I teach counseling and psychotherapy to a small group of students. The discussions around human nature and psychology are interesting and lively. When I started the program with them, I remember mentioning to the class that I am happy most of them are Tamil because now we can have trained counselors for the many Tamil-speaking clients that come to me, but have to be turned away due to the language barrier.
Today I think to myself – when did I first consciously categorize that 5 out of 8 students are Tamil, one is a Burgher, and two are Sinhalese?
You might ask, why is it important? Let’s see.
In the last class discussion, we were talking about the current situation in Sri Lanka and how a few people are trying very hard to give it a racial twist. A couple of Tamil students related a few stories that made us all reflect on why and how racial bias is born and maintained. One of them asked the valid question – is it politicians that promote racism or have they simply identified the bias in people and are exploiting it? We love to put the blame on the much-hated political class. But what about us? Do the Sinhalese have an innate distrust of Tamils and Muslims and vice versa?
Think about it for a minute. What are your honest thoughts when you think of a person of a different race? Today, in social media, people are making a concerted effort to unite. But do you believe this will last? I want to believe it. But will it last?
Some questions that we can ask ourselves in order to understand how we think about others:
- In school, did you have segregated Tamil medium and Sinhala medium classes? If yes (this was my experience, many years ago), how did you relate to batch mates in the other language medium? Were they friends? Did you know them by name? If not, why not?
- How did your parents, grandparents, and extended family talk about people who did not belong to your race/religion?
- Who were your school friends? Did your group include kids of other races or religions?
- How did you perceive other groups’ religious ceremonies, in school? Loud, sounds nice or irritating?
- Have you ever taken a serious interest in understanding ‘the other’ culture or religion?
- Did you marry within your own community or is your partner ‘different’? If within the same community, think about the approving language used by your family. If different, what was the family conversation like?
- How well do you know your child’s friends? How comfortable are you if they are of another race or religion? Speak another language?
- Have you ever felt discomfort when meeting other parents/work colleagues of other racial groups in social situations? Have you felt you cannot relate? Have you tried to make friends with any of them?
- Do you automatically look for outward signs if someone is introduced to you as a person of a race/religion different from yours? Do you look for a particular dress code / color of skin / etc? Have you ever said, “oh, but you don’t look like a …………..”
- How will you feel if your son or daughter chooses to marry a person who is of a different race or religion? What would be your honest emotions?
By honestly answering some of these questions, it will be possible to explore your own biases and prejudices towards the ‘other’. This is where we need to start. We must learn to celebrate our cultural and religious differences because it is these differences that enrich our life experiences.
Make a change of acceptance within, and hurtful words and attitudes will fail to have the stamina to progress. Our generation will need to do this self-exploration if we are to live in true harmony as Sri Lankans.