Some years ago, late on a warm summer’s afternoon, I happened to be cycling through Amsterdam’s only real upscale shopping district, the P.C. Hoofdstraat. Looking ahead I saw a large, flashy BMW 7 Series car parked sloppily across the bike lane and up onto the sidewalk in front of a men’s clothiers. From a distance I could see a group of young men – all black men – lollygagging around the car, presumably waiting for an accomplice to finish his purchase of a fine new outfit.
“Where do those guys get that kind of money?” I wondered quietly to myself, out loud. “It wouldn’t surprise me at all if they’re drug dealers or pimps. And look at the way they’ve parked their car – like they think they own the place or something. What a bunch of aso’s*.”
As I came closer I took note of the diamond stud earrings glinting in the sunlight, the fancy clothes, the gold necklaces and bracelets. This only cemented my ill feelings towards them – what kind of neurosis makes anyone go for such superfluous ostentation, anyway? “Who do they think they are?”
And then, almost too late as I hurried by, I actually took a glance at the faces belonging to these men, and I knew exactly who they were. These were the same young men whom I, week after week, had rapturously cheered on at Ajax Amsterdam football games. Here was a small collection of some of the best and most recognizable soccer players in all of Europe, part of the team that a few years previous had won the European Champions League competition without losing a game. Of course they had money! Each one was currently earning millions with teams in England and Spain. Of course they were arrogant! That’s a hallmark of most great sportsmen.
Am I a racist? I like to think I am not, but I fear I am. I’m about as multi-culti in my upbringing and experience as a white guy can get, and I number among my friends individuals of all variety and shade of color, ethnicity, and religion. I never sense any race-based discomfort or bias on my part when I am with people who are “other” than I am. And yet, in certain situations, I have to own up to some latent prejudices: for instance, I have a distinctly different reaction to a group of rowdy ethnically Moroccan boys when I see them in the mall, than I do to a similar group of ethnically Dutch boys. They’re both a nuisance, but the Moroccans are more of a nuisance.
Racism is hard to put a finger on. Check your dictionaries and online sources and you’ll find a wide variety of definitions. The United Nations does not have a definition of racism itself, but says this about racial discrimination: “the term “racial discrimination” shall mean any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.”
Picking out the relevant words applying to me, my sin against the footballers was in making a “distinction…based on colour….which has the…effect of…impairing the recognition of…fundamental freedoms in the …social…field of public life.”
Young wealthy black men have just as much right to lollygag in the P.C. Hoofdstraat on a warm summer’s afternoon as young wealthy white men do, without passers-by like me jumping to conclusions about their moral fiber and means of income. (Had they been a group of young white men I would probably have made the presumption they belonged to some of the “old money” families in the neighborhood. Who, as we all know, earned their money legitimately in Holland’s glory years – colonialism, slavery, weapons trading, etc….)
So, what am I to do? I guess I have to do the same thing I wish other’s would do for me when they lump me together with all “Americans” or “Christians”, or whatever other category they find hugely offensive at the moment: “Wait a minute, that’s unfair; first get to know me as an individual before you start drawing conclusions. I just might pleasantly surprise you.” Or to call to mind something I learned when I first came to the Netherlands: every German is bad, except the German who is my friend.
Personal relationships are the first defense against racism. But, as my story illustrates, we have to go further. We have to be able to extrapolate our positive experience and apply it to those we do not know personally. To will ourselves to believe, in the first instance, the best about those who are strangers to us and different than we are, rather than to presume the worst.
“Hey look, rich young guys (black or white) enjoying their youth and their wealth; epic! Could have done a better job parking that lovely car but, oh well, better luck next time.”
*”Aso” is Dutch slang for “asocial”, defined as “rejecting or lacking the capacity for social interaction”. My daughters have occasionally gotten into trouble for using the word “aso” in Canada, for obvious reasons….