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When racism is not just a structural problem, but a wound.

Today I talked with a student about her work in Civics class. She had written extensively about racism as a problem. It was good, and it was emotional, but it was also somewhat repetitive, and I found that she did not challenge her understanding. I urged her to try to see the causes to racism, and to understand those who carry racist attitudes.

I told her about the current wave of racism and xenophobia throughout western countries. About Trump’s rise in the US, about nationalism in France, but also about the nationalist party that has gained ground in Sweden. I told her about problems with nazism among young white men in Sweden in the 90s. I told her about nazi Germany in the 30s. And I asked her if she saw a pattern among those cases that I mentioned.

She didn’t.

So, I told her about how Germany had to carry a financial burden after WWI, about the great depression, the Swedish banking crisis in the 1990s, and about the most recent — the 2008 financial crisis. Such crises tend to lead to increased tendencies of nationalism. Why?

In junior high, I remember we had intense discussions on racism in my class. I remember my classmates reflecting views of racist populism themselves. They repeated claims of how immigrants came here stealing our jobs. Back then, in a rural small town in northern Sweden, being a liberal was being the odd one out — so I argued back, asking what those jobs were. I did not yet have the knowledge of the obstacles immigrants face when they try to enter society and the labour market. But I just had never seen our parents lose their jobs because immigrants moved into our town. Therefore it seemed stupid to me. And I can assure you, having a father who drove a tractor all his working life, and a mother who was a hairdresser, my parents’ jobs should have been among the most easily accessible by someone lacking the language or a college degree.

However, that’s not the point. What I wanted to show using this example, is that economic crises lead to people fearing for their jobs. People want to know that they’ll be financially secure, and that they will be taken care of.

What I had asked my students to do: study societal problems. Identifying its causes, the consequences, and finding solutions. Basically, to think in terms of politics — and even policy. So of course I wanted her to challenge herself in understanding why people carry racist values. How are otherwise supposed to solve the problem. Just because someone is a racist we can not demonize him. We can not not bother about that person. We need to understand his motives.

We need to be able to answer what the driving force of nationalism is. How do we cure prejudice? How do we build inclusive societies? How do we listen to each other?

Sitting there, on the other side of the table from her, I felt as if she did not want expand her view. Did not want to understand. All this time we were talking, her stare was numb and disappointed. I felt stupid for trying to make her see why I wanted her to understand why people become racist.

I asked her if she agreed with me.

“No.”

I asked her how we can cure racism if we don’t try to understand racists. How can we cure prejudice if we do not create rooms for meeting new people?

I told her how we tend to care more about people we know — people we have any kind of relationship to. If for years my neighbor might have been someone who perceived as different from me, I am more likely to be open to other people who are different from me. If I went to school with a guy from Iraq and he was a nice person, I’ll be more likely to be more positive as I meet others from Iraq. It might not be rational. However, I think that is how we meet.

However, she still did not agree with me. She told me about a history of racism, and how these values seem to never change. She told me about a video clip on YouTube, where a psychologist told about an experiment where people got to talk to each other in a completely dark room, and how people who otherwise had negative attitudes towards Arabs got along well when they did not know each others’ backgrounds. She used this as an example of how what we see determine how we approach strangers. She asked how can this be?

To me, what she had just told me was yet another reason to even further integrate people and create rooms where we are forced to meet new people.

Sitting there, on the other side of the table from her, how do I tell her that she needs to see the bigger picture and contribute to finding a solution to the problem?

Sitting there, on the other side of the table from her, how do I instill hope and reassurance for the future in her?

Sitting there, on the other side of the table from her, how do I — a white male teacher who has gotten to grow up and live in the same country where my family has lived for generations and generations — tell her that, despite having met years of racist comments, she needs to understand those who insult her?

To me, racism is a structural problem, but to her it seems to be a ever growing wound.




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