and choices you don't understand. And you overcompensate by taking out your rage on them, projecting your superiority over their entire group.

It's bad. It's wrong. It shouldn't happen. But it's human, and depressingly normal.

Now, to fix the 'self-worth' part requires economic justice for all. Lifting people out of poverty, better schools, housing, jobs – what Martin Luther King actually advocated. It's a long term challenge, and no easy feat.

In the short term, though, you can make progress on the second part: the fear of the unknown. And here's where cultural knowledge transfer comes in.

Chania, last week. Photo by me.

Cultural knowledge transfer

Imagine you're in charge of a town. Or say you've created a grassroots initiative with a small budget and the power to organise stuff in your area.

You identify that locals are discriminating against a minority community that lives there. I'm based in Greece, which has a large Pakistani minority, so I'll use these two groups as an example.

My proposal is this: You create a cultural knowledge transfer programme for the locals. With the goal being that, after they've attended it, they see the minority as people just like them, with similar lives and aspirations. Or at least they get some of the way there.

Sounds simplistic? Bear with me.

You have to do it strategically. First, set up the right deployment mechanism. What's the fastest, most effective means to get a group of people up to speed on a foreign culture? That might be a film, a talk and a meal. Spread out over two evenings. Whatever works.

Then, identify the needs of the audience – in this case, the Greek locals. What are their values? What are they dreaming of? What do they hold most dear? That could be family, sport, good food, independence. Whatever it is, your programme needs to emphasise the same values in the minority group.

So the programme could look like: an evening of Pakistani food, with a documentary on the Pakistani love of cricket (the country's national sport). Then a talk with volunteers from the Pakistani community about their everyday lives and hopes. And a Q+A, where people can pose honest questions.

Start small, target well, experiment and iterate. Aim low and expand later. If it works, you could even aim for other minority groups, beyond race.

No guilt, no shame. No repenting. No more division. Just common humanity. Two different tribes on the third rock from the Sun, learning about each other.

No panacea, either

Of course there are problems with this proposal. The most xenophobic of the locals are the least likely to attend your programme. Since you can't invite everyone, you'll need to find ways for the knowledge to spread through the community. You might need to run it over a long period to give it a chance.

And in the case of prejudice towards minority groups who are not new arrivals but fellow citizens, who are as much a part of your country's heritage as those doing the discriminating, you'll need to adapt the programme a lot. You won’t solve racial tensions in the US, for example, by teaching whites about the culture of Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo, just because much of the historic slave trade was from those countries.

But it’s a starting point. There are lots of unknowns and you'll need to work out the right formula. It's got to be more effective than CRT on its own, in any case.

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Perhaps I'm missing something, though. What do you think? Hit reply and tell me, email or ping me on Twitter.

Bonus: check out this cultural atlas, which goes in the same direction as my proposal.

The Cultural Atlas aims to inform and educate the public in cross-cultural attitudes, practices, norms, behaviours, communications and business skills


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