It is a Christmas tradition in Netherlands to paint your face black and act like a black Santa. Generally, even the local blacks don’t take offense to that. They know it’s done in good spirit and it isn’t a big deal. Of course, it is not fair to compare Netherlands to the US, as they don’t have our history of slavery and segregation on their own soil, but the bottom line is the same – the issue of race is not a sensitive topic over there, or at least not nearly as sensitive as it is here.
We can talk all we want about celebrating diversity, equality, and freedom. However, it is clear that behind all these big words and promising statements, we still have a long way to go toward true equality and true freedom from racial, religious, gender and other types of discrimination. I believe there is a simple and reliable way to know when the bigotry is truly over: when we stop being so damn (hyper)sensitive about those very issues, and we are able to make racist, sexist or gay jokes anywhere without offending anyone or feeling victimized by those words.
As of today – we are still very much behind in that department. On the contrary, it seems that even bringing up the very topic of race or religion makes you a racist. Even as much as citing objective statistics will backfire and will turn others against you. Imagine coming up to your black friend and telling him that according to official statistic some large percentage of people who are incarcerated are black. You will automatically be classified as a racist, even though you didn’t express any opinions of your own and simply delivered objective data that you obtain from some other source. One of my Indian friends thought it was racist of one of his friends to ask him whether he plans to go back to India after he graduates from his masters program. What is so racist about that? It’s not like he encouraged him to go back to his home country or in any way suggested that he wasn’t welcome in the US.
These days, even saying something positive will turn you into one evil bigot. Try coming up to a female executive and telling her that you admire how she was able to get so high up in the corporate world without trying to behave or talk like a guy. She will likely freak out, completely misinterpret what you said and will twist what was supposed to be a compliment into a chauvinistic insult. I can almost hear the bullshit—“What do you mean acting like a man…. you don’t think I can be powerful and confident and be woman at the same time? Do you want me to stay in the kitchen or something?”
One of my favorite jokes with the girls I am trying to flirt with is interrupting them right after they say “In my opinion,” and telling them: “Hold on a second, you are about to state your opinion. I have to play close attention as I know it’s going to be very important…” I may even pull out a notepad and pretend like I am about to write down what she is about to say, to tune up the sarcasm even higher. I may not be able to expect the whole nation to stop being uptight about gender and race issues overnight, but at least I know that if a girl responds to this laughing and playing along, instead of “I can’t believe you just said that!”, she is my kind of girl.
It will take at least a few decades from now for the current generation to die out and for the world to forget about slavery, holocaust, apartheid, feminism, and other genocides around the world. Until then, we will have to continue walking on eggshells, at least here in the US, when it comes to talking about race, gender, and religion, among other things.