"I used to be a racist."
Four days into my summer history class, I began my lecture with these words against a dark backdrop of a Powerpoint slide reading, "My Confession." The class is about immigration. We cannot talk about immigration without talking about race. So, I was trying to talk about race.
In some detail, I recalled my segregated elementary school days in Sri Lanka. I attended class with Sinhalese kids while never even interacting with the Tamil ones. I had friends who were Catholic, Buddhist, and Islamic but none who were Hindu. Even after I was taught Tamil as a second language, I never bothered to make any Tamil-speaking friends. Because at the heart of it was a fear. Whenever there was a suicide bombing or some other act of violence related to the civil war, I would come to school and mentally blame the kids in the segregated classroom I never entered. I never learned their names. I never even saw their faces. I blamed and feared an entire group of children for the actions of a few people simply based on race. I used to be a racist.
I did not tell this story to be controversial. I told this story because the fact that I learned to unlearn my childhood racist ideas meant that I was open-minded when it came to race. It turns out, I'm also open-minded when it comes to gender. However, I contrasted this with religion. I told the class that when it comes to religion, for better or for worse, I'm not open-minded about it. I neither want to debate nor discuss it with anyone. That I had to learn about myself.
Why did this matter? I believe open-mindedness opens the door for sympathy. Sympathy can lead to empathy. Empathy can lead to understanding. Understanding can lead to learning. Along the way, there is no guarantee of each step leading to the next but there is potential. In order to learn about immigration, the students would have to question where they stood when it came to race. Without having that conversation with themselves, they may learn precious little in conversations with others or in the class.
Last week a friend insisted that while I could admit to being a former racist in an undergraduate history class at ASU, he, as a white man, could not. I have no doubt that whatever prejudices he may have had in the past (assuming he had any at all), he no longer does. That is an absolute certainty. Yet, somehow he could not admit that.
But can this be different? Can we openly discuss our inherent biases and prejudices? Can we understand where our ideas about other people come from? Can we openly confess our pasts? Can we explore why we see certain lives as more important than others? Can we ask these questions both individually and collectively regardless of our own backgrounds? Or are we doomed to continue to discuss and learn about topics without possible root causes?
Toward the end of class, a white, male student from the South admitted to being a “recovering racist.” I stood there and took in the moment. Two people who had vastly different childhoods, born on two continents, yet raised in similar bigotry, had publicly confessed to what few would dare say out-loud.
Maybe we can have conversations about race after all. And maybe then, we can talk about immigration.